When Come From Away opened on Broadway one year ago this month, the show seemed anything but a sure investment.
A one-act musical, set in Gander, Nfld., about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – written by an unknown Torontonian composer/lyricist team and without a star in the cast?
Twelve months later, however, Irene Sankoff and David Hein's moving musical about a community opening its arms, homes and liquor cabinets to strangers in need is shaping up to be the biggest financial success story in Canadian theatre history.
Come From Away has grossed more than US$60-million on Broadway to date – and has been turning a profit for investors since it earned back its original US$12-million investment in October.
Meanwhile, a second production of the show that American producers Junkyard Dog and Canada's Mirvish Productions are opening at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre this week looks set to be the first blockbuster musical that the city has seen in some time.
Toronto ticket sales already sit in the vicinity of $25-million – an advance not far off from what Mirvish saw for Miss Saigon, the megamusical that the Princess of Wales Theatre was built to house in 1993 – and The Lion King, which opened in the same theatre in 2000 and ran for 1,560 performances. It's expected to be in profit by June. (Both the New York and Toronto productions are currently booking to September.)
Musical theatre is a highly risky business – as the old adage goes, you can't make a living in it, but you can make a killing. In the New York commercial theatre district known as Broadway, it is said that as few as one in six productions even recoup.
Indeed, if you look at the four other Canadian-written musicals that went to Broadway, only one made any money, The Drowsy Chaperone – and Come From Away's worldwide grosses look set to far surpass those of that earlier hit.
In Canada, meanwhile, commercial musical theatre is largely a case of touring shows and the occasional local production of an American or British hit.
But what few know is that many Canadians did, in fact, open their pocketbooks and take the risk on Come From Away.
Junkyard Dog's Sue Frost estimates that up to 15 per cent of the money invested in the show has come from north of the 49th parallel.
If you look above the title in the Broadway program, you'll find the names of more than 40 producers on the show – listed in order of who raised or supplied the most cash.
David Mirvish, Canada's best-known commercial theatre producer, is the first Canadian on the list. Right after comes Michael Rubinoff, producing artistic director of the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College, where Come From Away was first developed in 2012.
"I began my producing career breaking Max Bialystock's two cardinal rules of producing, multiple times," Rubinoff said in an e-mail. Those rules of the fictional Bialystock created by Mel Brooks were: "One: Never put your own money in the show. And two: Never put your own money in the show!"
"I learned my lessons," Rubinoff continued. "However, I am glad to have been able to bring the opportunity to financially invest in this incredible show and journey to others."
Further down the list, you'll find other Canadian groups or individuals such as Yonge Street Theatricals, a Toronto company run by Natalie Bartello and Linda Barnett that is also developing Sankoff and Hein's next show, on the subject of autism; Sheridan College, which now uses the success of Come From Away as a selling point for student recruitment; and Allan Detsky and Rena Mendelson, a Toronto married couple who have invested in Broadway since 2012.
Those who put money into the Broadway production had the first opportunity to invest in future productions – such as the one opening in Toronto this week, and the touring production that will launch in Seattle in the fall and will visit Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. (Other productions are in London's West End, perhaps via Ireland; Australia; Korea and Japan are under discussion.)
Here's a closer look at the Canadian institutions and individuals who are doing what was at one point deemed impossible – making money off a Canadian musical.
The upstart producers: Yonge Street Theatricals
Investment: US$500,000 in the Broadway production
Producers Linda Barnett and Natalie Bartello formed this Toronto company in 2013 with an eye to developing and producing new musicals with Canadian connections.
Their roster of projects includes Life After, Stratford native Britta Johnson's musical about grief that received great reviews in Toronto this fall; Something Wicked This Way Comes, a musical adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel by Canadians Brian Hill and Neil Bartram that premiered in Delaware at the same time; and Half Time, a new project co-created by The Drowsy Chaperone's Bob Martin about senior-citizen cheerleaders that premieres in New Jersey this spring.
