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'Wicked' brings dreams of green; Shea's run stirs debate on economic impact

Shea's Performing Arts Center will be seeing plenty of green over the next four weeks.

This week a touring production of the popular Broadway musical "Wicked" swooped into the theater, bringing with it Elphaba, the green-skinned teenage version of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West in this musical prequel.

The show's monthlong stay also will attract legions of "Wicked" fanatics (and their parents), following the yellow brick road to Shea's from cities across the region, from Syracuse to Toronto. Those fans, in turn, will bring something that lights up the eyes of Broadway producers, Buffalo business owners and tax collectors everywhere: cold, hard cash.

Just how much cash they bring -- and how much stays in the community -- is a subject for debate.

While estimates of the economic activity generated by the shows Shea's brings here range widely and have never been independently studied, here's what we know for sure:

*During the "Wicked" tour's first visit to Western New York in 2008, more than 93,000 people filled Shea's over four weeks.

*During that run, the theater sold 97 percent of all available seats.

*The show racked up $5.7 million in ticket sales, the majority of which went into the coffers of the show's producers.

Beyond that, we enter the somewhat murky world of "economic impact," an inexact science that attempts to estimate the residual benefits that an event like "Wicked" provides to the local economy.

According to Shea's estimates, the 2008 run had a total economic impact on the city of more than $20 million. Half of that figure, Shea's Chief Executive Officer Anthony Conte said, came directly from money spent locally by the show and its cast and crew. The other half, he estimated, came from theatergoers' spending on hotels, restaurants, parking and other services.

The $20 million figure is the same amount that local economic impact expert and Canisius College professor George M. Palumbo estimated as the economic impact of the 2011 World Junior Hockey Tournament, an 11-day event held in Buffalo Dec. 26-Jan. 5.

That tournament sold 350,000 tickets, compared with the musical's 93,000, and drew an estimated 70 percent of its visitors from out of town, while Shea's typically draws 25 percent of its visitors from outside the Buffalo Niagara region.

To put the $20 million estimate in context, a 2006 study of the economic impact of 22 small and large arts organizations, including Shea's, by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, placed the total economic impact of those groups at $264 million. To date, that study, which does not reveal individual economic impacts, is the only rigorous independent measurement of the cultural sector's economic impact in Western New York.

Palumbo, who claimed that estimates of economic impact provided to the media by organizations "are almost all wrong," defines economic impact this way: "The impact of money that wouldn't have been spent here without the event."

He was critical of claims during the World Junior Hockey Tournament that the event would generate $100 million in economic impact.

"If they're going to see the play rather than going to a movie, rather than going to dinner in town, rather than going to a bar, what's the impact? Nothing," Palumbo said.

The real economic benefits come, he said, "if you're bringing people into Buffalo from Rochester or if you're preventing people in Buffalo from going to Toronto to see a show." Those figures can be much more difficult to calculate.

But whether the number is as high as Shea's claims or not, it's clear that "Wicked" will have a significant effect on the local economy.

Albert Nocciolino, Shea's presenting partner and a Broadway producer, who has helped turn the storied venue into a destination for the most popular and lucrative Broadway tours, said the numbers demonstrate the deep and measurable effect of musical theater on the community. He cited a recent report from the Broadway League, an organization of presenting theaters like Shea's across the United States, as further evidence of the arts' ability to boost local economies.

"The economic impact, let alone from the people buying tickets, is so substantial, but we just haven't done a very good job of telling our story. Touring Broadway, in the last study that the [Broadway] League did, contributed over $3.5 billion across America," Nocciolino said. He likes to repeat a story about former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who once bragged that theater there drew more people than the Knicks, Nets, Jets, Giants, Islanders, Mets and Yankees combined.

Something similar, he noted, applies in smaller markets like Buffalo. A 2005 report by UB's Regional Institute noted that attendance at regional art and theater events exceeded attendance for the Bills, Bisons and Sabres combined -- though that number didn't take television audiences into consideration.

"When you go to the theater, you park your car in somebody's parking lot. You eat in somebody's restaurant, you stay at hotels. The show comes to town and hires stagehands. The crew goes to bars and eats chicken wings and drinks beer. On and on and on," Nocciolino said. Toss in the city's other cultural assets, including more than 20 additional theater companies, he said, and "those numbers are pretty significant."

According to Conte, Shea's ticket sales for "Wicked" are "a hair" behind the 2008 run at the same point, but he is expecting the current run to pull in similar numbers. He said he turned down a request for the show to return last year because he was concerned the market would be oversaturated.

Another recent report by the Broadway League noted that out of 167,000 attendees who saw shows at Shea's during the 2008-09 season, 110,000 came from outside the Buffalo metropolitan area. Those visitors, the report said, spent an average of $66 each while here, in addition to the price of their ticket. A recent Shea's survey of theatergoers who saw "Shrek the Musical" found that 70 percent dined downtown before or after the show and 83 percent parked downtown.

When a Broadway tour is parked at Shea's, some of the economic effects are obvious.

At Cabaret, a restaurant directly across the street from Shea's, booking a dinner table on the day of a show is a challenge. Though owner Nadine Lattanzio said her business would likely survive without Shea's and the other theaters on Main Street because of the business lunch crowd, she credits much of her restaurant's success to the city's vibrant theater scene.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"Wicked"

Based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel of the same name, "Wicked" is a musical precursor to "The Wizard of Oz" that takes place largely before Dorothy's arrival in Oz, via tornado.

The plot revolves around the relationship between Elphaba (Jackie Burns, above), an insecure young witch with green skin and a heart of gold who dreams of meeting the fabled Wizard of Oz; and Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper), an impossibly prim and proper witch.

As the show progresses, the two witches grow closer until their relationship sours and the well-known rivalry between good and evil from "The Wizard of Oz" takes shape.