How ‘Come From Away’ came back: dogged lobbying and a federal minister who listened
The news last December that the Toronto production of “Come From Away” was closing permanently sent shock waves through the Canadian arts community and caused hardship for the 300 or so workers who lost their jobs as a result.
But the bad news didn’t stay bad: it set off a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity that resulted in last week’s announcement that “Come From Away” was coming back in 2024, with a National Arts Centre premiere then a move to Toronto.
The unprecedented partnership that made that possible between the federal government, the arts centre and Mirvish Productions is the result of dogged lobbying, a newly receptive stance from the department of Canadian Heritage and a healthy dose of serendipity.
It’s a “complicated silver lining” in the words of Michael Rubinoff, the musical’s originating producer and one of the people who lobbied for its return.
The Tony Award-winning “Come From Away,” which tells the story of 38 planes grounded in Gander, N.L., following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been playing on Broadway since 2017. The Toronto version was one of five productions playing worldwide, including in London’s West End, and touring companies in Australia, New Zealand and North America.
The Canadian version of this Canadian musical was the first to permanently shutter. Lead producer David Mirvish placed responsibility for this at the feet of the Canadian government, which did not offer financial safety nets like the American, Australian and U.K. governments to help commercial theatres meet the increased costs of COVID-19-related shutdowns and restarts.
Although the Canadian government had programs to support the arts from the start of the pandemic, they did not include commercial theatre, something Rubinoff and others, including Mirvish associate general manager Kendra Bator, had been quietly working to address.
“We set out to speak to people from Heritage and Finance, and members of Parliament, to ring the bell that this was problematic,” said Rubinoff.
Bringing back theatre after the pandemic, they argued, is an expensive and complicated business. “We just can’t turn the light switch back on. You’ve got to build consumer confidence. You’ve got to make sure you’ve had enough tickets sold to be able to cover your costs,” said Rubinoff.
These efforts started to bear fruit following the reappointment of Pablo Rodriguez as the minister of Canadian Heritage in late October 2021, a post he previously held from 2018 to ’19. The day after the “Come from Away” closing was announced, Rubinoff phoned Rodriguez’s chief of staff and soon spoke to the minister himself.
“The second that I heard that they were putting an end to ‘Come From Away’ I said, ‘This can’t happen,’” Rodriguez told the Star. “I spoke with Michael Rubinoff, then I introduced their team to different players in Ottawa, including people at (the Department of) Finance, people in my department … I asked the team and everyone to be creative because we did not have a tradition of working with commercial theatres.”
Meanwhile, another conversation had begun between Mirvish Productions and David Abel, the National Arts Centre’s managing director of English theatre.
The NAC had long been interested in producing or hosting “Come From Away” and Mirvish had left the door open to the musical coming back in several years’ time.
In early January, “I just reached out to Mirvish to see if there was any way that we could keep the show warm for them,” said Abel. “I thought, ‘long shot,’ but maybe there was some way … to do the show sooner.”
The NAC was already talking with the Department of Canadian Heritage about financial support via pandemic recovery programs. These conversations started to include the possibility of earmarking money to bring “Come From Away” back.
“When Heritage made it clear that they were interested in supporting the commercial sector and ‘Come From Away’ in particular, that dovetailed with what we were doing and our interest to do the show in the first place,” Abel said.
The federal budget unveiled April 7 included $12.1 million for the NAC over two years, starting in 2022-23, “to support the creation, co-production, promotion and touring of productions with Canadian commercial and not-for-profit performing arts companies.”
The “commercial” part of that funding stream is why the NAC can fully fund the “Come From Away” remount, at a cost of $3 million to $5 million. After playing at the NAC in July and August 2024, the production will move to Toronto where Mirvish will take over running costs and profits. (The involvement of New York’s Junkyard Dog Productions, which produced the Broadway staging and four replica productions, is being discussed for both the Ottawa and Toronto runs.)
John Karastamatis, Mirvish Productions’ director of sales and marketing, said he hopes the show being away from Toronto for several years will build demand. “It’d be nice to get at least a year if not longer for all that time we lost,” he said.
In David Mirvish’s experience, such government support for the commercial sector is unprecedented.
“In 55 years of being in theatre, I’ve never seen anything like this … Pablo Rodriguez has really good ears … That’s a game-changer, when you get somebody who can listen,” said Mirvish. He also credits the perseverance of Rubinoff, Bator and other commercial producers “who wouldn’t give up and they kept talking to the minister, and the minister and his people kept listening.”
Rodriguez said his ministry is still in talks about more support of commercial theatre in Canada. Rubinoff hopes this might be the beginning of a “new path to have more ‘Come From Aways,’ a way to have the government, not-for-profit and commercial theatres all involved in providing a pathway for Canadian musicals.”
A key step to making Canada a more favourable location for musical theatre production would be providing tax credits on labour costs.
The city of Chicago offers a 20 to 25 per cent tax credit on labour, which allowed Chicago producers to successfully outbid Mirvish to host open-ended runs of “Wicked” and “Hamilton.” Rubinoff and other producers are now lobbying for a tax credit scheme, such as the ones the film and television industries enjoy, which would be harmonized between federal and provincial governments.
“You can’t expect the world to change overnight,” said Mirvish, but the fact that this new “Come From Away” deal has come together “is a sign that somebody out there is hearing the people in the theatre world and is listening.”
David Hein, co-creator of “Come From Away,” also hopes this news will spur positive momentum for Canadian theatre. “When ‘Come from Away’ closed in Toronto, I think it felt like a hit to the entire industry. I am hoping that this helps the entire industry and that it fuels more Canadian musicals in the future.”
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