From Broadway to London’s West End, racking up awards along the way, Come From Away is the Canadian theatre feel-good story of the century. But, the story behind the celebrated musical begins in Canada, and with a show that was the hit of Toronto Fringe a decade ago.
“I’ve always loved musical theatre,” says Irene Sankoff, one half of the dynamic Canadian duo that has taken the world of musical theatre by storm. She recalls watching old musicals on TV with her mother, a nurse, after her shift finished, and going to as many as she could in person. “It’s always been a part of my life.”
Irene took dance lessons as a child, but realized her love of musicals was out of sync with most of her fellow students in high school. “I didn’t even used to tell people I was into musical theatre,” she says.
David Hein’s background is more in folk music than show tunes. “I grew up around folk music,” he says, describing family events where an acoustic guitar was sure to make an appearance. “Irene really introduced me to musical theatre.”
He points out that Come From Away is what he calls, “a perfect marriage of our backgrounds,” combining folk-style storytelling with the staging of theatre. According to Hein, it was that background in folk that, somewhat paradoxically, led to their first musical production – that, and the busy schedules of a young couple who were spending a lot of time apart. “Irene and I started writing together because we wanted to spend time together,” he says simply.
Hein wrote a song about his mother’s upcoming nuptials as a gift to her, and as he toured North America with it, he saw the crowd’s reactions. He began to add to the story. With some work and a little stage magic, those songs became My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, the Toronto Fringe show that could.
Written by David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff, with songs by Hein, starring Hein and Lisa Horner, the show debuted as a Fringe show in 2009. With a sold-out run and a lot of buzz, it caught the eye of David Mirvish, and went on to another successful run at the (then) Panasonic Theatre on Yonge as an expanded production. From there, it toured Canada and the United States, including an invitation to the 2010 New York Musical Festival. The show has seen remounts across North America in 2012 and 2015, and its message of tolerance and marriage equality gives it more topical relevance than ever.