It was a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience for those at the Dec. 15 reopening of “Come From Away” at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. Following a 21-month pandemic hiatus, the hit Canadian musical returned to an exuberant capacity crowd that leapt to its feet for a rousing standing ovation before the cast even uttered a word.
“The 15th was the greatest experience of my life onstage,” said actor Ali Momen, who played Kevin J./Ali and others in the musical.
The reopening demonstrated the resilience of the city’s battered theatre industry in the face of ongoing cancellations, postponements, show closures and other COVID-related struggles. In the first year of the pandemic alone, Toronto’s performing arts industry lost more than $900 million in revenue.
Seven days later, unbeknownst to the cast and crew, the show would play its final performance Dec. 22. A COVID-19 outbreak within the company led Mirvish Productions to cancel four shows over the Christmas weekend.
The production was set to resume Dec. 28. It never did.
On Dec. 27, the lead producers — Mirvish Productions and New York-based Junkyard Dog Productions — announced the Toronto production of “Come From Away” was shuttering, after three years and 855 performances. A single COVID-19 infection backstage that had prompted the four-show cancellation had ballooned to 11 infections among cast and band.
Reading the email telling him the show was closing was “like a punch in the gut, like a kick in the face,” Momen said.
The news came as a major blow to a theatre community already in crisis. “Come From Away” is Canada’s most successful homegrown musical — the jewel in the crown for Mirvish, the country’s largest theatrical producer. Many within the industry wondered what, if anything, could survive the latest onslaught of the pandemic if “Come From Away” couldn’t.
Backlash from the show’s producers, creatives and cast, along with those in the wider theatre community, was swift. Members of the “Come From Away” company took to social media expressing anger and shock at news of the closure. For producer David Mirvish, the lack of government support was as much to blame for the show’s premature closure as the new Omicron variant.
“In other parts of the world, the government has stepped up to support the commercial theatre sector by offering a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and play during the pandemic, thus protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs the sector creates,” said Mirvish in a Dec. 27 press release announcing the show’s closure.
The Toronto production of “Come From Away” was one of five around the world. It was the last to reopen following the pandemic and the first to permanently close.
“The difference between those four productions and this one is very simple. They all have financial safety nets. We don’t,” said John Karastamatis, Mirvish’s director of sales and marketing. “Their financial safety nets come from the local governments where they perform because those governments understand and appreciate and value what a commercial theatre production can do. Here in Canada, none of our governments have ever understood this.”
The government of Canada committed $1.9 billion in the 2021 budget to help support the recovery and reopening of the arts, culture, heritage and sport sectors, but these funds are not available to commercial performing arts producers, which Mirvish said is short-sighted and unfair. He would like to see the government create a federal emergency relief program that would cover the costs of closing and reopening shows due to COVID-19 outbreaks, as well as extending tax credits available to film and television production companies to the commercial theatre sector.
In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for the office of the Canadian heritage minister highlighted the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program as a possible form of pandemic support. The new initiative was announced along with other pandemic support programs on Oct. 21 and received royal assent as part of Bill C-2 on Dec. 17. The bill includes $7.4 billion dedicated to various pandemic support programs.
The Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program, in essence, is an extension of the existing federal pandemic wage subsidy (CEWS) but targeted specifically at the tourism and hospitality industry, which includes non-profit and commercial theatres. The CEWS and the new Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program subsidize the wages of full-time employees such as administrative staff, but they do not cover contract workers such as performers, musicians and crew members, who make up a significant portion of the theatre industry.
The Canadian Heritage spokesperson said the ministry is “heartbroken by the news of the closure of ‘Come From Away’ and other Canadian shows facing difficulties.” The spokesperson added the ministry “has been in active conversation with commercial theatres since the Omicron variant hit and are working on ways to support them as quickly as possible.”
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries said the province “understands the importance of Ontario’s creative industries,” and the ministry had created the $100-million Ontario Tourism Recovery Program to support eligible tourism businesses hit hardest by COVID-19, including commercial theatres.
Karastamatis said Mirvish Productions applied to the program but hasn’t heard back (the ministry confirmed that results are expected in early 2022). Karastamatis stressed the funding is insufficient. “The max that anyone can receive is $1 million. That’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t begin to cover the losses that the tourism sector has had,” he said in a statement to the Star.
The apparent lack of government understanding about how commercial theatre functions is causing frustration among those close to “Come From Away.”
