David Hein and Irene Sankoff may have risen to fame with their smash Broadway musical Come From Away, but before they embarked on writing the true story of the thousands of passengers diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, after the 9/11 attacks, and the overwhelming generosity of the locals, they told another true story: My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.
A surprise sold-out hit at the 2009 Toronto Fringe and later the 2013 NYMF Best Musical winner, the musical returns for one night only in a 10-year anniversary benefit concert performance of the show at The Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto January 21. Hein and Sankoff join the cast (playing themselves) that also includes Rosemary Doyle, Jackie English, Lisa Horner, Lori Nancy Kalamanski, Robert Kennedy, David Leyshon, and Kyle Orzech.
Directed by Andrew Lamb with musical direction by Bob Foster, the concert will also feature new material and never-before-heard songs. But the evening is a commemorative one, a chance for Hein and Sankoff to thank the community that believed in them at the start. In that spirit of gratitude, we asked Hein and Sankoff to reflect on the past decade, the impact of MMLJWW, and the lessons they’ve learned in their own words below:
Ten years ago, we wrote a show about our family for the Toronto Fringe Festival. The original poster hangs in our daughter’s bedroom—it has since she was born because her cramped room was also our office.
Back then, we were 10 years into our marriage and we barely saw each other; between money-making jobs and our creative pursuits, we found it hard to find time together. So we decided to spend the summer working on My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, a true-story musical about my [David’s] mom, how she traveled across the country to her dream job, discovered her sexuality, and rediscovered her Jewish faith. She came out to her teenage son and homophobic mother, and fell in love with a Wiccan woman.
Initially, we didn’t think anyone would attend our show—not even our moms. It was just stories about our family, like how I’d accidentally introduced Irene to my moms at Hooters. (I thought it was a new Ponderosa… remember Ponderosa?) Plus, it was such a niche title; how many lesbian Jewish Wiccan couples could there be? But much to our surprise, a lot of people came. It sold out immediately and got picked up by Canada’s largest producer to move from our 80-seat Fringe venue to a 700-seat theatre, where it sold out and was extended five times. We heard over and over from couples who had Jewish Wiccan weddings and lesbian Buddhist weddings and every other possible assortment of nuptials you can imagine! Moral is: Never let anyone tell you your story is too niche. Plus, the “spending time together” thing worked pretty well. We’ve spent the last 10 years working side by side.
Since then, we’ve performed in five productions of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, and there have been many others in theatres across North America, including theatres who received complaints from patrons who didn’t want to walk their children past the word “lesbian” on the poster (the same poster in our daughter’s room). Those theatres lost long-time subscribers because of the show’s title, but in the long run gained far more new ticketbuyers. More importantly, we’ve heard from audience members that this story helped them come out or reach out to family members who had come out to them only to become estranged. We sang songs from the show at same-sex marriage rallies in New York, and we’ve witnessed onstage proposals afterwards.
In that together time, we’ve also created a couple other things along the way, notably Come From Away, another true story set in Canada, which is about to open in Shanghai and continues on Broadway, London’s West End, Toronto, and across North America! But, most importantly, we welcomed our daughter.
It’s been bizarre as parents now to return to our first show from 10 years ago, where we first tried to put myself in our moms’ shoes. We owe them a special thanks.
Speaking of thanks, none of this would have happened without parental leave, subsidized daycare, universal healthcare, infant drop-in programs, and government grants. Which is why, for this performance, we’re giving back all proceeds to Planned Parenthood Canada, an organization that provides healthcare, education, and support .
A lot has changed in 10 years, but what we had really hoped is that this show would be irrelevant by now. We hoped kids these days wouldn’t understand why people would make a big deal about a woman marrying another woman.
There’s a song in the show that chronicles “A Short History of Gay Marriage,” which started out as a celebration of Canada becoming the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, and then became about America doing the same 10 years later. When we workshopped the show at Theatreworks Palo Alto in California in 2017, it felt more timely than ever, celebrating our victories while recognizing that only 27 countries out of 195 in the world have legalized same-sex marriages, to say nothing of eliminating homophobia or transphobia.
Frankly, it’s still rare to see older female love interest leads in a musical, or to see a show about older women taking risks and following their dreams at all. In a world of commercial theatre, it feels rare to create a show just because you love a story and you love the people you’re telling it with—but we still think that’s the best way.
As for our daughter, when we tried to take the poster from her new bedroom and put it in our new office, she protested, saying, “That stays in here, that’s Bubie and Granny’s show!”
For tickets and more information about the January 21 concert of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, click here.