Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.
Come From Away, the hit musical that has routinely played to packed houses at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, was set to celebrate its third Broadway anniversary on March 12 when word of the unprecedented state-ordered theater closures hit the industry. Lead producers Sue Frost and Randy Adams were in London, just about to head back to New York. “We were getting on a plane that morning to come home,” Frost says, “and we both said, What do you want to bet when we get off this plane everything will be shut down?”
For Come From Away, concern over the spread of coronavirus has prompted the temporary closing of no fewer than five productions: Broadway, London, Toronto, Australia and a North American tour. The musical itself — written and composed by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and a Tony winner for director Christopher Ashley — has never seemed more relevant. Based on a true story, Come From Away chronicles a coming together in the wake of tragedy, chronicling the small Canadian town of Gander as it hosts thousands of unexpected visitors when airlines reroute planes there following the 9/11 attacks.
The musical was lauded by critics and a smash with audiences, the Broadway production recouping its $12 million capitalization after only eight months. During Broadway’s last full week prior to the shutdown, Come From Away was one of seven productions at 100% capacity.
Last year, the London production won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
Deadline spoke to producers Frost and Adams to get a sense of what this week has been like from inside a major Broadway production. The following conversation has been edited and slightly condensed.
DEADLINE: You were in London last week when you heard about the shutdown?
SUE FROST: We had gone over on the Saturday before, and we were kinda looking at each other like, Not sure what’s gonna happen, and we got on a plane Thursday morning and said, What do you want to bet that by the time we get off the plane we’ll be shut down? And indeed we were.
RANDY ADAMS: There had been rumblings, so everything just came to a head.
DEADLINE: Can you describe how you felt when you heard the news? First reaction?
FROST: Well, speaking for myself, the actual decision to close was, in a way, a relief because there had been so much anxiety and so much concern about protecting the company and worried about the audience and all of that. It’s like Well, OK, at least now we know what we’re dealing with, as opposed to the crazy uncertainty. That was my feeling. Randy, you may have felt different.
ADAMS: It was obviously unprecedented, and I think it’s still somewhat shocking, but the lead-up to it had been how to make sure we protect the actors going out the stage door and when they’re onstage. And in the theater protecting the audience. So there were a lot of things that were already being dealt with. So in some ways, I think because that anxiety level had been growing each day, hearing about it actually being canceled was as Sue said a sort of relief. You never want to put anybody at risk — that’s not what anyone in theater ever wants to to. Theater is supposed to be a safe haven where people come together, and experience great things together. You just don’t want to put people in a position where they feel they’re ever at risk.
DEADLINE: I’m trying to get a sense of what the financial toll of all this will be, but we have nothing to compare it to. Strikes maybe, but that’s not really the same. And even after 9/11, Broadway shut down for only two days. As producers, what are you looking at here? Do you have insurance? How does this work exactly?
FROST: Every show is different, and that’s the thing that has been so challenging about all of this — every show is different. We have insurance but how long will it take to ultimately pay back? Who knows? I’m sure the insurance companies are being bombarded, but we do have it. And once we were officially shut down by the government, we fell into a force majeure situation. So there are certain protocols to follow.
You know, the day they closed us was our third anniversary, so we’ve been running long enough to have established an audience and establish a brand, and we have an advance and we have money in the bank. So we’re prepared to weather this, but for some of the newer shows that were just kind of getting their feet under them, it’s a very worrisome thing, very worrisome, because they have no traction, you know? As an industry, we have to have to be mindful of what they’re going through.
DEADLINE: What about casts? Do they get paid, or do they have some sort of unemployment insurance? I started to say disability insurance – I don’t even know what to call it.
FROST: Ultimately, we’re waiting to hear what results from the conversations between all of the unions and the Broadway League to see what is expected of the shows. Then we take it from there. We can’t make a determination until we hear from them. Because we’re all trying to work together as a community, as an industry, and trying not to have everyone going off and doing their own thing based on their own particular strengths and weaknesses. You know, the people on our payroll, they’re eventually eligible for unemployment, but again, we just don’t know how it’s all gonna settle down in terms of what we need to do.
