Theater in WNY / Planning the Shea’s season
Shea’s president and CEO Michael Murphy
Photos by kc kratt
It’s appropriate that Shea’s Performing Arts Center just presented Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, because the season subscription has become Buffalo’s own golden ticket. Excitement is at an all-time high, with Buffalonians posting photos to social media when their tickets arrived in the mail. The Broadway series is a classic win-win story: a history of high quality shows attracts a huge number of subscribers, who, in turn, attract the most coveted tours.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
“That’s for sure,” laughs Al Nocciolino, president and CEO, NAC Entertainment. “There is a big difference in where we were even ten years ago and where we are today.” Though Nocciolino works in multiple cities, Western New Yorkers consider him one of their own for his work turning Shea’s into a nationally recognized tour powerhouse.
“Because of the amount of money at risk in producing shows, producers look for a place to generate the most ticket sales,” he explains. “Producers know when they go to Buffalo that we have 12,000 to 15,000 subscribers, which is attractive, because we already have so many tickets sold in advance.”
That dynamic has helped Shea’s secure shows right from Broadway, such as the upcoming Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, which have seventeen Tony awards between them. “It starts with our relationships with producers—because we have worked with them before, or raised money for them, or invested in them,” Nocciolino says. “As a result, we have that opportunity to be at the table, and we have something substantial to offer, which is an outstanding subscription base.”
So just what do Nocciolino and Shea’s president and CEO Michael Murphy look for in a season? Nocciolino provides an overview: “Our goal is to get the best of the new shows—we have a responsibility to get those to Buffalo as soon as we can. We also think family shows are very important; subscribers will bring their children and grandchildren into the theater for the first time. This is audience development.”
Finally, he remarks, Buffalo loves the classics—shows they know. Shows like Phantom, Wicked, Mamma Mia!, and Lion King have helped build audience in Buffalo: “Hopefully, they make you want to try more and keep coming back.”
“It’s all a balance,” Murphy agrees. “It is not always easy to find the combination of those three things each season but that is our plan. This season looks just like that—new (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen), family (Aladdin, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and classics (Fiddler on the Roof and Miss Saigon).”
With all the publicity, newcomers may think the 2018-19 season is an anomaly, but subscribers know that recent seasons have consistently been very strong. “Every show can’t be better than the last one,” Nocciolino concedes. “But our subscribers trust us. They know we’re going to bring quality shows.”
Timing is everything
With lucrative tour models in place, Nocciolino has observed that national tours are being planned earlier. “We were having conversations about Mean Girls opening its national tour in Buffalo before the show had its official opening on Broadway,” he points out. “At that point, you do not even know if the show is going to be a hit.” Tina Fey and team not only decided to open the tour and tech in Buffalo—the fourth show to do so since Albany amended the New York State tax credit program—but she also announced it at the Broadway League’s annual Spring Road Conference in New York City in mid-May.
“What I like about the new shows that are coming along is how much broader the audiences are,” Nocciolino says. “This past year on Broadway, the average age was lower than it has ever been. That is great for us on the road as well. To have shows that appeal not only to the average theatergoer but also to young people and to people who have never been to the theater? It’s spectacular for everybody. And that is part of what’s happening in our business.”
As he enters his third season, Shea’s Murphy continues to make clear that he wants to be a partner and collaborator, as exemplified by Shea’s 710’s upcoming production of The Three Musketeers, a collaboration with Road Less Traveled Productions, Theatre of Youth, MusicalFare, and Irish Classical Theatre Company. He has been generous with space, time, and resources, offering 710 to local theaters and providing a home to Second Generation Theatre at Smith Theatre.
In 2017, Shea’s 710 began hosting the Artie awards, becoming home base for the Buffalo theater community’s biggest celebration. He has supported the casts of national tours performing cabarets at Alleyway and promoted collections as part of the Red Ribbon Campaign for the ECMC Immunodeficiency Clinic.
“Michael has been available to everyone in the theater community and entirely open to collaboration,” said Anthony Chase, host/founder of the Artie Awards and host of WBFO’s Theater Talk. “The hugely successful transition of the Artie Awards to WBFO|WNED could not have happened without his leadership and unhesitating support.”
