Broadway producer Laura Little calls Coeur d'Alene home; her "all-time favorite" project, Come From Away, is finally landing in Spokane

click to enlarge Broadway producer Laura Little calls Coeur d'Alene home; her "all-time favorite" project, Come From Away, is finally landing in Spokane
Matthew Murphy photo
Come together for Come From Away.

Within minutes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, America closed its airspace as a protective measure. Canadian officials responded to that decision with a massive logistical effort that became known as Operation Yellow Ribbon. As part of that effort, they rerouted 38 airborne flights to Gander International Airport, a transatlantic refueling hub on the island of Newfoundland.

By late afternoon that fateful Tuesday, all 38 of those planes sat waiting for further instructions on the tarmac at Gander International. Together they carried more than 6,500 passengers and crew — almost as many people as the nearby town of Gander itself.

But the inhabitants of Gander weren't about to let those overwhelming numbers dampen their hospitality. They rallied and welcomed the thousands of strangers who had, in the local parlance, "come from away." The stranded travelers and crew members were soon ferried to community centers, churches and schools, where they were sheltered and fed until the last diverted flight departed five days later.

The generosity of the townspeople and the gratitude of their guests makes for an inspiring real-life tale, one that highlights a remarkable capacity for humanity in the face of adversity. When it was later brought to the attention of husband-and-wife creative team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, they headed to Gander to attend the 10-year reunion of the event. The touching memories and amusing personal stories they heard there became the basis for the musical Come from Away.

Laura Little came across Sankoff and Hein's musical in its very early stages. At the time, the Coeur d'Alene-based producer was in New York scouting for new shows. Little is well-known in local theater circles as past executive director of both Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre and CYT Spokane; she has produced the Traditions of Christmas show at the Kroc Center every holiday season since 2012. In New York, Little was scheduled to sit in on several readings to see which had promise and which merited a pass.

"I almost skipped the reading of it," she says. "But within five minutes, I knew that somehow I needed to be part of this production."

One of the things that impressed her was how the show's cast of 12 played "many, many different" characters. To represent the broad scope of experience for so many people, Sankoff and Hein had written things so that the individual actors performed multiple parts. That explains why everyone on the playbill has "and others" after their primary role.

She also found it to be surprisingly funny.

"That's what I adored most about it, is how much we laughed. We didn't expect to laugh, and that just made it very heartwarming."

So Little eagerly signed on as a co-producer with the hope of championing Come from Away as strongly as she'd championed previous award-winning shows like Peter and the Starcatcher and All Is Calm. As a producer, she's responsible for high-level tasks such as raising capital as well as hiring artistic and marketing teams.

"There are producers who get involved because there's a movie star connected to it or because they owe a favor to somebody," she says. "I absolutely adore every show that I produce. And, in particular, Come from Away is my all-time favorite."

Audiences everywhere might agree. Come from Away has proven to be a critical and commercial darling the world over. In October 2018, it became the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history. The nationally touring production launched in Seattle at the same time, but its February 2021 Spokane run had to be rescheduled; now is the first time Inland Northwest audiences will have had the chance to see it locally.

"I'm ecstatic because people have been hearing me talk about it for years," says Little. "A lot of our friends did make the trek over to Seattle. But to see it in your hometown with your closest friends and also your ancillary friends is just thrilling to me."

Little says that the timing is unusually apt, too. She sees clear parallels between the displays of solidarity that followed 9/11 and those that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We know that when a crisis takes place, we all hope for the same thing: We hope that a kinder, gentler side of society rears its head. During coronavirus, I have certainly seen signs of unity, which is exactly what happens in Come from Away." ♦

Come From Away • Aug. 9-14; Tue-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sun at 1 and 6:30 pm • $42-$100 • First Interstate Center for the Arts • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • broadwayspokane.com

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.