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martin knelman

Will New York be ready to embrace a musical about how Newfoundlanders welcomed and befriended passengers on flights diverted there because of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001?

On that notorious day, 38 flights scheduled to land in the United States went instead to Gander, where 6,500 passengers and crew members were warmly welcomed by the town's 10,000 residents.

Come From Away has been cheered by audiences on both sides of the border. After its sold-out eight-week run in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, it heads for Broadway, where previews begin in mid-February and opening night is set for March 12.

This is a huge gamble that the producers, including David Mirvish, are risking.

Mirvish is playing a key role to finance the New York opening, in partnership with the show's lead producer, Junkyard Dog Productions.

The cost for opening a musical on Broadway ranges from $12-million to $15-million (U.S.), or $16-million to $20-million Canadian.

Now, the big question is: Can a heartwarming story set in Canada achieve hit status on the Great White Way, where cutthroat competition is normal?

"This has been an extremely crowded season for musicals," says Elizabeth Bradley, a professor in the drama department ot New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, who moved from Canada to the United States 15 years ago. She says there are 19 new musicals in the running.

"The question producers have to be asking is whether or not there are enough people with significant disposable income to support all these shows," she says.

Bradley grew up in Toronto and had experience in producing and marketing before she was named CEO in 1991 of what was then called the O'Keefe Centre, now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

"New musicals without star names will have to work even harder to succeed at the box office. That is the challenge for those opening before April 27, the deadline for 2017 Tony nominations."

Still, Bradley, who has seen Come From Away and witnessed its effect on an audience, thinks it will do well.

"Opening after the election of Donald Trump, I feel this show has more chance of success than it would have if it had opened under [Barack] Obama. Working in its favour at this point is the profound hunger of the audience for two things: first, any positive narrative of substance; second, a story that depicts Americans in a positive light. Come From Away really lands on those two points. And there's another factor that helps: Justin Trudeau's international fame and glamour are making Canada seem cool."

Bradley says New Yorkers have an appetite for a humane, "feel good" story – especially one based in fact – and the passengers who were stranded in Gander provide an affirming legacy. "Come From Away hits a zeitgeist sweet spot. I am optimistic it will run successfully on Broadway."

Des McAnuff, former artistic director of the Stratford Festival and director of several hit Broadway musicals, has not seen Come From Away, but says it has great buzz in the New York theatre world.

"All I can tell you is there is great excitement around here about this show," says McAnuff, a dual citizen and Tony winner as best director for Big River (1985) and The Who's Tommy (1993). He also directed Jersey Boys, which won the 2006 Tony for best musical.

The 2017 Tony Awards will be handed out on June 11 at the Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan.

"I hear nothing but good things about Come From Away," McAnuff says. "The fact that it's about Newfoundland and Canada, with that unique perspective, is good news. People are really looking forward to seeing it. It's one of the shows people are talking about now. The others are Dear Evan Hansen and A Bronx Tale." (Both have opened to good reviews.)

One reason for optimism is the track record of the show's director, Christopher Ashley. He had previously staged the Broadway productions of Memphis – winner of four 2010 Tony awards, including best musical – as well as another prize-winner, The Rocky Horror Show. And at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Ashley directed revivals of two celebrated Stephen Sondheim shows – Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along.

"Not since Mamma Mia! have I seen a response like the one we got from our audience at Come From Away," Mirvish says of the musical based on ABBA songs that opened in Toronto in 2000 and ran for five years. "It's clear this new show has the potential to connect with big audiences."

But even Mirvish admits: "Nobody tells New York what's good and what isn't."

In Toronto, it did connect with audiences. According to John Karastamatis, communications director for Mirvish Productions, Come From Away set a box-office record in a certain category – shows that played for eight weeks or fewer in the long history of the Royal Alex.

Not counting the invitational opening night, every available seat on sale for 64 performances at the beautifully renovated historic theatre was bought.

Doing the math, I estimated that at regular ticket prices (including a select number of more expensive premium seats), the box office take was likely more than $8-million.

The conception of Come From Away goes back to Michael Rubinoff, a lawyer. Rubinoff had been recruited by Sheridan College to become associate dean of visual and performing arts, with the objective of establishing an incubator for developing new musicals.

After seeing My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, Rubinoff got in touch with the play's writers – the Canadian-born married couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff. The three of them had a three-hour dinner, during which Rubinoff told Hein and Sankoff that he was looking for writers to create a musical.

Come From Away was the first show Rubinoff wanted to do at Sheridan College. He asked Hein and Sankoff to write the book, music and lyrics. They had been in New York on 9/11. Hein had a cousin who had been in one of the Twin Towers that day – and survived.

Credits for the show give the names of 40 producers, including individuals and organizations – listed in order of how much they invested. The minimum amount to qualify for the list was $50,000. The top producers listed have invested heavily and Mirvish was high on the list.

With the help of a Canada Council grant, Hein and Sankoff went to Gander for the 10th anniversary – Sept. 11, 2011 – of New York's darkest day. The people of Gander were forthcoming and engaging; Hein and Sankoff stayed for almost a month to absorb their stories.

That was the start of what became a long and winding road.

Along the way, evolving versions of Come From Away were seen by audiences at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., East Haddam, Conn., (where Annie and Man of La Mancha had started), New York (at a festival of new musicals), Seattle and Washington (at a venue where the stage was too small to accommodate the show's set).

Perhaps the most memorable performances were the two (matinee and evening) at a 3,000-seat ice arena in Gander on Oct. 29, 2016 (prior to its Nov. 23 Toronto opening). The Gander ticket price was $20 and all the proceeds went to local charities.

Whether this journey ends with a Broadway hit or a Broadway flop, the saga of how it was conceived and developed is a classic demonstration of the adage that there's no business like show business. The backstage tale has turned out to be as astonishing as the on-stage plot about the bond between Newfoundlanders and their surprise guests.