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Producer Sue Frost talks "Memphis"

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published January 30. 2014 4:00AM

"Memphis" enjoyed a recent Tony-winning, three-year run on Broadway, and it'll open in London next fall - impressive landmarks, both. And right now? Well, this weekend, a tour of the musical will touch down in New London.

It's a stop that Sue Frost - a founding partner of Junkyard Dog Productions, which produced "Memphis" - particularly appreciates.

"It's a real treat to have 'Memphis' in my backyard," says Frost, who splits her time between Old Lyme and New York City.

While the first two years of the "Memphis" national tour was Junkyard Dog's production, the one playing the Garde Arts Center on Saturday is a NETworks tour.

Frost, though, will be at the Garde matinee, having just returned from a trip to London for meetings in advance of "Memphis" opening on the West End.

"Memphis" - which won 2010 Tonys for best musical, book, original score and orchestrations - was created by Joe DiPietro, who wrote "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," and David Bryan, who is keyboardist for Bon Jovi.

At the heart of "Memphis" is the relationship between one of the first white DJs to play black music in 1950s Memphis and a black nightclub singer on the rise.

Frost says "Memphis" "is that wonderful combination of sheer entertainment, but there's (also) grit to it, there's a story to it, there's a real heart to it. It works on a lot of different levels. People go and have a great time, but they're also moved by it. It tells (about) a time in our history that it's important we are aware of. When young people come to see it, they even can't imagine what it must have been like. There's so much there to explore and to mine."

The London deal for "Memphis" was signed at the end of last year, and Frost says, "We're jazzed. We've been trying to get the right theater for a long time, and it's finally happened."

They began exploring the possibility 2-and-1/2 years ago, but the problem was securing a theater that was the right size for "Memphis." There are a lot of smaller play houses and some huge venues, but "Memphis" needed a site comparable to what it had on Broadway, where it ran in the 1,460-seat Shubert Theatre.

"It was a waiting game," Frost says. "You just position yourself to pounce when something becomes available."

There is still a possibility, too, that "Memphis" will make it onto the big screen, as was reported in October 2012. Right now, as part of the process, lawyers are doing their "due diligence," Frost says, and "we're still very hopeful (the movie) is going to happen."

In another year or so, "Memphis" will be released to some regions for licensing, meaning that schools and regional theaters can produce it.

"It's great to see what a long, rich life this show is going to have," she says.

While "Memphis" was one of Junkyard Dog Productions' first projects, the group is in the process of developing no fewer than five other shows.

Among them is a new show by "Memphis" creators Bryan and DiPietro. This one, "Chasing the Song," centers on a woman running a song shop in the Brill Building in the early 1960s - and what happens to her and her five songwriters when the Beatles come along. The arrival of the Fab Five, Frost says, "changes the landscape of songwriting forever because they came in and wrote their own music and performed their own music."

The production scheduled for La Jolla Playhouse this spring is a mini-"Memphis" reunion in terms of the creative team, with director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo.

"It's very nice to be back in the room. It feels like family again. We're having a great time with it," Frost says.

Two of Junkyard Dog's productions also happen to have local connections. One of the shows, "Come From Away," was part of last year's Goodspeed Festival of New Artists. Junkyard has optioned that as commercial producers and are figuring out its development and production path.

Another of the shows, "Jawbreaker," features music by Jeff Thomson, whose "Trails" is currently being staged at the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich.

Junkyard Dog's big effort in 2013 was "First Date," a small musical about, as the title suggests, a first date. It starred Zachary Levi, from the TV series "Chuck," and just wrapped a six-month Broadway run. Junkyard Dog is exploring what's next for that piece.

"Memphis," 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $42-$69: (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.

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