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A scene from the North American tour of Come From Away.

David Hein and Irene Sankoff thought the idea was far-fetched when it was first suggested they write a musical about what happened after 9/11 when 38 planes that were in the air were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, population 11,000.

But as they visited the town and talked to the locals who welcomed the nearly 7,000 passengers into their homes, they saw the potential in the uplifting story. The result was Come From Away, a surprise smash that two years later is still playing to capacity crowds on Broadway. The national tour comes to The Bushnell in Hartford from April 30 to May 5. One of the producers is Sue Frost, an Old Lyme resident and Tony Award winner.

“We weren’t sure if it should be a musical or whether it should be a play like The Laramie Project,” says Hein, who, with Sankoff, wrote the book, music and lyrics. “But as we were interviewing the people from Gander, they’d often pull out their mandolins, fiddles or accordions. Music is a way these people deal with the hardship of living on this giant rock in the ocean where there are terrible winters. We also realized that it was a kind of music that Broadway had never heard before.”

Sankoff adds: “The hardest part was trying to fit in all of the stories we wanted to. That’s how we ended up amalgamating characters and story lines.”

Audiences reacted with waves of affection and the show became a word-of-mouth sensation. “We never expected any of this,” Hein says. “When we started, we figured this was a show that Canadian high schools would be forced to do. So for each step of the way we were excited: from a reading at Goodspeed to La Jolla Playhouse to Seattle Rep. We weren’t sure it was ever going to Broadway. After all, it has no stars, it’s an ensemble piece with a title no one can remember. And everyone is going to call it the 9/11 musical even though it’s a 9/12 story about the way a small community responded to a tragedy. It’s so life affirming, and especially needed now when our social media is so filled with divisive anger and fear. We get to tell a story of people coming together.”

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From left, Howard Smith, Mary Wickes, Orson Welles, Virginia Nicolson, William Herz, Erskine Sanford, Eustace Wyatt and Joseph Cotten outside the Stony Creek Theatre during the two-week run of Too Much Johnson in 1938.

‘Wicked’ Ways

Oh, if the walls of the former Stony Creek Theatre in Branford could talk, what tales they would tell.

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Horror film director William Castle concocted a publicity stunt that resulted in successful play at the Stony Creek Theatre in Branford in 1939.

Well, playwright Joe Landry listened — and then elaborated — and the result is The Wicked Stage, to be presented as a kind of in-rehearsal performance at the Stony Creek Museum on April 5 and 6. Proceeds will help in the restoration of the now-shuttered theater — last known as the Thimble Island Puppet House.

“I first read the autobiography of [horror film director and producer] William Castle in the ’80s and became fascinated by the man,” Landry says. In 1939, when Castle was 25, he produced a notorious play at Stony Creek involving a German actress “who said ‘no’ to Hitler,” according to sensational — and wrong — newspaper accounts. There was also a bogus attack on the play that Castle himself staged for publicity purposes.

Landry’s play also features a character based on Orson Welles, whose summer production of William Gillette’s Too Much Johnson was a famous flop in Branford the previous year.

Landry says he loosely based the play on aspects of these two “larger-than-life figures” as the basis for this backstage comedy. The hope is that eventually the play will be performed in the actual theater where it all happened.

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William Castle, left, and company at the Stony Creek Theatre in Branford in 1939.

The Butler Did It

Sean Foley hopes American audiences will delight in the wit and silliness of P.G. Wodehouse’s characters in Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, the play-within-a-play comedy he is directing that is receiving its North American premiere at Hartford Stage, running through April 20. It’s an import from London where it was a hit several seasons back, receiving the Olivier award for best new comedy. The new production, written by David and Robert Goodale and based on the 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters by Wodehouse, has a new three-actor American cast.

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Sean Foley

“It has in it all sorts of things that I think Americans respond to,” Foley says. “It has wit, warmth and lots of physical and visual gags.” It’s the same kind of humor, he says, that American audiences embraced in the past with comedies like The Play That Goes Wrong, Noises Off and One Man, Two Guvnors.

It’s a classy show, too — in a way. “It’s about an extremely rich, extremely stupid young man, Bertie Wooster, and Jeeves, his suave butler who is a gentleman’s gentleman. Think of it as posh farce: people being very serious about something utterly trivial. The whole plot is about hunting down this silver cream jug and the lengths they have to go. That’s the whole fun of the show.

“Bertie is an amazing comic creation. He never uses his class in a negative way. He’s a benign presence and a klutz and just so lovable.”

A musical version of the same Wodehouse characters was a big hit when By Jeeves had a developmental production at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester in 1996. The show, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and scripted by Alan Ayckbourn, moved on to Broadway where it opened shortly after 9/11 and closed a few months later. Hopefully this version will have a better fate.

Have You Heard…?

… The latest play from New Haven’s Donald Margulies, Long Lost, will begin previews at the Manhattan Theatre Club on May 14 and opens in June. The show, directed by Tony Award winner Daniel Sullivan, is described as “a funny, unsettling, ultimately moving play about the limits of compassion and filial obligation.”

… Manchester resident Jacques Lamarre’s new play, Trigger Warning, will have its world premiere for the Zeitgeist Stage Co., a resident theater company at the Boston Center for the Arts, from April 12 to May 4. The play, which was commissioned by the theater, looks at the impact of a school shooting from the perspective of the shooter’s family.

… “Queen of Mean” Lisa Lampanelli, who officially retired from comedy on The Howard Stern Show on SiriusXM radio last year for a career as a — no joke — life coach, will present a storytelling session calledFat Chance: An Evening of Conversation and Story with Lisa Lampanelli at the Ridgefield Playhouse on April 11. Joining her will be former Daily Show regular and gay icon Frank DeCaro. Lampanelli tells me that a book is inevitably in the works, though she is too busy now with her consultations, workshops and storytelling sessions.

This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.