Barnett and Bartello joined Come From Away's team of producers after seeing the musical in a pre-Broadway run at La Jolla Playhouse in California. They find investors for shows by, for instance, hosting salons in Toronto living rooms with performances from work they have in development.
"In Canada, it's a slow sell," Barnett says. "Obviously, now with Come From Away, it's going to be easier to ask [investors] for money."
"I hope because of Come From Away, there will be able to be world premieres in Toronto of new Canadian projects commercially that can have a financial success," Bartello adds. "If you asked me two years ago, I'd say you have to go to the United States first."
The educational institution: Sheridan College
Investment: US$425,000 in the Broadway production; $138,000 in the Toronto production
As Come From Away was the very first show developed through Sheridan College's Canadian Music Theatre Project, its Broadway production was seen as a great marketing opportunity for the Oakville, Ont., postsecondary institution and its Music Theatre Performance Program. In return for its investment (which came out of the marketing budget and from revenue generated by an affinity program for alumni), Sheridan has received its above-the-title billing, a bio in the program seen by 400,000 people in New York and ample media attention.
"We believe we're the first postsecondary institution in the history of the Tony Awards (and certainly the only Canadian one) to have a Tony Award nomination for best musical, to our name," Mary Preece, president and vice-chancellor at Sheridan, said in a statement.
With Sheridan recouping its investment in the Broadway production of Come From Away (minus a small part that's being held for U.S. tax purposes), the college was able to put $138,000 into the Toronto production; and from now on, profits will go toward the Canadian Music Theatre Project, which brings in professional composers, lyricists and directors to develop new musicals with fourth-year students.
The individuals: Allan Detsky and Rena Mendelson
Investment: "Six figures" on Broadway
Detsky, an academic internist who is former chief of medicine at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, and Mendelson, a professor of nutrition at Ryerson University, got involved in Broadway after they befriended an actor named Josh Young at the Stratford Festival.
Detsky produced Young's first album – and when Stratford's production of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Young went to New York in 2012, he and his wife invested in it.
Despite losing money on that venture, Detsky and Mendelson had fun – they got to go to the Tony Awards and made new connections to other producers. The couple, who have been married for 43 years, have since put money into Hedwig and the Angry Inch ("very successful financially"); Matilda the Musical ("we made money"); a revival of Annie ("close enough"); and Eugene O'Neill's Hughie starring Forest Whitaker (it closed early).
"You can't expect to make money," Detsky says of investing on Broadway, which he and his wife did in Come From Away with the help of a couple of silent partners.
"There has to be some hook in the venture, either supporting an artist or artist group."
The artists: Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Investment: Six years of hard work, while juggling day jobs and having a daughter
Sankoff and Hein, who married in 2001 and are the sole creators of Come From Away, pull in all the author royalties for the musical. What that translates to in terms of household income is difficult to calculate: There's a very complicated formula for how Broadway composers, lyricists and book writers earn money from successful shows – and it varies from show to show.
Under a typical production contract, the show's authors would get a share of the weekly operating profits that would have gone up after the show recouped. If Come From Away costs around US$600,000 to run each week on Broadway, as has been estimated, Hein and Sankoff's share could be as high as US$100,000 in a really great week. (The show's still pulling in over a million dollars a week on Broadway.)
Hein and Sankoff are already investing some of their profits back into Canadian musical theatre: When a London, Ont., school board pulled funding for another musical developed at Sheridan called Prom Queen last month, the two sent in a cheque to help the Grand Theatre make up the difference.
"We'd rather not comment on what we make, but we don't want to underplay how well Come From Away is doing, especially compared to where we've been over the past six years of writing it (very thankful for Canadian grants, health care, subsidized daycare etc.)," Sankoff and Hein wrote in an e-mail.
"And yes – we definitely try to follow the spirit of the show in giving back and paying it forward with our money and our time as much as we can – and supporting Prom Queen was a no-brainer."
Come From Away runs at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre from Feb. 13 to Sept. 2 (mirvish.com).