Come from Away has made Canadian theatre history again – becoming the first Canadian-penned show to win the Laurence Olivier Award for best new musical.
Toronto-based composer/lyricist team Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Newfoundland-set musical about the 38 flights diverted to Gander, Nfld., on Sept. 11, 2001, picked up four Oliviers at a ceremony in London on Sunday – including one for outstanding achievement in music that went to Ms. Sankoff and Mr. Hein along with their team of orchestrators and musicians.
That quartet of wins tied Come from Away with a new gender-bent production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company and Matthew Lopez’s two-part, seven-hour drama, The Inheritance, at the Oliviers – which, presented by the Society of London Theatre, honour the best theatre, dance and opera in London’s West End.
“It’s incredible – this story we thought Canadian high schools would be forced to do – to see it accomplish so much, to cross the Atlantic and be celebrated,” Mr. Hein said after the awards in a phone interview from a party at London’s Natural History Museum.
“[It feels] especially incredible now here in England, where there’s so much division and confusion, to be a show about coming together and responding with kindness.”
The win is a best-musical vindication of sorts. Two years ago, Come from Away missed out on the Tony Award for best musical to Dear Evan Hansen, a decision still hotly debated on Broadway, where both shows are still selling out.
The Canadian musical again had tough competition in London. It was up against Fun Home, a critical darling that won the Tony for best musical in 2015, and two new British hits: Tina, a Tina Turner jukebox musical bound for Broadway, and Six, a new show that imagines the wives of Henry VIII as a girl group. (Six will play Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre in the fall as part of a planned path toward Broadway.)
“We didn’t write a speech at all,” says Mr. Hein, who, along with Ms. Sankoff, his wife, got to meet the Duchess of Cornwall after the ceremony. “I mean, we love Fun Home – and the other shows are so incredible, we had no idea that was going to happen.”
Since opening on the West End in January, Come from Away has received mixed reviews. The Times’s Dominic Maxwell praised it as a “gorgeous and propulsive” with “a heart the size of Canada” in a five-star review, while The Guardian’s Michael Billington demurred in a three-out-of-five-star review, writing that he “found something bludgeoning about its relentless celebration of civic virtue.”
Sunday’s Olivier wins will help the show continue what has been unprecedented commercial success for a Canadian work of theatre.
The show’s Broadway production recently celebrated its second anniversary and is booking until 2020, while its Toronto production has had bigger box-office success than any musical in the city for a decade.
There is also a North American tour that has recouped its investment, with productions planned for Australia and Argentina and a movie in the works.
Come from Away’s success has also helped attract attention to other Canadian musical-theatre creators – signalled by the fact that you’ll find composer Britta Johnson’s Life After on stage in San Diego, Calif., Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s Ride the Cyclone readying a new production in Atlanta, and Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal’s The Louder We Get (formerly titled Prom Queen: The Musical) planning a Broadway-sized production at Theatre Calgary early next year.
Another Olivier winner with a Canadian connection: Akram Khan won for outstanding achievement in dance for Xenos, which was created with the Governor-General’s Award-winning playwright Jordan Tannahill and had a run at Toronto’s Canadian Stage in the fall.