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On March 12, Sue Frost boarded a plane from London to New York. She was crossing the Atlantic to celebrate the third anniversary of Come from Away on Broadway that evening. Much like in the musical, that tells the tale of flights that were diverted to Newfoundland in the wake of 9/11, when she landed, the world had changed.
“I literally got in the car at JFK and came home. I never went back into New York,” Sue recalls. “The stage manager said, ‘Should we gather everybody anyway?’ I said, ‘No. If they’re not supposed to be together, they’re not supposed to be together. They shouldn’t be on the subway. They shouldn’t be doing anything. They should just stay home.'”
Sue had been in the UK to celebrate the first anniversary of the London production with her production partner, Randy Adams. They’d been following the COVID-19 news intently since January. Come from Away had been such a success that the Australian production had plans to transfer to China this summer. But within a week, all the companies had shuttered.
The story of Come from Away goes back seven years, when Sue and Randy saw a 45-minute presentation of the show at a musical theater festival. “The minute it ended, we both said, ‘What was that? We have to be part of it.’ We just absolutely loved it.”
They didn’t immediately think it was a Broadway show. “We were a little concerned that it wasn’t a recognizable title; it was an ensemble show, so we would never have stars in it; and everybody was going to call it a 9/11musical,” Sue explains. “So those were three strikes against it. It didn’t immediately scream ‘Broadway’ to us.”
They toured with the show to La Jolla, Seattle, Washington DC, and Toronto. At each place, even after dress rehearsals, they saw big spikes in the box office. They sold out and extended the shows. Then they noticed that “it wasn’t just people telling their friends they needed to go, they were coming back and buying more tickets so they could bring people with them to experience it together.”
These signs led them to Broadway. “You have to believe you can sell 8,000 to 12,000 seats a week with no subscription base,” says Sue. That’s what they’d been doing – while adding productions and tours around the world.
But the Broadway comeback is looking like a long journey. She’s resigned to the fact that “we were the first ones out and we’re going to be the last ones back.” Social distancing, the intimacy of backstage, and the economic model of Broadway are all significant factors. Everyone is working on safety protocols for staff and theater goers.
You’ve seen my show. It’s like one big petri dish on stage. You’ve got the band, you’ve got the actors, but there’s no way they can be socially distant.
She says: “Within phase one, phase two, phase three, phase four, there are ways for some businesses to come back with social distancing, people wearing masks, and people being careful. We can’t do it now. You’ve seen my show. It’s like one big petri dish on stage. You’ve got the band, you’ve got the actors, but there’s no way they can be socially distant.”
She’s lobbying for the small businesses that support Broadway: “Just take a look at the back of a Playbill. For every one of those businesses there are employees, there’s massive square footage of shops and warehouses. The general public needs to understand just how vast the network is. It’s very challenging. Broadway is a massive community. You see the people on stage and the ushers, but you don’t know the hundreds of people it takes to actually put these shows up and then keep them going.
“It is critical to New York City for Broadway to come back. It’s not New York without Broadway,” says Sue. “There’s a lot of really smart people working on this to figure it out.
“It’s a worrisome thing, but we are also an industry of optimists. You have to always be looking forward,” Sue says. “I’ve got my fingers crossed. Everything I’ve got two of crossed. Let’s do it. Come on. We’re ready.”