When he is not welcoming guests to Shea’s, Murphy can often be found at the other theaters in town. “I love theater, and it is important to get to know the players in town,” he says. “To know who we want to collaborate with.”
Having spent thirteen years of his two-decades-plus theater career at the Old Globe in San Diego, Murphy has experience running a campus of theaters, and it’s one of the reasons Shea’s—also with three theaters—was so attractive to him.
Shea’s 710 Theatre
Like the Performing Arts Center, Shea’s 710 season has a good mix of shows, says Murphy, who knows that the former Studio Arena space has special meaning for the community. “We have a determination to keep the theater as a viable asset for the community,” he says.
The season opens in November with The Three Musketeers, a family show and the aforementioned collaboration that Murphy sees as a harbinger of the 710’s future. “We hope we continue to have a [different] group of theaters co-produce one show a year at 710. I love the idea of new collaborations, creating something none of us can do on our own, with increased production values and hopefully attracting a diverse audience.”
The holiday show, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, produced by Road Less Traveled Productions, gives the audience characters they know from Pride and Prejudice in a new show. RLTP will also present Almost, Maine, one of the most produced plays across the country. Says Murphy, “It is a sweet, heartwarming show—perfect for Valentine’s Day.”
After the rousing success of Ring of Fire a few years ago, MusicalFare brings back its sold-out Million Dollar Quartet. The season closes with the Tony-winning Fun Home, another MusicalFare production. Like last year’s Spring Awakening, this is a show “that we might not be able to do on the mainstage, for an audience that is hungry for those shows,” Murphy says.
What are the factors involved in producing shows at 710?
• “Building an audience there is a challenge. We love partnering with other theaters, and we want to build the circle of theaters we partner with.”
• Cost. Since Shea’s 710 is a union shop, production costs are higher. Collaborations like The Three Musketeers allow theaters to share the costs.
• Crossover potential. “Can we bring more of the Shea’s audience into 710?”
Although Shea’s 710 is the second largest theater space-wise (625 seats), it is also in some ways the new kid on the block. “Other theaters have their own missions and specialties, and some may be in competition with each other. We don’t want to be in that fray. We are looking to be complementary but also add variety.”
It’s going to take trial and error and experimentation, like the collaboration between Shea’s 710 and the Shaw Festival, which saw Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Master Harold… and the boys transfer to 710 from Niagara-on-the-Lake. “We were super excited about Master Harold last season, but we have to figure out a model that works more economically with Shaw,” Murphy laments. “Their season runs from early spring to late fall and the show that makes the most sense in the schedule may not be the one that makes the most sense to take on the road. We are going to spend more time exploring this with them in the future.”
After five years of producing at New Phoenix Theatre and Lancaster Opera House, Second Generation Theatre is the resident theater company at Smith, the third venue under the Shea’s umbrella. Murphy believes that SGT’s season of two regional premiere musicals—Big Fish and Nine—and one timely important drama, Angels in America: the Millennium Approaches, will be an asset to Shea’s. “We hope that this becomes a long-term arrangement,” he says. “We also have the option of using 710 in the future if that makes sense.”
Another local theater, O’Connell & Company is bringing back popular characters for its three productions at Smith. Betsy Carmichael unwraps her holiday show, The Kathy & Mo Show: Parallel Lives brings us the familiar comediennes in new scenarios and Joey Bucheker reprises An Act of God. “O’Connell & Company has a great following and [artistic director] Mary Kate [O’Connell] has brought her very dedicated audience to their productions here,” Murphy says.
To close with an idea of what is possible at 710 and the Smith, Murphy talks about a season at the three-venue Old Globe. “The Globe set the bar for creating a season on a campus with different theaters and buildings. In addition to Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, which originated at the Globe, we had three Shakespeares, five shows on the arena stage, five shows in the proscenium house, and our annual production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The season was truly bigger than the sum of the schedules at the individual theaters because we also had events connected to the productions as well as a pipeline of works in development. For example, when we did Allegiance, we had a historical exhibit nearby on the Japanese internment and we had 6,000 people visit it.”
Sounds like Michael Murphy is just getting started.