Portrait

John Frost never doubted he would forge a career in the entertainment industry. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

John Frost on Anything Goes, a ‘souffle of a musical’

John Frost is sitting on the 35th floor of the Sofitel, foregrounding a wall of glass through which Melbourne is flattened into a postcard image of grey rectangle rooftops and grassy blurs. In front of him is a marble tabletop arranged as precisely as a still life: two bottles of sparkling water, two lowball glasses and John’s iPhone, which sits parallel to the table’s edge. John’s eyes settle on me with the tentative recognition of strangers who have arranged to meet. We shake hands and seat ourselves opposite each other. 

Up close, John’s skin is a raw colour, heavy with age but his ears stick out endearingly like a boy who hasn’t quite grown into them yet. He wears a wool knit jumper with expensive-looking flecks and gradations in its dye. 

When we introduce ourselves, I’m surprised by the British undertones of his accent, the voluptuousness of his vowels and the sleekness of his consonants. It might be absurd of me but the precision of his enunciation, tabletop and dress give me the impression of someone who is sensitive to detail and close to being completely in control. So it’s no surprise when John tells me that his career began at the age of five, when he recognised that he wanted to work in the entertainment industry. By the age of eight, John Frost decided that he wanted to be a producer, a job he says he accurately conceived of as one where he would raise money, put on a show, and “have a great time”. 

The most recent musical of John’s to open in Melbourne is the affable comedy Anything Goes, which he describes as a “souffle of a musical”. In John’s experience, this is what audiences are expecting from such a show. Escapism and, paradoxically, a sense of familiarity and predictably within this escape.

“They want to leave their daily concerns or woes at the door when they buy a ticket …” he tells me. He pauses before adding, “… and they want to know the music.”

And the stakes are high within the competitive Australian market. Except that it isn’t other theatre shows that John considers his primary source of competition; it’s football. Unlike in New York, where experiencing a live show is intrinsically tied to the “energy” of that “extraordinary city”, a musical in Melbourne is in direct competition with the roar of the football stadium. 

“So I have to be very careful what I produce,” he says, gesturing 35 floors down to the teacup saucer of green that is the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The tenuousness of success in the live-show business is the reason most of John’s investors from outside his industry are racehorse owners. “It’s a gamble,” he admits. 

I ask John if the musicals that appeal to audiences are the same musicals that have been successful with the crowds.

“That’s the heartbreaking thing. I’ve sat through a show where on opening night the audience are cheering and going crazy and the reviews come out and the reviews are great and then …” he pauses for effect,
“… you sell no tickets.”

Rather than stewing in these kinds of losses, John has learnt, as he’s grown older, “not to have an emotional attachment to shows”. Because the first few nights of a show are indicative of its future popularity, if these nights are a failure, he believes that it’s better to “just put it to sleep, throw it over, stop it, kill it, because these days if a show is not going well, it just costs so much, you’re losing other people’s money”.

The neat, feel-good narrative of the souffle-like musical seems a striking contrast to the harsh pragmatics of business and the capriciousness of success. We talk about the success of individuals and I’m surprised when John tells me he thinks that rather than being determined by self-will, “it’s all patterned … all made out for you”. 

I ask him who by and he shrugs diplomatically. “I don’t know who by … whoever you believe in. I think it’s like …”, he walks his fingers over the table, “… there’s John Frost’s path, let’s put that wall there”. He uses a glass as an obstacle, “… what will he do? Will he go around or jump over it? I usually go over it because it’s harder rather than being lazy and going around.”

In a voice that reminds me of his age and my youth he tells me: “Life’s a battle. But it’s a fun battle. How boring would it be if you were born and you’re gonna be a journalist …” I realise he’s switched his personal pronouns.
“And okay, you’re a good journalist. You’re gonna be a successfully rich journalist. Okay, you’re a successfully rich journalist. Someone will come into my life, I’ll have children …” He switches his pronoun again. 

Then John interrupts this train of thought and decries it: “Laid out. Boring. So you’ve gotta fight to be a good journalist. Fight at a relationship. Fight bringing up your kids. You’ve got to hold your own.”

“Sound advice,” I tell him.

“I don’t know if it’s advice, I just think life’s good. Here we are sitting in a lovely hotel, drinking a bottle of fizzy water we didn’t pay for … Touch wood.” He knocks the cold stone tabletop with his knuckles, grinning.

“Touch marble,” I correct him, and his ears spring upwards with his boyish grin.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2015 as "The producer". Subscribe here.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.