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How We Wrote It: Tony Nominees David Hein & Irene Sankoff on How a Pilot and 'A Chorus Line' Inspired 'Come From Away' Anthem

Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Alixandra Gould

Irene Sankoff and David Hein

When David Hein and Irene Sankoff began writing Broadway’s Come From Away in 2011, they knew pilot Beverley Bass would play a pivotal role in the story they wanted to tell. The new musical -- now nominated for seven Tony awards, including best book of a musical and best original score for Hein and Sankoff -- follows the passengers and crew of 38 planes diverted from American airspace to Gander, Newfoundland, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Bass captained a Boeing 777 from Paris to Dallas that was forced to land in Gander.

But writing a song for her presented a theatrical challenge: She’d spent her time in Newfoundland in seclusion, whereas passengers interacted with locals.

After grappling with how to convey Bass’ perspective in song, Hein and Sankoff wrote one of Come From Away’s most memorable numbers, “Me and the Sky.” Performed by Tony nominee Jenn Colella, the song weaves details of Bass’ career -- she was the third woman hired as a pilot at American Airlines and the first to make captain -- with specifics about her time in Gander. Here, the husband-and-wife songwriting team explain how “Me and the Sky” came about. 

So much of Bass’ life story is condensed into “Me and the Sky.” How were you able to work all of that into the song?

Sankoff: It’s nearly verbatim from our interview with her. Obviously we had to move things around and cut things out, but when we interviewed her, we wanted to write Beverley Bass: The Musical. We could feel ourselves getting pulled into her story.

Hein: We wanted to know every detail of her perspective. In Gander, she’d spent most of the time in her hotel room, waiting for news to leave. Because she was isolated from everyone else, we wanted a contrast from the other characters. You also have to go through her entire life before you can appreciate how that moment resonated with her. That’s why “Me and the Sky” is one of just two solos in the show.

How has the song evolved from the time you sat down to write?

Hein: It’s gone through a number of minor iterations -- just trying to get it as truthful as possible. Whenever we deviated from the truth, we’d go back to our interview.

Sankoff: At one point, we had a detail wrong about what it takes to become a pilot, so we had to go back to rewrite. She very kindly pointed out to us that it was incorrect and very patiently took us through it.

Musically, what were your main influences?

Hein: I grew up on Newfoundland music, so I wanted to play in that sandbox. The song really reflects my early influences from folk rock and guitar-driven, fiddle-driven country rock. There’s a band called Blue Rodeo that inspired me. We wanted to contrast fiddle from Newfoundland and fiddle from Texas, where Beverley is from, so it’s got a country twang without going completely into that world. It’s layered on top of a bedrock of Newfoundland music.

Did any musicals inspire you when you wrote “Me and the Sky”?

Hein: There’s a lot about Into the Woods that we talked about -- group responsibility and coming together as a community. We realized that our use of direct address is built on the bones of shows like A Chorus Line. We also called it Laramie: The Musical, because we were looking at a small town’s response to a tragedy. Even though it isn’t a musical, The Laramie Project was front and center.

Tony Awards 2017

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