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Come From Away didn’t win big at the Tonys, but it’s primed for longevity

A few takeaways from the Tony Awards, Broadway's biggest show of the year – where Dear Evan Hansen beat the Canadian-written Come from Away for best musical on Sunday night.

Come from Away is actually about Americans opening their arms to Canadians

Yes, Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein's musical tells the story of how the people of Gander and surrounding towns in Newfoundland opened their doors to some 6,600 airline passengers stranded in their midst after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But, spending a few days in New York leading up to the Tony Awards, I've been reminded how friendly it is down here, too. Politeness and smiles everywhere you go.

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It's the same in the theatre scene. It's worth remembering that, after Sankoff and Hein had their first successful musical in Toronto, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding in 2009, the couple went knocking on doors of local theatre companies and found little support for them as creators.

It was American friends who got them to where they are now. Come from Away may have been born through Sheridan College's Canadian Music Theatre Project, but the show that ended up on Broadway first premiered at American not-for-profit theatres La Jolla Playhouse in California and Seattle Repertory Theatre and was developed under the guidance of New York producers Junkyard Dog – who have commercial theatre know-how that is largely lacking on our side of the border.

In that light, Christopher Ashley, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, won the Tony Award for best direction – the only trophy Come from Away picked up all night. He really helped Sankoff and Hein grow as musical storytellers and craft a heart-warming work that is also one of the few new musicals on Broadway this season that will turn a profit.

Hopefully, Come from Away will help get the world interested in more of Canada's theatrical talent, but hopefully we also figure out how to do more to export it and profit from it ourselves.

The Tony Awards are crazy – like a fox

We could also learn a lesson or two from Americans on how to sell theatre, too.

The Tony Awards are no doubt a bit of a hustle – not honouring the best in American theatre or even the best in New York, but the best shows produced in a particular set of commercially operated theatres in a specific district of Manhattan that's been branded as "Broadway."

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And the Kevin Spacey-hosted ceremony was not exactly great television. Spacey's opening number was all about how he was not the first choice to host – and parodied the best-musical nominees in a way that was, as the New York Post put it, "not inside-baseball, but inside-polo." Welcome to the Rock, the opening number from Come from Away, was confusingly repurposed to be about Rockefeller Center, the Tony Awards venue – and featured the cast of the musical (including Canadians Petrina Bromley, Lee MacDougall and Astrid Van Wieren) dancing across the stage linking arms with the Rockettes.

Yet I can't help but admire the chutzpah of Broadway producers and its corps of impressive press agents in selling the idea that this sliver of American theatre is important and worthy of a nationally broadcast showcase – and attention beyond the dwindling theatre pages of newspapers.

All shows should be so lucky as to lose at the Tony Awards

Since observing the spine-tingling performances of Come from Away in Gander in the fall, I've been a big fan of the musical. I gave the show a four-star review in Toronto – and even wrote liner notes for the cast album. (For free – I've got no financial interest in the show, unlike another Toronto theatre critic who actually invested in it.) But I'm not hugely surprised that the musical only won one Tony Award Sunday night.

That there are sophisticates out there who are going to roll their eyes at the earnestness of its storytelling and its normcore approach to casting was clear in some of the shade it received on Twitter Sunday night. Frank Rich, the one-time theatre critic for the New York Times, tweeted that Come from Away's performance on the Tony telecast looked like it was out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary: "My god, that was Stools from Waiting for Guffman. Is it eligible?"

It wasn't ideal that the number in question, Welcome to the Rock, got a cringeworthy introduction from retired Canadian hockey player Ron Duguay – who made an "eh" joke and talked about how Newfoundlanders are "really good at happy hour." The former New York Rangers right-winger was apparently selected to introduce the show because back in 2014, he once made a cameo in a jukebox musical called Rock of Ages. It would have been better to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduce the show (an idea that was apparently considered), the way Barack and Michelle Obama introduced Hamilton last year.

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But, in the end, Come from Away showed again how it resonates all on its own with average audience members, if not elites: After Welcome to the Rock was broadcast, television viewers went online and bought $700,000 (U.S.) worth of tickets to Come from Away, according to the show's producers.

Come from Away's backers believe the show will run two to three years in New York – and its success is due to the moving (and swiftly moving) storytelling shown in that number, rather than a star performance, so it should do well on tour and in the new production headed to Toronto next year.

The big winner at the Tony Awards, Dear Evan Hansen, features an extraordinary central performance by Ben Platt as the title character, an anxious teenage misfit; I suspect the problems with that show are going to become more apparent once he leaves.

Video: A look at Come From Away's Sheridan College beginnings (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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