“My anger is focused towards every single layer of government, all of them,” said Momen. “In the past 22 months, so many of us have lobbied and tried to convince politicians of the importance of this, teaching them basics … we should have politicians be curious and understanding already.”
Mirvish Productions “falls between the cracks of all government programs,” said Karastamatis. “Nothing has prepared anyone — not the government, not us, not anyone — for what we have been going through these last 21 months and counting.”
More than one million patrons saw “Come From Away” over the course of its three-year run. Ticket sales exceeded $115 million, including more than $15 million in HST. Mirvish Productions estimates the show contributed $920 million to Toronto’s economy.
“It’s been devastating to see something with so many people who have poured their heart into this work come down to this,” said David Hein, co-creator of the show along with his wife, Irene Sankoff.
“There are two companies in the United States running this Canadian show, there’s one in Australia and there’s one in London,” said Sankoff. “I am so grateful that they will tell our Canadian stories for us because apparently we don’t prioritize that.”
Each of the Broadway and North American touring productions of “Come From Away” has received $10 million (U.S.) from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants program run by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The moneys serve as a reserve fund for the productions to cover costs when they shut down due to COVID-19. The New York City Musical and Theatrical Tax Credit Program offers up to a further $3 million (U.S.) for qualified expenditures, which include salaries, payroll items, design and construction of sets and production costs.
In Australia, support for performing arts organizations includes the $200-million (Australian) Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) fund, a competitive program for arts and entertainment organizations intended to increase employment opportunities for artists, the $59-million (Australian) COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund and a number of other initiatives.
The U.K. government launched the 1.57-billion-pound Cultural Recovery Fund in July 2020 to support cultural institutions through the impact of the pandemic. While some of these funds are available to commercial theatre, producer Cameron Mackintosh told the BBC on Dec. 20 that more support is required to keep the commercial sector afloat during the current Omicron wave, which has led to many snap closures of shows on the West End, as on Broadway, in Toronto and elsewhere.
Jacoba Knaapen, executive director of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, of which Mirvish Productions is a member, told the Star in a statement that the closure of “Come From Away” is devastating and has a ripple effect that will impact the city’s entire theatre sector.
“Commercial theatre requires government support. We need to see the kind of support that commercial productions in the U.S. receive,” she said. “The government needs to consult with our key stakeholders. There is a lack of conversation and communication to understand what our sector needs.”
The spokesperson for the office of the Canadian heritage minister offered a different point of view, saying that the ministry was “actively working with the commercial theatre industry about how to prevent further closures.”
Mirvish Productions lost about $2 million on reopening the show last month. Tickets moved briskly when they went on sale in November, and Mirvish Productions amassed $3.5 million in advance sales. However, the 50 per cent limit introduced by the province on Dec. 18 reduced the maximum capacity of the Royal Alexandra Theatre to 625 seats, making it challenging for the show to break even. And as COVID-19 infection numbers rose, advance sales dwindled as people cancelled tickets, making the show commercially unviable. There were fewer than 400 tickets sold for some performances following the show’s reopening.
Mirvish Productions is contacting ticket holders who can exchange them for a different show, take a credit or receive a refund.
In retrospect, Mirvish regrets he didn’t open the show sooner, at the beginning of November. “We timed it wrong,” he said. “When we opened, we had gone from 1,000 cases a day to 2,000 cases here in Ontario. And by the time we were looking at coming back, we were at 10,000 cases a day. Nobody can predict that. That was unfortunate.”
In the days after Dec. 22, “all the actors pretty much got sick, two musicians got sick and one member of the stage management got sick,” said Mirvish. “So, we know that you have to wear a mask, and you can’t do live theatre wearing masks.”
“It made no sense to try and struggle through,” he said. “I think struggling through, which is what the Broadway system is doing, is not necessarily the right answer.”
Many Broadway productions, including “Come From Away,” have had to cancel performances during the holiday period due to COVID-19 infections backstage, but have continued on.
“The Broadway, West End, North American tour and the Australian productions have all reopened thanks to varying degrees of support from the respective governments,” said Randy Adams and Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog, speaking about the other “Come From Away” productions. “Because of that, in spite of some temporary pauses due to COVID outbreaks in the companies, we are weathering the storm.”
The Toronto closure of “Come From Away” has left about 300 people out of a job. For many of the cast, crew and band, it will be nearly impossible to find other work given the ongoing effects of the pandemic on the city’s performing arts industry.
