As ‘Come From Away’ comes home to California, a look at the musical’s road from La Jolla to Broadway — and beyond
Three years after it premiered at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, the musical “Come From Away” — a story of journeys interrupted by tragedy and redeemed by kindness — is about to see its own journey come nearly full circle.
This Wednesday, the Broadway show’s touring production lands at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles for a six-week run that represents the musical’s first return to California since its Playhouse debut in June 2015. (A San Diego tour visit has not yet been announced.)
It’s common these days for Broadway shows to be birthed at America’s regional theaters, and the Playhouse — along with the crosstown Old Globe Theatre — has become a prime incubator for New York-bound theater.
Just since the beginning of 2017, six shows with Playhouse roots (“Come From Away” included) have had or continue to enjoy Broadway productions.
Those are among more than 50 shows the Playhouse and Globe together have helped send to Broadway over the past few decades, with numerous additional works finding further life off-Broadway or regionally.
But every one of those productions followed a different path — and given the unpredictable business of Broadway, not one of them was ever a sure thing as a commercial prospect. “Come From Away” included.
What they all started with were people who believed in them: Writers and composers with big dreams, artistic leaders with the power to put those dreams onstage, and (eventually) producers to help finance the leap to a big commercial production.
“I loved this play all the way the first time I read it,” says Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley, whose direction of “Come From Away” won him a Tony Award last year. “I got that wave of, ‘Oh, what an amazing thing!’”
Of course, “I wish that every time I fell in love with a project, it had the kind of success that ‘Come From Away’ has had; that has not been my experience!,” he adds with a laugh. “There are many that I love absolutely that have had a much shorter life than ‘Come From Away’ has had.
“I feel that you have to love it, and that’s a really good guide. But also there are so many questions — so many matters of the cultural zeitgeist and of luck and of smart decisions by producers.
“All of those things have to go exactly right to make a path like ‘Come From Away’ has had. It’s not just, did you love it to begin with?
“But I loved it to begin with.”
Blazing a path
By the standards of the typical Broadway musical, the approximately six-year journey of “Come From Away” from inception to New York premiere was not an extraordinarily long one. (Five years is considered about average.)
But the show had a whole lot of stops along the way — both before and after its first full production at the Playhouse.
It all began in 2011, when Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a pair of married Canadian writer-composers, traveled to the tiny town of Gander in Newfoundland for a one-of-a-kind reunion.
A decade earlier, thousands of travelers from all over the world had found themselves stranded in the remote community when the 9/11 terror attacks grounded all air traffic bound for U.S. destinations.
Separated from family and friends and getting only patchy reports about the devastation unfolding in New York and Washington, D.C., the passengers found themselves embraced (not to mention fed and housed) by the Gander locals — an act of generosity that stood in stark contrast to the hatred behind the attacks.
When Sankoff and Hein began interviewing people who’d been there, they were moved by the stories they heard, and quickly began folding them into what would become “Come From Away.”
And a key connection would prove critical to the show’s future life.
A couple of years earlier, the pair had met Randy Adams and Sue Frost, founding members of the New York-based Junkyard Dog Productions, which had helped produce the Tony-winning Broadway production of the Playhouse-bred, Ashley-directed “Memphis.”
As Frost recalls, it, “A friend of mine had said, ‘I’ve got a friend who has a daughter-in-law who has a cousin who writes musicals. Would you meet with them?’ I said, ‘Sure!’”
So they got together with Sankoff and Hein, and were impressed enough to stay in touch with the pair.
Then, when “Memphis” made a tour stop in Toronto, “We called them up, took them to breakfast, said, ‘What are you working on?’ And they said, ‘Funny you should ask — today we start a workshop on this show called “Come From Away.”’
“And they told us what it was about, and we said: ‘Good luck with that!’
Their skepticism about the show’s prospects lasted right up until Adams and Frost saw a condensed version of the show at the NAMT Festival in New York about a year later.
“We were knocked out by it,” Frost says. “ It was a huge surprise — the heart of it, the really exciting musical sound of it. It was all very compelling to us.
And yet “we were really straightforward with them. We said, we don’t actually know what to do with this show. It’s got a funny title, it’s always going to be an ensemble piece, and people are going to call it a ‘9/11 musical.’
“So, this does not scream ‘Broadway’ to us!”
What helped change their minds was the audience reaction at the Playhouse (no Broadway plans had yet been set when the La Jolla production opened).
Not only were playgoers enthusiastic, but “they just wouldn’t leave after the show,” Frost says. “You’d see complete strangers have conversations about what they were doing that day. It was a complete revelation about how audiences responded to it.”
The producers’ feelings were sealed when the Playhouse brought in “some hardened, cynical New Yorkers” to see the piece — the thinking being this would be a true test of the show’s sensitive subject matter, with its direct connection to New York City.
“They came out of the show blubbering,” Frost recalls. “They said, essentially: ‘We forgot how nice we were.’
And we thought, ‘We really could bring this show to New York if we’re careful about it.’”
Junkyard Dog provided an unspecified amount of “enhancement” funds to the Playhouse to boost its production — a now-common arrangement that lets producers get a better read on a show’s commercial prospects, while also allowing a nonprofit institution such as the Playhouse to mount a more fleshed-out staging than it might otherwise.
The Playhouse also gains ongoing financial benefit from its role in developing the show; such arrangements generally hover around 1 percent of a show’s Broadway revenues. (The theater made millions over the years from its role in launching the huge Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.”)
Three years after the Playhouse premiere of “Come From Away,” Ashley admits: “I wouldn’t have guessed we’d take the journey that we’ve taken with it. That includes both Broadway, and by this summer, five companies running simultaneously,” including productions in the United Kingdom and Australia.
The uncertainty about how New York and Washington audiences would respond is “one reason the producers were really smart to create a route for it before Broadway,” Ashley adds.
He refers to the fact that “Come From Away,” instead of going straight to New York, had intervening runs at Seattle Rep (the show’s co-producer), the Ford’s Theatre in Washington and then a final stop in Toronto before opening in New York.
So “by the time it started in New York, 250,000 people had seen it,” says Frost.
That long road also helped tighten and refine the show, so that it wound up coming in under its budget of about $12 million. “We did not spend gobs of money getting this up in New York,” as Frost puts it. As a result, the production recouped its investment in a swift eight months.
Geno Carr, a formerly San Diego-based actor who has played the role of Oz (and others) in “Come From Away” since the show’s Playhouse days, remembers the day Ashley called to say the show was going to Broadway — and that he was invited to come along.
“It was like every birthday and Christmas all wrapped up into one,” Carr says now.
But what came before Broadway — the hops from city to city — helped make the show what it is, he says.
“You usually do one out-of-town (run) nowadays — maybe two if you’re lucky — and then go straight to Broadway,” Carr explains. “Because people are saying, ‘Let’s get it up there, let’s get the money going.’”
But with this show, “we really got a chance as a company to hone it.”
And by the time “Come From Away” arrived on Broadway, “It was: ‘We have worked on this show for two years as a family. So we’re in a pretty good place with it now.’”