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Eliza-Jane Scott and the cast of Come From Away in 2018. The Toronto production of the hit show has shuttered permanently less than two weeks after it reopened.Matthew Murphy/Mirvish

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has, in many ways, been the Come From Away Prime Minister.

The “sunny ways” philosophy of the drama-teacher-turned-politician’s early reign aligned well with the gospel of kindness preached by this Canadian musical about the Newfoundlanders who helped stranded airline passengers from around the world after 9/11.

In March, 2017, Trudeau even borrowed the Broadway production for a night to practise a kind of musical-theatre diplomacy, visiting the show in New York and preaching about the special friendship between the United States and Canada from its stage in front of an audience that included the then-president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump.

Opinion: Come From Away’s untimely end in Toronto must galvanize calls to save live theatre

Earlier that year, in the wake of Donald Trump’s travel bans targeted at certain countries, Trudeau had tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.”

This is one of the messages that Come From Away has also put on the world stage and associated with Canada; and Trudeau has not missed opportunities to be associated with it – by, for instance, writing the foreword for a book of the lyrics and script by its creators, Irene Sankoff and David Hein.

Five years on from its Broadway premiere, Come From Away’s brand remains strong, with productions of the feel-good musical in the United States, Great Britain and Australia currently fighting valiantly to stay open despite the pandemic.

Trudeau’s brand, however, has diminished over time – and it risks taking another major hit this week with the news that the Toronto production of Come From Away has closed down for good.

This is because the reasons the most successful Canadian production of a Canadian show in Canadian history has shuttered permanently less than two weeks after it reopened are as much to do with sluggish policy and inaction from the federal and provincial governments as the Omicron variant.

Producer David Mirvish, not usually one to wade into politics, said as much announcing Come From Away’s closing on Monday: “In other parts of the world, the government has stepped up to support the commercial theatre sector by offering a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and play during the pandemic, thus protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs the sector creates,” he said in a news release.

“But in Canada there is no such government support. And without such a safety net, it is impossible for the production to take yet another extended hiatus.”

To take the U.S. as an example, the federal government there made available – with bipartisan support – more than US$16-billion to performing-arts venues and producers of all sizes through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

The Broadway production of Come From Away alone received around US$10-million of that funding to get back up and running this fall.

By contrast, Mirvish and the other producers of Come From Away in Toronto gambled their own millions getting the musical back onstage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in early December. They simply had the bad luck to run into the unique challenges of Omicron and related sudden new capacity limits introduced by the Ontario government.

That government, led by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, has not been particularly generous to the performing arts during the pandemic – and, in fact, has gotten in the way of their recovery on numerous occasions by imposing arbitrary and unfair restrictions on live-streaming and rehearsing, or not giving sufficient advance notice for theatre companies and other arts organizations to be able to plan as restrictions were lifted over the summer and into the fall.

When the Ontario government finally allowed full-capacity audiences indoors in October, it gave a whole day’s notice. By contrast, New York State signalled last spring that Broadway would be able to open for business at full capacity again in the fall – giving producers several months to plan for how to safely reopen shows.

If Mirvish had received that kind of heads-up, perhaps Come From Away would have reopened in October, not December – and may have had some time to earn back its reopening costs.

But these decisions won’t hurt the Ford government that much, as their brand has never included the arts.

The Trudeau government, however, has courted voters who care about arts and culture. And, especially in its early years, it could legitimately claim to be the most arts-positive federal governments in decades – doubling the budget for the Canada Council for the Arts, for instance.

During the pandemic, the federal government has supported industries far and wide through the emergency wage subsidy and helped independent workers with CERB and its successors – with these measures recently extended to the arts and culture sector for a further period, through Bill C-2.

That’s great. But in a way, these measures have provided incentive for theatre companies to stay dormant, with administration salaries – but not production activities – cushioned by the government. The independent-contractor artists and artisans that theatres employ on stage and behind the scenes, meanwhile, have been left to collect diminishing emergency assistance.

How does it make sense, from a public-policy point of view, to help keep Mirvish Productions afloat but not help keep its actual productions of plays and musicals employing Canadian artists on stages?

During the last federal election, the Liberals seemed to understand the relaunch of the performing-arts sector would require more specialized programs, and promised a “new Arts and Culture Recovery Program that will match ticket sales for performing arts, live theatres and other cultural venues to compensate for reduced capacity.”

Where is that money now as theatres have again been cut to 50-per-cent capacity in Ontario and elsewhere? Could the Toronto production of Come From Away have stayed open if that program was in place now?

Come From Away is just the first major casualty of what could be complete carnage in the performing arts in January if the Trudeau government and other policy makers don’t act with the urgency that is necessary to ensure the sector’s survival.

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