“Come From Away” is based on true stories and follows a group of passengers on 38 planes who were forced to land in Gander, N.L., following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Co-creators Hein and Sankoff travelled to the Newfoundland town on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 to interview local residents and some of “the plane people” who were stranded there and had developed strong ties to the town and its people. The couple would go on to create the show at Sheridan College’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project, an incubator program for new musicals created by Michael Rubinoff, then the college’s associate dean of visual and performing arts and the originating producer of “Come From Away.”
The musical received its world premiere at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in June 2015. The original production, directed by Christopher Ashley, first landed in Toronto in 2016 — the final stop in a North American pre-Broadway tour.
The Toronto production, featuring a Canadian cast, opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in February 2018. It moved to the Elgin Theatre in 2019 and returned later that year to the Royal Alexandra, where it played until the pandemic halted performances in March 2020.
The Toronto company was known for its generosity both on and off the stage. Shortly after the production opened in Toronto, the cast, band and crew created the “Come From Kindness” initiative. Inspired by the kindness of the real-life people they portray onstage, the company raised more than $800,000 for various charitable organizations — including $210,000 (Australian) for the Australian Fire Relief Fund and more than $35,000 (Canadian) for the Humboldt Broncos Crash Victims Fund.
Following the curtain call at many performances, the cast would solicit donations from audiences. On their days off, they would visit soup kitchens, food banks and fire halls to pay that kindness forward.
“This is the company that truly lived the message of the show, more than any,” said Hein. “They knew who they were representing, and they shouldered that responsibility with incredible grace and beauty.”
Mirvish has not closed the door on remounting a Toronto production, perhaps three to four years from now; they will store the show’s set rather than destroy it.
“We have to wait for the right moment” to come back, he said.
Mitchell Marcus, founder and CEO of the Musical Stage Company, on the show’s effect on the Canadian musical theatre industry.
“ ‘Come From Away’ proved that Canadian musicals could thrive internationally and created a profound ripple effect. It has been the guiding light for a generation of Canadian writers and producers who found inspiration in its success. It ignited new interest in original Canadian musicals from donors, arts councils and audiences. Its triumph shattered the ceiling of our collective potential.”
Ryan G. Hinds, actor and director, on the show’s international success.
“There’s something incredibly galvanizing for the arts community in Canada to see our contemporaries be so successful at home and around the world: winning a Tony Award in New York, winning Oliviers in London, spawning replica productions. Their success is our success, and it means we don’t have to hide our identities in our art or our accents in the audition room. It means we don’t have to go elsewhere to try and build our careers. It means that the industry sat up and took note of Canadian artists and saw what we can do.”
Peg Papakyriakou, “Come From Away” fan and teacher, on the company’s charitable work.
“The Toronto company became our friends. They donated money to our school in order for us to continue our ‘Come From Kindness’ initiative. We ended up providing over 20 birthday boxes to children in Nunavut and northern Manitoba with that money. At the end of shows, the cast took a fireman’s boot and raised money along with the fire department behind the theatre to help out with more charities.”
Michael Rubinoff, “Come From Away” producer and founder of the Canadian Musical Theatre Project, on the show’s impact on musical theatre in Canada
“ ‘Come From Away’ blazed the trail for Canadian musical theatre. David and Irene have planted a flag. They’ve shown the world that we can write about our own stories and that they have a place not only on Broadway, but in other theatre centres around the world. Even more importantly, if we look nationally, what ‘Come From Away’ has done is one of the big game-changers. Prior to the start of the pandemic, there were about six or seven musicals — Canadian musicals — that were set to make their world premieres at Canadian not-for-profit theatres. That was something we just hadn’t seen from not-for-profit theatres. I do believe ‘Come From Away’ launched a renaissance in the Canadian musical theatre … I’m enraged by the lack of support from the government … the small investment that the government could have made would have had a huge impact in retaining jobs and economic development, and the proof of that is in the other countries.”
Britta Johnson, musical composer, lyricist and writer, on how “Come From Away” paved the way for other Canadian musicals such as hers
“As a Canadian musical theatre creator, I feel indebted to its legacy. I truly believe it’s the reason my work has been taken seriously by American regional theatres and why producers here in Canada took the leap to invest in the potential of my work early its development. It has invited in so many new audience members into the theatre. And it has fostered a sense of community and immense pride in its wake. I am so sad to see it go and so grateful that it was here.”
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