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Sue Frost of Old Lyme says she picks musicals that she is proud to work on, and that Come From Away is just that. (Photo courtesy of Sue Frost )
Come From Away has been produced in La Jolla, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Toronto. (Photo by Matthew Murphy )
The Washington Post’s theater critic Peter Marks called Come From Away “heartwarming, compelling and refreshing.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy )
Come From Away also was produced in Gander, Newfoundland, a small town with a large air field, where the action of the play took place, to great acclaim from the local population. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy )
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When Sue Frost of Old Lyme looks at a new musical to decide if she will produce it or not, she considers three principles.
One: “Is this a show people need to see now?”
Two: “Is this a show I can see a hundred of times—because that’s what I’m going to have to do over time.”
And finally: “Is this a show I’d be proud to put my energy behind? As an independent producer who does one show at a time, that’s critical for me.”
For the Tony Award-winning producer of Memphis and other musicals in New York and around the country, Frost says that all three principles were there for her latest show, Come From Away, which is now in previews on Broadway, opening Sunday, March 12.
The $12 million musical is an unusual one in that it takes an unusual subject for its story: On the morning of 9/11, 38 planes were re-routed to Gander, Newfoundland, a small town with a large air field, because of fear of more terrorist attacks on U.S. flights. More than 6,500 passengers arrived unsure of what exactly was going on and how long they would remain there. The hospitality of the 11,000-person community to the stunned strangers became the stuff of legend—and now the stuff of a musical.
The idea began with Canadian producers—seeded by the Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan College—who visited Gander for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with the Canadian husband-and-wife writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein who then created the book, music, and lyrics for the show.
Frost’s production company—Junkyard Dog Productions—became involved after it saw a staged reading of an early version of the show at the New York’s New American Musical Festival in 2012. Then in January 2013, her company—now as lead producer—brought the show for further development at the annual Festival of New Musicals at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, where Frost was a producer for 20 years before leaving in 2005.
Full productions followed in 2015, first at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse where Christopher Ashley, the show’s new director, was artistic director. (Ashley has also staged Memphis for Frost.)
But now with the show before a paying public, Frost had her concerns.
“We knew people were going to call it ‘the 9/11 musical’ and we didn’t know how it would be received,” says Frost.
But reaction from audiences and critics were overwhelmingly positive. After La Jolla, the show played the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it broke box-office records.
“But we knew we had more work to do to prepare the show for Broadway—and Broadway for the show,” she says.
Pre-Broadway stops were held last fall at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., followed by a stop in November at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre.
The Washington Post’s theater critic Peter Marks called it “heartwarming, compelling and refreshing.” The Toronto Star’s Karen Fricker called it “masterful, sophisticated and ingenius. Thoroughly enoyable.”
But the most personal reception may have happened last October when the production company went to Gander to give the community a look at the show with the most unusual pre-Broadway engagement. They performed the musical in concert in the town’s hockey rink and the experience was an emotional one for both cast and community.
“It was our dream to go back to Gander,” says Frost of the special presentation, which the town helped fund.
“It was an extraordinary weekend for everyone—cast, crew, the band—to meet the people and see the community where the show is based. After that, we felt we’re ready to share the show with New York.”
Frost knows it’s crowded Broadway season, with nearly 20 musicals, a dozen of them new ones. But she believes in word-of -mouth “and there’s not another show like this one.”
Frost also says the moment might be right for Come From Away.
“People want to be emotionally engaged and feel that they’re part of a community, part of a conversation. This is a story where people are nice to each other, who take care of each other. I think people are hungry for that.”
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.
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