When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Broadway star Sharon Wheatley did what any other parent would do: she packed up her wife, Martha, children Charlotte and Tobi, an assortment of pets and traveled across America in a rented RV. Along the way, Sharon and her family forged even stronger bonds built on grit and love. We spoke to Sharon about their collective journey, her return to Broadway in Come From Away as New York City came to life once again, and how even the smallest acts of kindness can create miracles.
Sharon, your book, Drive, is so, so good.
I had a lot of fun writing it. I knew when Come From Away shut down, I needed something to do. I’m not saying something that a million other people didn’t feel. It’s what everyone felt in the days surrounding March 12 and how we all had to find our way through this. This is my journey, but it speaks to anyone going through a hard time and how you get through it with grit and humor. I knew that I wanted to write about that and show it to my kids.
A recurring theme in the book is this idea of: “The show must go on”. Obviously, it’s a wink and a nod to your Broadway background, but what does it mean to you personally?
Sometimes the show must go on; your life must go on. And the thing that I know is that when something happens, all those little eyeballs turn and they look at you. It’s like, “What do we do now?” Blink blink, blink blink. There are a lot of ways to do this, and I’m gonna pick the most fun way. We’re going big, but that’s what my parents did. My parents did broad stroke fun. I didn’t know all the details, but there’s so much that no one knows right now, so let’s go find it. So that’s what we did.
There’s something so Americana and dreamy about a road trip. Had you ever done one before?
No! And I never wanted to do one before. I had a total idea of who RVed in this country, and those people did not look like us. Me, my wife, my two kids, and the four pets weren’t the type to roll up into an RV park, nor did I know how you’d find such a thing.
What would you say, apart from a stronger family bond, that you got out of the road trip?
I learned — it’s going to sound dumb — but I learned so much about America, and the people. Martha and I have this in common — we both come from really conservative backgrounds. We are not conservative people but we have an appreciation for that. There’s something about living in the middle of Manhattan and working on Broadway that can feel like a bubble. So we actively pursued going out and meeting new people and finding new ways of living. Here, I have an 11 minute walk from my apartment to the theater and that’s six days a week.
It was scary because if you believe what you see on the news, it’s easy to think that people might not be welcoming and kind to each other if they look different or if they have a different family belief. And it was absolutely not the case; we never ran into that. People are nicer than you think they’re going to be if you watch the news all the time. They helped us because it was so obvious that this was a rental RV, it was covered in signage — you could see it from space.
I love this line from the book: “If you are somewhere in the middle of nowhere, don’t doubt. Drive.” What does this mean to you?
I have a friend who is no longer with us, and he would say, “Move a muscle, change a thought.” I think it’s that. That’s sort of my book version of that. If something is going on and you are in despair or uncertain or unsettled, just move. It doesn’t have to be a big move. Just do something different; it might be to take a walk or maybe trying Ethiopian food today. Welcome the change it brings into your life.
What do you think would have happened had you not gone on this journey?
I was mostly worried about depression big time. Every time they announced that Broadway was going to extend again, I became aware that I was going to have a solid 24 hours where getting out of bed was going to be difficult for me. Because I love my job, and I love my people at my work. To not get to go there and do that was devastating. That was my biggest fear, even more than illness — I was worried about all of us sitting and ruminating with the fear of what was going on.
Covid has brought a lot of tragedy, but I think it has also brought a lot of light. People invested more in family, just like you invested in yours.
I told my family, “I don’t know how this is going to go. It could be good, it could be bad, but it will be good or bad together, and we’ll have a story to tell at the end of it.” And it was both good and bad; there were good and bad days. Family became the ride or die again. During it, I was so aware that this was borrowed time, and that this was a special time. I told Martha, “I don’t want this pandemic to end and for us to say, ‘We didn’t do anything.’” I wanted to teach my kids how to have fun and be resilient.
And I like the word grit. Teach your kids grit. It’s different from resilience, somehow. Grit is, “I have a problem, and I’m going to muscle through it. I’m going to find the good, and I’m going to get out on the other side, and be like, ‘Yeah, I did that!’”
Resilience, to me, is like the ability to buoy through it, not necessarily fix it, but just survive it.
Exactly. We definitely didn’t float on a raft; we dove deep down, and swam through the swamp! “Where are we now?!” “I don’t know!”
We went back September 21 of 2021. We closed over the most lucrative holiday, in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I have a friend who’s a doctor, and I tell him, “I don’t need to watch the news. In terms of Covid, we are the front line.” That said, I think audiences are super safe. I am not hearing that people are getting Covid at a show. We have Covid safety measures in place.
What do you have planned for the future?
I’m writing a new book. I really learned that, moving forward, I want to do a lot more writing. I’m really enjoying the freedom of creating my own story. I want to create things that I can then perform in. I’m shopping Drive right now to be either a television show or a film, so that’s actively happening. I think that’s me wanting to normalize our family. I think there’s space for this on television right now. It’s a love story; it’s funny and it’s real.
I’m still so focused on Come From Away. I don’t feel like my time is over with that show yet. I’m inviting people to come back to Broadway and New York City; it’s time. We’ve all worked way too hard for audiences to be afraid to come back in. There are so many people working to make sure that everyone is protected.
How long have you been doing Come From Away?
I started in 2015 at the first professional production in La Jolla, CA. I have been with the show for seven years. I can tell you because I’ve done lots of long-running shows, that this one is different, obviously because I created it and we all created it, and there are still many original cast members in the show. They are my best friends and I love them all. We nip at each other like brothers and sisters. We’ve been at it and together for so long. So to ride this wave of being in the show that is about something so loaded and difficult for so many people (which is everything surrounding 9/11) but to be able to carry the message of kindness and pride in kindness is a beautiful thing. To be able to show people a side of 9/11 that they didn’t know existed, and to say, “Yes this was all terrible and in this space, something beautiful was happening”, that’s a great thing.
That’s what is happening now. Finding those beautiful moments.
There’s this one moment in Come From Away, and it’s the tiniest moment in “Costume Party”, which is one of the songs. Someone is talking about the clothes that they’ve had on, because they have to sleep on the plane for 28 hours and all these people in Newfoundland are greeting them as they come off the airplane with clothing and food. One of the guys says, “I wanted to burn my socks,” and immediately there’s another guy from Newfoundland handing him a pair of socks, and I see it in my peripheral vision, and I think the same thing every night: It’s that simple. People are like, “I don’t know how to be nice, how do you start?” It starts with a pair of socks. It’s so small, it doesn’t have to be big, and you don’t have to be kind all day long. It takes practice; a kindness practice. But once you master it, it’s amazing.