STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Sundance East?

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Sundance East?
I have been so busy," says Benjamin Strouse, "that when someone told me that Annie had been fired, I had to admit I hadn't heard about it."

I have been so busy," says Benjamin Strouse, "that when someone told me that Annie had been fired, I had to admit I hadn't heard about it."

All right, even though some papers put the firing on their front pages, people do get tied up and miss the news for a day or two. But here's the thing: Benjamin Strouse is Charles Strouse's son.

OK, maybe the production is taking the we have-no-comment stance to the extreme. But chances are that if Father had called Son with the news, he might not have been able to get through. Because Strouse the Younger has been on the horn for the last nine months, getting everything ready for what he enjoys calling "The East Coast version of the Sundance Festival for new music and theater."

The formal name that Strouse has given his project is the Peekaboo Festivals of New Music and Theater. "Peekaboo is the name of my company, which is an interactive network for music and theater. I wanted a word that said something new, and was attention-getting. So I looked through my thesaurus, and came up with Peekaboo. When people hear it, they ask, 'Is it about children, or is it about porn?' Neither," he insists. "We're a company that wants to give people a sneak peek at what's new in music and theater."

So, April 2-8 at 2 Columbus Circle (that ol' Huntington Hartford monstrosity at 59th and Broadway), Peekaboo will offer a week-long showcase. "We'll have the Gauguin Lounge at the top of the building for the songwriters and singers. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC have chosen their brightest young stars. The City Gallery on the second floor will be turned into a club-like space for bands. And the Mark Goodson Theater, a 160 seater, we'll use for staged readings." It's happening because Strouse made a bevy of phone calls, and got the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs to come aboard. Ditto NARAS, ASCAP, and even Skyy Vodka. He signed Elizabeth Thomas to help with the music end, and Kristine Niven to coordinate the theater portion.

"We'll have people giving technology demonstrations, too," Strouse says. In fact, the event will be simulcast on the Internet, on our website,," he said without a second's hesitation. That, incidentally is not to be confused with Peekaboo's website -- "which is www.i-see, a site for professionals to network with each other and collaborate. The ability to collaborate on-line isn't quite there yet technologically," he concedes, "nor are there that many artists on-line yet. But there will be. The Internet is a way for people in London and Anchorage to meet and strike up collaborations.

"For music, the showcase will provide bands and songwriters associations with record companies, managers, and publishers who can take them to the next level. For theater, many musicals and their creators are looking to have their works heard by record companies, and positioned as vehicles for pop stars. The music business is a $35 billion industry. Theater's about 10 percent of that. But Disney and Livent, among other companies, are changing that. They're beginning to use theater as a platform to launch works and exploit them -- in the legal sense of the word -- in other media. Broadway is now a starting point rather than a final destination."

The Festival has another goal. "When you have different formats under one roof," explains Strouse, "you have industry and fans passing by, and that could be the first step in creating a crossover hit."

Sandwiched in between will be many panel discussions. "Actors, Directors, Choreographers, Musicians and New Media." "Do Women Want Broadway? Does Broadway Want Women?" "Composer/Author/Lyricist Collaborations. (Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Jack Viertel of Time and Again will appear on that.) And there'll be one on "The Direction of Musical Theater" (April 8 at 2:30). Moderating -- which is, to paraphrase Pseudolus, a role of enormous variety and nuance, and played by an actor of such ... let me put it this way: I play the moderator.

"If you're interested in copyright issues," says Strouse, "the United States Register of Copyrights, Mary Beth Peters -- the number one person who is copyrights -- will be there. Lots of A&R people from many record companies will too, and, of course, people who have a sheer love and interest in musical theater.

"For this is not an industry-only conference," he wants to stress. "We'll have schmoozing and networking, but the larger component is showcasing new work and bringing attention to them. Almost 400 performers over the week, and 150 live events."* And while many of us who are Playbill On-Line fans may be inclined to skip such musical acts as The Hotheads, Knuckle Sandwich, Kenny Young and the Eggplants, or Cherokee Sex Workshop, we will have those readings to keep our attention. In the category of musical theater, we'll have Long Road Home, co-written by Barry Harman of Romance/Romance and Olympus on My Mind fame; Me and Ceasar Lee, where Pat Holley and I.B. Daniels tell of a songwriter who attempts a comeback with the younger generation; and Gina's Parole, Corinne Aquilina and Tony Jerris's musical about which I keep hearing good things.

Among the straight plays are Dementia Americana by Cheryl L. Davis, who did that wonderful Color of Justice for Theatreworks USA last summer. Here she'll tackle "the murder scandal of the century." There's Jeff (I Sent a Letter to My Love) Sweet's new one-acter, With and Without, and John Montieth -- that wonderful stand-up comedian who once played the Booth with Suzanne Rand -- will do his one man show in which "detective Nick Shakespeare takes on biker babes, pirate wenches, and Victorian brides."

Before Strouse began Peekaboo, he'd been an entertainment lawyer for three years. "I did stuff for Madonna and Meat Loaf," he explains with no emotion.

"And you gave it up," I guessed, "because of your daddy's song, 'Lawyers, Lawyers,' that disparaged the profession in A Broadway Musical?"

"Frankly," he said with a grin, "I've completely blocked out A Broadway Musical" -- which ran all of night at the Lunt-Fontanne. "What I do remember, though, was when I was four, during a rehearsal for Applause, I told Lauren Bacall she wasn't singing the song right. My father told me, 'shhhhh!' but she said, 'No, let him talk.' Soon I was telling her what gestures to use. Yes," he says with a laugh, "I directed Lauren Bacall -- and she let me."

A $50 ticket gives you admittance to the entire week-long festival, to come and go as you wish -- "and you'll get a goodie bag filled with CDs, screen-savers, and stuff," promises Strouse. Otherwise, daily admission is $20. But if you have the stamina, you can get 96 hours of entertainment for $50, which is the same amount for a Saturday night seat in the last row of the balcony for Benjamin Strouse's Daddy's latest revival.

Call Ticketmaster at (212) 307-7171 or Peekaboo at (212) 265-9600.

-- Peter Filichia writes about New Jersey theatre for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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