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‘Finding Neverland’ national tour opens in the Queen City

Shea’s Performing Arts Center is no stranger to history.

In its nine decades of hosting performances, the ornate Main Street landmark has welcomed show business legends such as the Marx Brothers and Frank Sinatra to its stage, while millions of patrons have filled its seats. It will take the spotlight again this fall, when Finding Neverland kicks off its first national Broadway tour to begin in Buffalo.

“It’s very exciting for the city of Buffalo, Western New York and Shea’s in particular to be the first stop, to actually launch the tour,” said Albert Nocciolino, co-presenter of the Broadway Series at Shea’s for the past 27 years. “To be the first city on the tour, it’s very significant to the reputation of the theater and to the city.”

“It does nothing but add to the rightful narrative that Buffalo is a place where art and culture happens,” said Tod Kniazuk, executive director of the Arts Services Initiative of Western New York, a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes local and regional cultural arts. “For audiences here, it’s great. We’re seeing it as soon as they launch. We’re seeing it fresh.”

Not only do Shea’s audiences get first crack at the touring production of the story of playwright J. M. Barrie and the family that inspired him to create Peter Pan, but Buffalo gets an economic shot in the arm. According to the most recent study conducted by The Broadway League, touring Broadway shows contributed a cumulative $3.2 billion to the economies of metro areas hosting shows in 2012-13, with each show generating an economic impact of approximately 3.4 times the theater’s gross ticket sales. Locally, the touring Broadway series generates about $25 million annually for the Buffalo area, according to figures from Shea’s. That includes the cost of producing a show, as well as ancillary spending from audiences for dining, transportation, parking, lodging, etc.

And, as the city where the touring show is built before striking out on a 50-city, 77-week nationwide tour, Buffalo stands to share an even greater piece of the pie. The crew comes in weeks before the first performance to start getting the show ready, renting out the theater, making costumes, building sets and hiring stagehands. The cast and rehearsals follow. All the while, the entire team is staying, eating and spending in the local community. Depending on the show, the cast and crew could number close to 100, with another 50 or so local hires to help with the production, who are also likely to pour their additional income back into the local economy.

“They will spend a lot of money, maybe a couple million dollars, while they get the show ready to launch,” said Nocciolino.

If serving as the build site for a show is such a financial windfall, how did “Finding Neverland” end up in Buffalo? A number of reasons, including Nocciolino and outgoing Shea’s president Tony Conte, a significant New York State tax credit, and Harvey Weinstein.

Buoyed by the success of a film tax credit worth about $400 million annually, Nocciolino and Conte successfully lobbied New York legislators to adopt a similar measure for theater productions. Passed in 2014, the Empire State Music and Theatrical Production Tax Credit Program provides an incentive for producers to choose upstate gems such as Shea’s as their pre-tour home. Up to $4 million in credits can be allocated each year, which no doubt sweetened the deal for Weinstein (he is producer of Finding Neverland?), who is bringing the show to his former hometown as lead producer.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s a relatively easy commute from New York City to Buffalo.

“We lobbied elected officials, and we were very successful in getting them to understand what it means for local communities,” Nocciolino said. “Shows win, theaters win, vendors win and jobs are created. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Plus, it strengthens the local theater scene.

“If shows are built here, that means we’re getting them in the first year of touring the nation. That’s a matter of prestige and a matter of supply and demand, and it connects us back to Broadway,” said Kniazuk. “To me, it’s nothing but a good thing. In the cultural sector, just like every other economic sector, there’s the large, the small, the medium, the community based… we need all of them doing well and pushing forward and finding new opportunities. What the state did, thanks to the advocacy of people in the field like Al and Tony, that’s nothing but good news for us as we continue to push the sector forward.”

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