A ‘tour de force’: Recently-deceased St. John’s musical theatre pioneer commanded respect

A ‘tour de force’: Recently-deceased St. John’s musical theatre pioneer commanded respect



The name Frances Toll was synonymous with musical theater in St. John’s in the 1970s and 1980s.

Actors and singers who performed under her direction during those years were saddened to learn that the former schoolteacher, musician and director died Sunday in London, Ontario, where she settled after leaving St. John’s decades ago .

A funeral and internment took place on Friday.

According to her obituary, Toll was involved in several activities during and after her stint as a music teacher at IJ Samson Junior High School.

She was organist at St. Thomas’ Church in St. John’s and played timpani in the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO). She has directed or directed numerous Broadway productions, at both the IJ Samson and the Arts and Culture Centre, and conducted two singing groups, The Killicks and The Anchormen.

“Although Frances was a shy and reserved person in her private life, this did not prevent her from performing in front of many distinguished Newfoundlanders and visitors, including various Lieutenant Governors of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Prime Ministers of Canada, Dame Vera Lynn, Pope John Paul II and the King and Queen of Belgium,” reads her obituary.

‘tour de force’

David Brown, who has worked with her on some music productions at the arts and culture center, says they make a good team.

“It was at a time when shows ran 10 days straight. We had a pretty good crowd,” Brown said in a phone interview on Friday.

He said her contribution to the NSO could not be overstated.

“She was one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Symphony,” he said.

“This very successful orchestra exists because of people like Fran Toll.”

St. John’s musician Lori Cooper said Toll was her junior high school music teacher.

“She was something else!” Cooper wrote in a message.

“We were so fortunate and enriched to have her as our music teacher at IJ Samson Junior High. She had such vision and passion and brought out the very best in us for the annual musicals at Arts and Culture. Viewers were always shocked that we were just middle-aged kids. She was a ‘tour de force’ and commanded excellence, creating such a school spirit and camaraderie – and we all loved her for it.”

A newspaper review of the 1984 production
A newspaper review of the 1984 production of Guys and Dolls. – contributed

“She Got Results”

Robert Power, a retired teacher and veteran of the St. John’s musical theater scene, said Toll was instrumental in nurturing local actors and singers in their formative years.

“She put together one of the first truly successful choral groups (The Killicks) in town, which was also the kickstarter for many people like me who sang in community choirs for years to come,” Power wrote.

“She was the music director for most of the fall musicals in the ’70s and ended up directing the fall musicals at the Arts and Culture Center in the ’80s,” he said. “Women didn’t do that back then. Frances was certainly a real trailblazer. She had a great sense of humor and had a fabulous laugh. But if she meant it, she really meant it. This is how she got results.”

Toll briefly pursued a career in real estate after her years in St. John’s, but was soon lured back to her first love.

Surprisingly, the Ontario Board of Education did not recognize her teaching credentials from England or her teaching experience, so she had to go back to university. At age 50, she earned a double degree and won a gold medal for academic achievement.

She is survived by her husband Michael, a brother and several other relatives in Ontario and Newfoundland.

Peter Jackson reports on tribal affairs for The Telegram.

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