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The cast of Come From Away performs at the 71st annual Tony Awards on June 11, 2017. (Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)
The cast of Come From Away performs at the 71st annual Tony Awards on June 11, 2017. (Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)

Come From Away nabs best direction of a musical, but not best musical, at Tony Awards Add to ...

The big one got away.

Come From Away, Torontonians’ Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s feel-good musical set in Gander, Nfld., in the week following Sept. 11, 2001, had a nibble on its hook at the Tony Awards in New York on Sunday night, but in the end did not become the first Canadian-penned show to reel in best musical at Broadway’s annual theatre awards.

Instead, it was Dear Evan Hansen – another original show, by the American Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – that was named the best musical of the 2016-2017 Broadway season in what observers had considered one of the tighter races for the prize in recent memory.

Sankoff and Hein’s musical had been nominated for seven awards in total – with its Canadian creators up for two Tonys themselves: best score and best book of a musical.

Read more: How the couple behind Come From Away created a musical hit

Related: Come From Away goes home to Gander, Nfld. before heading to Broadway

But in a early sign of where the voters’ heads were, Dear Evan Hansen’s composer/lyricist team, Pasek and Paul, and its writer, Steven Levenson, won these awards early in the evening.

Their original musical – which shares a producer with Come From Away in Toronto’s David Mirvish – concerns an anxious teenager who gets caught in a web of online lies after a student at his high school commits suicide. It’s been praised for its up-to-the-minute wrestling with the perils of social media.

“I certainly feel like the screens in my life force me to feel isolated and alone often … and a lot of people feel lonely and alone in this aloneness,” said Levenson, speaking to press after his win.

“We want kids to know that that loneliness, that sense of isolation, is a temporary thing,” Pasek said.

Come From Away, which tells the true story of how people of Gander opened their doors to the 6,600 passengers of 38 planes stranded in their small town for a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did pull off one win.

Christopher Ashley, the American director of the show and artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse, accepted his award for best direction of a musical “on behalf of the people of Newfoundland and all the first responders and their families in New York on 9/11.”

In the media room afterward, Ashley – a third-time nominee, first-time winner in the category – paid further tribute to the kindness of the people of Gander, saying that each time he visited to research the show he “gained five pounds because everyone feeds you.” (He also added, in response to an American reporter’s question, that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who visited the show on Broadway, was “a hero of mine.”)

Ashley’s was far from the only shout-out to Newfoundland in the televised ceremony at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, hosted by actor Kevin Spacey and featuring appearances from celebrities such as Star Wars’ Mark Hamill, Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg and Scarlett Johansson.

Come From Away got the coveted opening slot (and therefore great advertising) on the CBS telecast, where the cast of American and Canadians performed a (slightly censored version of) the opening number – Welcome to the Rock, a celebration of the spirit of being “an Islander.” They were introduced by retired NHL player Ron Duguay, a self-professed “proud Canadian.”

Earlier, Spacey had parodied the same number as part of an opener full of inside jokes about the best musical nominees.

The Tony Awards saw a close contest in the best play category as well – with Oslo, J.T. Rogers’s play about the secret negotiations that led to the 1993 peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, taking the prize.

His historical play won in a four-way race against A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s clever comedic sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s play; Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about factory workers in Pennsylvania; and Indecent, a play about a controversial 1923 Broadway show by a previous Pulitzer Prize winner, Paula Vogel.

Household names dominated in the acting prizes: Bette Midler picked up the award for leading actress in a musical for her performance in a revival of Hello, Dolly! – and would not be played off stage, even as the clock ticked past 11 p.m. Laurie Metcalf won best actress in a play for her bravura performance as Nora in A Doll’s House, Part 2; Kevin Kline won best actor for his performance in a revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter; and Sex and the City alumna Cynthia Nixon won best featured actress for her performance in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.

Now in their 71st year, the Tony Awards honour the best of New York’s commercial theatre district called Broadway – and they can be very influential. Most winners get a boost in box office – with the best musical winners touring extensively and going on to have international productions.

Come From Away is only the fifth Canadian-written show to make it to Broadway – and only the second to be nominated for best musical – but its producers don’t believe it needs a Tony boost to be profitable. It’s already pulling in grosses of $1-million a week and has an advance that’s been reported as more than $10-million. A new Canadian production of the show will open in Winnipeg in January and then move to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre; a touring production is also set to launch in Seattle in the 2018-2019 season, with stops including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

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A look at Come From Away's Sheridan College beginnings (The Canadian Press)

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