ADAMS: That’s all still being worked out at this point. We’re just all waiting to know how to figure it out as we go forward.
DEADLINE: Do you expect to hear by the end of this week?
ADAMS: I hope it’s before then!
FROST: And it’s not just Broadway, it’s the tours. We just shut down five companies, so we’re still sorting it all out.
DEADLINE: Longer view; When the crisis is over, will people be ready to come back? Your show is in a better position, I suppose, than lesser known shows.
FROST: If people are quarantined or self-isolating for weeks I would think they’ll be so stoked to get back to the theater.
ADAMS: Seriously. I’m ready now and it’s only been a couple of days. I could only imagine after four weeks or whatever
FROST: Like, I think people are going to need our story more than ever, and it will be interesting to see how people come together at this time and how they take care of each other, and how all of this evolves.
ADAMS: After 9/11, it was the theaters that really rallied everything, and the government and the city got behind it because it’s such an economic driver in this city. I think many of us are hopeful that a similar kind of thing will happen now, that there will be that New York pride that swells and brings Broadway back to what it has been. But who knows. You never know, right?
DEADLINE: I’ve heard people say this is different than 9/11 because 9/11 wasn’t contagious, but that doesn’t take into account how scared New Yorkers were then – afraid to go into buildings, into the subway. People have short memories.
FROST: Everyone was waiting for the next bomb to hit. Everyone was terrified.
DEADLINE: Tell me about the logistics for touring productions. I’m imagining actors being holed up in hotels…
FROST: They’ve all gone home. By the end of Sunday we’d loaded into our trucks and our trucks were waiting to be told where to go and when. Now everybody’s gone home and wondering the same thing. Everything is happening so quickly. It’s only a matter of time I think before every state says, No people gathering, no crowds, no this, no that. So we’re certainly not sending (the touring production) back out there until we know we’re up and running in all of the venues.
ADAMS: Until we know it’s safe to go back out.
DEADLINE: What are you hearing from your cast members, your crews? What’s the general mood?
FROST: Certainly anxiety but, you know, we’re already seeing people reaching out to each other, people finding ways to communicate. You know, how are we all going to keep communicating and stay together and keep an eye on each other? People are hungry for that. I was reading a really beautiful poem the other day about “reach out with your heart, not with your hand.” I think artists are going to find a way to turn this around and bring us back. We’re going to be led by artists, we’re going to be led by the creative community.
[Director] Chris Ashley wrote a beautiful email to the company talking about the importance of community and taking care of each other. And that’s something that we talked about all the time. So we’re finding that even though people are anxious, they’re also taking care of each other and checking in on each other. And that’s not just our cast, I think that’s the entire community. We’re all looking for ways to keep doing that — we’ve been talking about it ever since we sent people home.
DEADLINE: One last thing. I keep hearing people suggesting Broadway shows could offer livestream performances during the shutdown, but I honestly don’t know how that would work. Would you get the the entire cast together in the theater again for a livestream performance? How does that work out financially or logistically?
FROST: I don’t know how that pays off.
ADAMS: We’ve gotten one request already from a theater company in North Carolina doing Memphis, wondering if they could film it and then send it out to their subscribers and with some kind of link or whatever, because they’ve done all the work, they were just about to open. But, you know, none of that is resolved yet, but I know that people certainly are thinking about it, especially in those limited runs in regional theaters. I think everything’s on the table and hopefully there will be ways for at least some of their work to get seen in some way.
DEADLINE: Would that be possible on Broadway?
FROST: Look, never say never, but it’s not something we’ve been talking about seriously. There’s nothing in place for it. How do you pay people? How you essentially get money back from it. I know there’s pay-per-view, but it takes time and planning, you know. And we’re gonna ask our folks to come in for a couple of days? I mean, camera angles? It doesn’t feel practical to me, but that’s just me.
ADAMS: Never say never, but if it were easy people would have been doing it long before now.