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Coeur d’Alene producer captivated by Broadway-bound 9/11 musical

Laura Little was at a reading of new material for stage producers in New York City three years ago. She almost skipped the pitch for “Come From Away.”

“A musical about 9/11? I don’t know how I feel about that,” the Coeur d’Alene producer remembers thinking.

But she stayed and fell in love with the story and songs about what happened after 38 commercial flights were diverted to a remote town in Newfoundland on Sept. 11, 2001.

“It touched me,” Little said. “I’m not a super-emotional person. When something gives me goose bumps, I know we’ve got something going for us. And I got chills when I watched that, and it was just a reading of it.”

Her company, Laura Little Theatrical Productions, is a co-producer of “Come From Away,” which is playing now at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and next March will open on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Written by Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical depicts how the folks of Gander, Newfoundland – a town about the size of Cheney – opened their homes and their hearts to 6,579 passengers on transatlantic flights stranded there for five days when U.S. airspace was closed after the terrorist attacks.

The show chronicles a few passengers from an American Airlines flight as well as some of the people of Gander who took them. Two of the “plane people,” as they came to be known, met and fell in love during their detour to Gander and now are married. They have attended several of the musical’s performances, as have others whose experiences are recounted.

Audiences love the production and critics have been enthusiastic. The Los Angeles Times called it “an affecting and stirring new musical.” The Seattle Times said, “…It honors our capacity for humble goodness and mutual empathy in the shadow of faith-shattering evil.”

Little spoke with the authors after the reading in October 2013, sharing her fondness for the material. But soon her attention was drawn back home to Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater. A budget shortfall forced the theater company to temporarily close, and Little returned to reprise her role as executive director and get it back on its feet.

Last year she got back in touch with the writers of “Come From Away.” By then they had a team of producers and were preparing to open the musical at the La Jolla Playhouse north of San Diego. Some of the producers were friend of hers, and she asked to sign on as a co-producer.

“I happened to work with them on ‘First Date’ and ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ on Broadway,” she said. “So it was just a meant-to-be thing.”

The timing worked out well, she added.

“I was able to come in without having to raise $11 million. So I got very, very lucky I was able to come on,” Little said. “I was in the right place at the right time, and just love the story so much.”

The musical broke box office records in La Jolla. From there it went to Seattle Repertory Theatre for a 38-day engagement late last year, becoming the highest-grossing show in the nonprofit theater’s 53-year history.

“It’s on target maybe to break some records at Ford’s Theatre as well,” Little said. “We’ve already added a week.”

Before the Broadway opening, “Come From Away” will be staged at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre Nov. 15 to Jan. 8. Also, two benefit concert performances are scheduled for Oct. 29 in Gander. Little plans to travel to Newfoundland for those shows.

The musical is produced by Junkyard Dog Productions, and Little is one of 10 co-producers. Little is involved on the marketing side of the production and raised about $250,000 from local investors. She even put some of her own money into the show.

“There’s a wait list of people who wanted to invest in the show, which rarely happens on Broadway,” she said. “Usually you’re begging for money till the very end. I personally have a wait list, and we’re totally capitalized.”

Investors recoup their money from only about one in five Broadway shows, she said.

“So to find one that there’s a pretty decent chance it will, you want to get your friends involved so they trust you in other things,” she said.

The cast of 12 – each actor plays a main character and minor characters – is the same that performed the musical in Seattle and La Jolla last year.

“They love being part of the show,” Little said.

She described the music as “folksy Celtic” along with some traditional Broadway melodies.

“The music I absolutely adore,” she said. “Before the last song was over I was on my feet – standing ovation, so excited about it. It’s just really smart humor. It’s a very intelligent piece.”

If all goes well, Little said, the musical will have a long run on Broadway and hit the road on national tours.

“It doesn’t talk about the tragedy of 9/11. It just talks about the good side of human nature that comes out in a tie of tragedy,” she said. “People were in a place where they didn’t know anybody, and the best part of them came out instead of the worst part.”

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