Buffalo, hold onto your Bibles.
To cap off its 25th season of Broadway musicls, Shea's Performing Arts Center is bringing the most popular show to hit Broadway in recent memory. "Book of Mormon," the breathless, outrageous and profanity-laden send-up of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and composer Robert Lopez, will come to Shea's for a one-week run on June 11, 2013. The "Book of Mormon" tour, one of only two small-market engagements in the tour's first year (the other is in Rochester) will conclude perhaps the most buzzworthy season of Broadway musicals in the theater's storied history.
That season gets started on Sept. 25 with another irrepressibly popular production that has drawn mammoth crowds on Broadway and in Toronto, "Billy Elliot The Musical." It will be followed by a pre-Broadway tour of "Jekyll & Hyde," the return of "White Christmas" and the Buffalo debuts of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and "Sister Act."
Among the special engagements on Shea's schedule are the return of "Jersey Boys" for a three-week run next May, a three-day run of Blue Man Group in February and the return of Neglia Ballet's popular "Nutcracker" production in November.
The season, which includes three of the four nominees for best musical in last year's Tony Awards, promises to draw a record number of subscribers and to bolster Shea's already industry-leading position as the most lucrative one-week engagement for touring Broadway shows in the United States.
Albert Nocciolino, the producer who brought Shea's its first Broadway subscription series in 1987 and has continued to strengthen the Buffalo-Broadway relationship over the past quarter-century, reflected on Shea's enviable position in the industry.
"They've done nothing less than a spectacular job at turning Shea's into a showcase facility," Nocciolino said. "The community has totally embraced it -- trusted us -- and here's the result."
An article in the New York Times late last year focused on the success of Shea's as a highly coveted one-week tour stop for Broadway's biggest properties, a position forged by years of hard work by the theater's past and present directors, the City of Buffalo and the community at large.
Nocciolino explained the theater's appeal in Broadway circles.
"When shows go on the road, producers take risks, as we do," Nocciolino said. "Their goal is to try and play the best markets in the country as early as possible so they can recover their money. When you go to a market like Buffalo with 13,000 subscribers, and before you even go on sale you're sitting at better than 60 percent of capacity, that's not a bad way to begin."
The culmination of Nocciolino's 25 years as a co-producer of Shea's Broadway season, he said, came this year with the theater's hosting of the "Les Miserables" 25th anniversary production.
"We sold out four weeks in advance. We spent a fraction of our advertising dollars. On several of the tours around the country right now, we have the highest grosses," he continued. "We can deliver grosses, even though we keep the prices lower, and that translates to producers wanting to come here. Look, it's not an accident. We're most often on the first year of every tour, and if we're not, it's by choice."
Much to the surprise of Nocciolino and Anthony Conte, Shea's stalwart president and CEO, the number of annual subscribers has grown far beyond expectations. Asked whether Shea's has a maximum target in mind for subscribers, Conte responded in a genuinely astonished tone.
"Yeah, it was 12,000. We're there. Albert and I just shake our heads every year and say, 'OK, how much higher can this go?' "
>A steady climb
Twenty-five years ago, the more appropriate question might have been "How much lower can this go?"
In 1987, though it had escaped the threat of demolition, Shea's was a struggling institution. The theater was being booked by Harvey & Corky Corp., a cash-strapped promotion company that drew the ire of the producers of a tour of "Cats," who threatened to pull out of the engagement midrun. That production was saved at the last moment by a $50,500 loan from the Shea's board.
Nocciolino was sent to Buffalo by the "Cats" producers to straighten things out. He ended up forging a relationship with the theater's recently appointed director, Patrick Fagan, with whom he built the theater into a major draw for audiences and popular Broadway productions alike.
For its first Broadway subscription series, the theater racked up a grand total of 894 subscribers, Fagan recalled. Its first three shows -- "Cabaret," "Me and My Girl" and "Elvis: An American Musical" -- lost money, Nocciolino said. But he and Fagan were undeterred.
"We didn't just come flying out of the box, we certainly had to build trust and credibility and convince people that we were going to be there for a while," Nocciolino said. "The next year got better and it just kept going year after year. We never went backwards, we just kept going up."
For Nocciolino and Fagan, it was a slow and steady climb to prominence, with only a few minor stumbling blocks along the way. Under Fagan's leadership and with major help from the City of Buffalo and other public and private sources, Shea's underwent a major expansion of its stage house in 1997 that allowed it to bring in larger shows. It reopened the theater with a production of "Phantom of the Opera" in May 1999.
"We were flying after that," Fagan said.
Shea's success is helped by economic and regional factors specific to Western New York, Nocciolino and Conte agreed. First of all, Western New Yorkers have a deep-seated season-ticket mentality, accustomed as they are to buying blocks of tickets for Bills and Sabres games. Second, Conte said, and perhaps even more important, is the theater's growing regional reach, which extends far beyond Erie County toward Rochester and into Southern Ontario.
As for the fear of competition from Broadway shows running in nearby Toronto? That's history.
"People [from Western New York] don't go there to see Broadway anymore. In fact, it's the other way around," Conte said. "With the dollar at par, our ticket prices are almost half their ticket prices, and everything else is a lot more expensive. So you get people, especially in St. Catharines and Hamilton and Burlington, it's quicker and easier to come here, and a hell of a lot less expensive."
In Toronto, subscriptions to Mirvish's six-show 2012-13 subscription season range from $129 for a weekday matinee subscription in the cheap seats to $589 for Saturday night orchestra or front balcony seats. Shea's, whose shows rarely include weekday matinees, offers season tickets from $199 to $430. Single tickets, however, are often a more obvious bargain. A top-tier orchestra seat for Shea's recent production of "Les Miserables," for instance, was $73.50 (before taxes and fees), while a top-tier orchestra seat for Toronto's current production of "War Horse" is well over $100.
Thanks to the success of Broadway tours, the restoration of the theater -- which remains the central mission of the Shea's organization -- has entered its final phase, which could be complete within two to three years. A major announcement concerning the long-planned reopening and operating agreement between Shea's and 712 Main St., the former Studio Arena Theatre, will likely come within 45 days, according to Conte.
Except for a recent controversay that arose this week over the theater's treatment of its volunteer ushers, Shea's is sitting pretty -- both as a local gem and a national success story.
"Without Shea's, there wouldn't be a downtown, period. We are, to use a sports term, in the major leagues of Broadway presenting. That's a tribute to the community, it's a tribute to Nocciolino, it's a tribute to all of our partners, public and private, who've helped us put this together," Fagan said. "We've realized a dream."