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NPR Arts & Life

Broadway To Sandy: The Show Is Back On

Superstorm Sandy starting hitting New York on Monday. By Wednesday, life had returned to the Time Square theater district.
Superstorm Sandy starting hitting New York on Monday. By Wednesday, life had returned to the Time Square theater district.

One of New York's biggest economic engines reopened on Wednesday after being dark in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Broadway brings in more than $1 billion in annual ticket sales and billions more in revenue from hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the Times Square area. But getting Broadway running, with much of the transportation system down, required some extreme measures.

Charlotte St. Martin is president of The Broadway League, the association of Broadway theaters and producers. Her commute from Manhattan normally takes 15 or 20 minutes. On Wednesday, it took an hour and a half.

"There are very few times that Broadway goes dark," St. Martin says. "There's this amazing tradition with Broadway, it's probably been in place for over 100 years — we all believe the show must go on. It's just got to go on. When Sept. 11 occurred, Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani said 'You've got to get Broadway back up; it's a symbol of New York.' "

A symbol, sure, but not everyone who works on Broadway — the actors, musicians, stagehands and even reporters — lives within walking distance. And on Wednesday there were no trains, very few buses and massive traffic jams. I hopped on my bike and rode the eight miles from Brooklyn to the theater district. I dodged traffic on the streets and pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge, and was greeted by the eerie spectacle of seeing lower Manhattan, Chinatown and Greenwich Village virtually empty.

Then, all of a sudden, at 26th Street and Sixth Avenue, there were traffic lights and open shops. About another mile uptown, at the TKTS booth, where people can buy discounted tickets to Broadway shows, the line was long. It seemed like a lot of those in line were tourists who were stuck in Manhattan.

"My best friend, this is her first trip to New York City," says New Yorker Sabra Gertsch. "Her flight was cancelled and so, darn it, here we're in line, buying tickets for a Broadway show. Because of the hurricane, we were able to get in to see The Book of Mormon, which I've tried countless times to get in to see."

When Hurricane Irene hit last year, Broadway suffered a loss of about $10 million from cancelled shows. St. Martin doesn't think it will be as bad this time because everyone mobilized on phones, the Internet and even knocking on doors to make sure cast and crew could make their Wednesday matinees.

"It was all about finding the employees — the actors, stagehands, electricians, etc. — to ensure that the show could go on because many of them were without power," she says. "And so we spent all day finding that out and almost every single show did come back up today."

The cast for Chaplin made its matinee. Among them was Leslie Flesner, who was scheduled to fill in for an actress on her honeymoon. Flesner lives in Astoria, Queens, and couldn't get a cab to take her to Manhattan, so she had to hoof it.

"My only option was to walk the Queensboro Bridge," she says. "It was like, I've never done this before — this is awesome! I had to walk from my apartment to the Queensboro Bridge, which is quite a walk — it's about 25 to 30 minutes — and then walk the Queensboro Bridge, with hundreds of other Astorians, which was kind of cool. We all came together to get to work. And [I] walked the Queensboro Bridge to the entrance on 59th Street and then walked to work. It was like two hours of walking."

Followed, of course, by two hours of dancing. Erikka Walsh, who plays the ex-girlfriend in Once, had an even longer commute; 24 hours before her matinee, she was in Frankfurt, Germany.

"I was supposed to fly out on Monday, for my honeymoon, come back to the show on Tuesday night and we got cancelled," she says. "And somehow, everything was booked until Friday and one person was like, 'Put them on that Philadelphia flight!' "

She rented a car to get to her powerless home in New Jersey, then rented another car to get into the city and made it to her matinee with 15 minutes to spare. Walsh says even though it was a smaller-than-usual crowd, the show got a standing ovation at the end.

"Everybody seemed to really enjoy themselves," she says. "That's all you can ask for, especially in the midst of a disaster."

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