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Rochester Broadway Theatre League celebrates a thirty-year partnership

Albert Nocciolino first helped bring plays to Rochester in 1984

This year’s M&T Bank Rochester Broadway Theatre League season, presented by RBTL and four-time Tony Award–winning producer, Albert Nocciolino, at the Auditorium Theatre, represents a partnership that spans three decades. The first season, which began in the fall of 1984, featured Gigi (with Louis Jourdan), Sophisticated Ladies, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Torch Song Trilogy at the Eastman Theatre.

Dozens of shows have come through town in the years since, including 42nd Street, Cats, Les Misérables, A Chorus Line, The Producers, Disney’s The Lion King, and The Book of Mormon. In total, the partnership has generated more than 2,100 performance nights in Rochester and a subscription base of more than 7,000. The 2013–2014 Broadway season’s lineup includes Ghost, War Horse, Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Sister Act, Once, and a return of the legendary Phantom of the Opera.

Nocciolino sat down with (585) to talk about this historic season of musical theater.

(585): How did you first become associated with the RBTL? 

Nocciolino: Thirty  years ago, I had started presenting Broadway in some other markets in New York State and Pennsylvania. At that time the RBTL was an arm of the Rochester Philharmonic; not many people know that. They were an existing organization, which went under the umbrella of the Philharmonic and then swung back out several years later. That’s how it all started. 

They were looking for someone to come in to be the presenter, and I received the call. So, I agreed to take all the risk and started putting together a Broadway series, like we had done in a few other markets, and we created a sort of joint venture partnership. It was the continuation of a business for me: bringing Broadway shows to places like Binghamton, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania. 

We put the first season together at Eastman Theatre, which is a beautiful place, but you can’t house big Broadway shows on that stage. In the early days we had plays a couple nights at a time. We were testing the market to see how it would respond and soon put together a subscription series.

Early on, we booked Zorba with Anthony Quinn into the Eastman Theatre, thinking we could fit it in. I think we had to leave half the show out in the alley because the stage just wouldn’t fit, and we were completely sold out. That was one of our first full-week engagements. We started to understand that this was something the market could support, so we moved to the next level and eventually moved to the Auditorium. Subsequently the RBTL took over the theater and started to renovate, and now we’re here today. 

(585): What was the status of Broadway touring companies thirty years ago? 

Nocciolino: It was a different environment then. It was pre-Cats and before Phantom of the Opera. The industry in America was having difficult times because you never knew if a show would make it to a community. If it wasn’t doing well the producers would just close it up and take the trucks back to New York. All that changed when you started getting these big, beautiful shows that were duplicates of what was on Broadway. Cats was one of the first, then Annie, A Chorus Line, and all those great productions from the eighties.

With Phantom of the Opera, something significant happened to the industry. All these old performing arts centers that didn’t have the capacity to house the show started blowing out their back walls to be able to fit Phantom and the twenty-some trucks that showed up with it. That took place in many, many cities around the country.

When performing arts centers started doing eight-to-ten weeks of Broadway, dates filled up. With that came a lot of other things, such as an ability to reach out to the community and increase education and outreach. We saw a commitment by producers and presenters to support shows and make sure they happened. As the industry changed, performing arts centers took on a much more significant role in their communities. 

(585): How has Broadway influenced local theater education?

Nocciolino: It’s been nothing less than extraordinary. I think it’s taking place at every level of the arts from opera to the orchestra. Certainly there’s been a commitment in the theater industry, particularly the Broadway touring industry, to use theater as a way to encourage young kids to see live entertainment, to use it as a vehicle for teaching, and for giving them the kind of environment on a limited basis where they can feel good about themselves. Rochester Broadway Theatre League has one of the better education programs in America.

Last year was one of the most exciting moments for me. When Memphis was here this past season we had a barbeque for 300–400 young kids from the urban schools who came to see the show. Some had never seen a Broadway show before. The cast came up and spoke to them; they were more excited that the students to see all these kids in the room. And they had the house rocking during the show. 

It was incredible! The cast could feel it. The kids could feel it. It delivered not only the experience but also an educational component with all the history and story that’s a part of Memphis. That’s what happens when you pull apart a show. 

For example, “I am who I am” is a great message from Shrek, and that became a program at schools when that show was on stage. I’m not doing it enough justice, except to say it has been unbelievable how much the industry has grasped the education component. Now, you don’t come up with a marketing plan for a show without including some sort of educational component.

(585): What is it like for the touring companies to perform here?

Nocciolino: They love coming to Rochester. They like the city because there’s a lot to do here and the community is so supportive. We try to take care of them and be good hosts. The overwhelming response we get from the actors here is how interactive the audiences are. You can hear them laugh or cry or gasp. And they love the fact that Rochester audiences do that. That they get sucked right in and feel like they’re part of the show. 

(585): What can we expect over the next thirty years?

Nocciolino: I think we’ve reached a point here where we’re running on all cylinders. We’ve got it going pretty good; from education and from a programming standpoint, the organization is running the theater beautifully. We just want to continue to grow and build on what we do here. If we can continue to get the kind of support we have been and keep selling out shows, the only thing we’re dependent on is good shows coming out of Broadway. 

Theater is alive and well. The touring industry has never been better. Broadway is hotter than it’s ever been.

We have couples that have been subscription members since the beginning, and they remember seeing a certain show when they got engaged and another when they had their first baby. Creating those memorable experiences is what it’s about. Thirty years is a long time to be in one place, which means we’re all doing something right. 

Jenn Bergin is a freelance journalist and creative consultant. She lives in Rochester, works in Manhattan, and travels to obscure points in between.

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