Peekaboo Festivals Offer Glimpse At New Music and Acting Talents

Outside, a sweeping panoramic view of Central Park shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the former art gallery. Inside, the soulful voice of a young vocalist named Reese fills the room with driving energy. And 10 stories below, in the Mark Goodson Theatre, a crisp foursome of actors sprints through a reading of Jeffrey Sweet's acerbic comedy "With or Without."

Two industrial-sized elevators, plastered with musicians' photos, publicity flyers, performance posters, and program schedules, haul record-company executives in business suits, struggling singers in torn jeans with guitars slung over their shoulders, and Broadway veterans eager to experience a new discovery.

The first annual Peekaboo Festivals, held recently here, brought together nearly 2,000 attendees seeking to display their talents and make connections with others who share their dream.

First-time showcase

Organized by former entertainment attorney Benjamin Strouse, the event was conceived as "a showcase for what's new in theater and music."

Mr. Strouse, recognizing that there was no place where young artists, playwrights, singers, and composers could come together, began looking for talent months ago. He also lined up corporate sponsors, secured the cooperation of the music and dramatists unions, and garnered the support of New York City's Cultural Affairs Department.

"Aside from a handful of music-industry conferences, which are usually about showcasing already-signed talent from the major labels, there was nothing for new talent," Strouse explains, pointing out that only 5 percent of those performing had already signed with a major label.

"Another 40 percent had signed with a small, independent label, leaving more than half who were not affiliated with anybody."

Young performers are often moved to renting a slot in downtown clubs' performing schedules to get themselves noticed - so-called "pay and play" dates.

Strouse hopes that Peekaboo will become for music and theater what the Sundance festival has become for independent films: the definitive showcase where good new independent work is presented to be picked up by distributors.

And so far, Peekaboo has shown promise. Since the festival, musical acts Reese and Common Cents, among many others, have been pursued by promoters who saw them perform. Theater producers are also interested in mounting Broadway-bound productions of two plays staged at Peekaboo. And Music Theatre International has shown interest in helping to finance the Southern-blues musical "Long Road Home," which had its full-length premire at Peekaboo.

The twin festivals, running concurrently from noon to midnight during a seven-day period, brought together more than 100 musical performers, 12 theatrical presentations, and 21 informational panels. They were held in two former art galleries and a theater in a skyscraper facing New York's Columbus Circle.

On any given day of the festival, participants could sample readings of a new comedy or a new musical, listen to performances by more than a dozen singers, and attend authoritative panels analyzing the problems faced by new artists. Music acts ranged from eclectic funk ("Sound Liberation") to grass-roots jazz ("Dick Fawcett").

Trend spotting

As a sounding board for the future, two panels on Peekaboo's final day assessed what may lie ahead. "Trends in the Music Business," featuring record producers, the director of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammy people), and record company executives, concluded that they could not predict music styles to come, but conceded that "techno" music is making an impact.

They pointed to a different kind of trend: the explosion of self-produced albums. "You can make your own CD now for under $1,000," notes Freddie Patterson, creative manager of Warner/Chappell Music.

This phenomenon has flooded the market with products of all kinds, from rock and country to hip-hop and soul, straining distribution channels and pressuring radio stations to absorb far more potential material than ever before.

CDs on the Internet

And because many new young bands avail themselves of computer network technology to get their sound out, veteran record producer Rich Gottehrer added that "listeners can go direct to the source. The Internet lets you sample this new stuff. And then, you can download it and buy it for $8."

"In the early 1980s, you could do a Broadway show for $200,000," recalls producer Rhoda Herrick. That same amount can barely finance an off-Broadway offering today. And Tony Adams, one of the "Victor/Victoria" producers, adds that that sum equals about two weeks of marketing and promotion for his show.

Adams acknowledges, however, that the prominence of the "mega-musical" seems to be ebbing, with only one show this season, "Titanic," fitting into that category.

One crossover development between music and theater involves the creation of a "concept album" in which music for an as-yet unproduced show is recorded and marketed, generating interest in the show, and revenue toward its production. The new musical "Jekyll & Hyde" toured the United States for two years, and yielded two albums. While not yet an official "trend," panelists agreed, it does merit watching.

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