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musical theatre

Landing on their feet

Come from Away creators David Hein and Irene Sankoff struggled as artists, found each other as life and business partners and became the dynamic duo of the Canadian musical

David Hein, left, and Irene Sankoff, the husband-and-wife writing team behind the musical Come From Away, hold take a selfie on the tarmac of the Gander International Airport in Gander, N.L

For Valentine’s Day week, here’s a love story, times two.

It’s about how a Prairie dreamer with a guitar and a Toronto realist who always had a backup plan got together as romantic partners – and then, a decade later, saved their relationship and discovered a unique voice that would take them to Broadway by getting together again, as artistic partners.

Come from Away’s creators David Hein and Irene Sankoff, whose Newfoundland-set hit about the 38 planeloads of people stranded in Gander after 9/11 opens in previews on 45th Street on Saturday, told it one morning before departing for New York, in the living room of the two-storey Toronto home they bought in 2006 with the help of their parents, day jobs and a 35-year mortgage no longer offered by banks.

A decade later, they have a three-year-old named Molly, are working as artists full-time – and, financially, the picture looks a heck of a lot different. Best-case scenario, if Come from Away sells out in Manhattan the way it did in Seattle and Toronto, as sole authors of the work, they could pull in $27,000 (U.S.) a week – more every seven days than the average Canadian author or writer earns in a year.

That’s my estimate based on industry standards – but money is the one topic these two children of divorce who both, at times, lived in humble circumstances with their single mothers are sheepish about. “We grew up without a lot of money, so the whole thing makes me really nervous,” Sankoff says.

Hein further cites the statistic that only one in five shows on Broadway makes a profit. “Literally, we’re the fifth show out of five to go to Broadway from Canada – and one of them [2006’s The Drowsy Chaperone] has already made it!”

Falling in love

Their first love story is beautifully conventional: Hein, born in Regina, and Sankoff, from the Toronto suburb of North York, met on the first day of frosh week at York University in the 1990s. “Irene thinks it was a welcome barbecue; I think it was at a welcome pancake breakfast,” Hein says.

“Because it was outside, right?”

“You can eat pancakes outside.”

The aspiring songwriter and aspiring actress both loved theatre – but, musically, were divided. Hein, as a kid, through visits to the Winnipeg Folk Festival with his mother, had developed a taste for bands such as Blue Rodeo and Great Big Sea (a similar sound pervades Come from Away’s score), while Sankoff was a musical-theatre nut who danced all her life and bonded with her mother over old movie musicals. “My mom would come back after working to 11 or whatever on Christmas Eve and we would start watching Top Hat … or those old Gene Kelly musicals,” she recalls. “I was obsessed.”

Sankoff and Hein’s journey into the world of musical theatre started as a love story.

But Sankoff was also an academic overachiever feeling pressure from the science-focused side of her family – and, while she acted extracurricularly at York, she graduated with a double major in psychology and creative writing.

The young couple’s first major fight was, as only a young couple’s could be, about whether theatre could change the world. They went at it until the sun came up – the dreamer trying to convince the realist.

Hein didn’t win the argument – but, on the verge of applying to do a master’s in speech and language pathology, Sankoff did decide to at least give acting a try professionally.

New York

So, in 1999, Sankoff and Hein moved to New York. Sankoff began studying at the Actors Studio – as seen on TV – and Hein, who has dual citizenship, began work as “assistant everything” at a music studio where The Muppets recorded, borrowing the equipment to record his own songs at night.

The pair lived in a residence called International House in Upper Manhattan along with grad students from 110 countries – and that’s where they were when, on Sept. 11, 2001, planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. That night, windows shut to keep the smell of smoke out, scared students from around the world gathered around a piano in the residence for an impromptu concert – a moving experience Sankoff and Hein would later draw on for Come from Away.

But 9/11 had a more immediate impact on them. A month later, Hein woke up and said, “Hey, why don’t we get married?” They were already engaged – but on Oct. 12, 2001, they headed down to City Hall and secretly eloped.

Playbills from Hein and Sankoff’s New York years still hang on the kitchen wall of the house they share with their daughter and two cats, one named Elphaba (after the Wicked witch) and the other Gambo (after the Newfoundland town).

