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‘Come From Away’ Writing Duo Highlight Their 3 Favorite True Story-Inspired Musicals

Irene Sankoff and David Hein shed a little light on what inspired their critically-acclaimed musical, before diving into their favorite musicals of the stage and screen based on true tales.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book and music for “Come From Away.” It’s a new Broadway musical based on a true tale that unfolded in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland. During the 9/11 attacks, 38 planes bound for New York had to land in Gander instead. So, the locals had to care for thousands of stranded passengers from around the world.

Here are Irene and David to tell us about the show and their list.


Irene Sankoff: I’m Irene Sankoff. I am the co-author of the musical, “Come From Away,” which I wrote with my writing partner and life partner, David Hein.

David Hein: Hi, I’m her life partner and writing partner, David Hein.

“Come From Away” tells 16,000 true stories for 7,000 people on the planes and 9,000 people in the town. And we try to pack them all into a 100-minute musical with 12 actors. And so, we’re no strangers to drawing on true stories and turning them into musicals.

Irene Sankoff: So, we’ve picked three of our favorite musicals, both of the stage and screen, that are inspired by true stories.

“Fun Home”

David Hein: The first item on our list is “Fun Home,” the musical. “Fun Home” is not only one of my favorites, but it’s also based on a true story, which Alison Bechdel created into a graphic novel about her life growing up in Pennsylvania with her family.

David Hein: I think one of the things that I love about it is seeing this really specific community that her family runs. They live in this immaculate house that her dad upkeeps. Each aspect of the house is kept beautifully. But also, they run a funeral home so these kids have grown up with caskets all around them.

Irene Sankoff: I mean, they’re trying to have fun and be kids while they’re cleaning caskets and dusting tables and making a commercial for the funeral home.

David Hein: This is real sense of growing up and love and family set against this strange backdrop.

“The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle”

Irene Sankoff: Our second pick is a true-life musical that’s actually a movie, and it’s called, “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.”

It’s an old Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] movie and I was obsessed with Fred and Ginger growing up and all of the old movie musicals. It’s based on a true story, it’s two entertainers. The character of Irene convinced her partner to leave behind vaudeville and become a dancer with her.

Irene Sankoff: What I like about this one is it’s not a usual Hollywood musical for the time period, and it didn’t do well because of that because basically — spoiler alert — the character that Fred Astaire plays is killed when he goes off to war.

David Hein: I haven’t seen the movie, but I love that Irene picked this just because it’s about working together. It’s coming together to form something stronger.

You know, working together as a husband and wife writing team has its share of challenges. We don’t always recommend it for the faint of heart, but there is nothing better than having someone who you love, who you trust, and who, you know, you’re both facing the same things together. So there’s something really wonderful about it.

Irene Sankoff: I’ll dig out the VHS tape and we can watch it.

David Hein: All right [laughs].

“The Sound of Music”

David Hein: We had a really hard time picking this list ’cause there’s so many that you can choose from, I mean, “Hamilton” [is] obviously based on a real story and it’s amazing. “Chicago” is based on a real story about a woman named Beulah who killed her lover and then got off scot free because she pretended that she was pregnant. But I think we’re gonna go with “Sound of Music.”

Irene Sankoff: I love stories about WWII that aren’t actually about WWII. Like, “Sound of Music,” like “Cabaret.” Because I think it’s an important way to look at things. You know, not to directly go through the horrors of war, but look at what was happening around and how the wars broke out. I find that extremely interesting.

In “Sound of Music” we’re watching this beautiful relationship blossom between Liesel and Rolf, and then he’s totally seduced by the ideals of the Nazi party.

David Hein: It’s actually about a lot of joy set against the backdrop of a horrible event, but it really focuses on the joy. And for us, that’s one of the reasons we talk about “Come From Away” as not a 9/11 musical, but as a 9/12 story. It’s about how this small community reacted to this larger event.