But it was not always a dream: Savings dwindled, the studio Hein was working at shut down, and Sankoff – who had an agent and was getting gigs – separated a shoulder in a dance class.

Uninsured, she took a trip to Toronto to see a doctor – and it turned into a move back home.

Sankoff and Hein drew on experiences from their lives to create their first musical Wiccan Wedding, and again for Come from Away.

The second love story

Back in Canada, Hein and Sankoff had to build an artistic community from scratch. She landed a role in The Mousetrap; he released an album called North of Nowhere. And so it went for years – pursuing art at night and paying bills through tutoring or graphic design. Soon, they were married homeowners, but they barely got to see each other and grew lonely, especially when Hein was off on tour. Was this living the dream?

And this – in 2009 – is where the second love story begins.

Hein had written a song called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding – based on his own experience as the son of a woman who came out later in life and remarried – that was popular on tour. More than most of his work, it was influenced by the musical theatre that Sankoff had introduced him to over the course of their relationship. What if, he wondered, they could expand it into an actual musical – and, at the very least, spend some time together?

Marrying their skills, Hein and Sankoff began trying to turn their family’s story into a fictional musical – at first, a conventional “book musical” where an invisible fourth wall descends in front of the audience and scenes and songs alternate to tell a story.

But an epiphany Sankoff had on Valentine’s Day led the pair to a different writing style – one they later refined with Come from Away.

At the gym that day, Sankoff was talking with an enthusiastic friend about Wiccan Wedding – and heard her say, “The best thing about this is that it’s based on a true story.” A light bulb went on.

“I came home to David and said, ‘We’ve got to throw it out. Let’s tell the real story.’”

The new version the couple started working on during an unorthodox Valentine’s date would eventually feature Hein sitting on a stool in his Glass Tiger shirt, singing songs about his mother’s coming out, how he introduced his two moms to Irene at a Hooters and the history of same-sex marriage in Canada, using a troupe of actors that included his wife to tell the stories.

The sweet and direct show became a hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival that summer, then was picked up by producer David Mirvish to play at the city’s 700-seat Panasonic Theatre he had just purchased – and Sankoff and Hein’s career as commercial musical-theatre creators was launched.

When the idea to write a show about what happened in and around Gander, Nfld., in 2001 was proposed to them shortly thereafter by Michael Rubinoff at Sheridan College, it could not have been a more ideal project for them.

They had seen how strangers from around the world bonded, with music, on Sept. 11, and seen how music played a role in bringing them together – and they had found the right aesthetic for such a story, having learned that a musical could be a true story set in our times, told with plenty of direct address, and that authenticity was as important to winning over an audience as craft in lyrics and lines.

Hein and Sankoff are making final adjustments to the musical ahead of a March 12 opening on Broadway.

Armed with a $12,000 grant from the Canada Council, they headed to Gander for Sept. 11, 2011, to interview locals and “come from aways” returning to commemorate the 10th anniversary.

Hein and Sankoff’s subsequent five-year journey – buzz-creating workshops on both sides of the border, a bidding war by commercial producers at a showcase in New York, record-breaking runs in San Diego, Seattle, Washington and Toronto – has been told in these pages before.

Now, the last chapter is about to be written as final adjustments are made in a preview period ahead of a March 12 opening.

As the statistics show, Come from Away may not make them rich. Canadians who have had what are referred to as “flops” in the harsh language of Broadway – such as Cliff Jones, whose Rockabye Hamlet closed in a week in 1976; and Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, whose The Story of My Life did the same in 2009 – have advised the couple to just enjoy the ride.

In any case, the two have a bigger goal beyond making money, Hein says, “Especially now, it feels important to talk about welcoming refugees off planes, strangers into our communities.”

Yes – he’s finally won the argument about whether theatre can change the world.

Sankoff came around after meeting senior citizens who changed their minds on same-sex marriage after seeing Wiccan Wedding, and receiving letters from Come from Away audience members about how it’s inspired them to be better people.

“I still have my moments where I’m like, ‘It’s a drop in the bucket,’” Sankoff says. “But at least it’s a drop.”

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