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Singing for their existential supper

CBC Radio’s Bill Richardson mines rich subterranean material in new Craigslist musical

The internet delves deep into our psyches, its anonymity liberating our most basic needs. Into that dark morass of appetites have ventured two seemingly unlikely explorers: Vancouver-based indie singer/songwriter Veda Hille and Winnipeg-based author and CBC Radio personality Bill Richardson. Together they have crafted Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata using actual text from Craigslist ads set to original music. The 90-minute work premiered in Vancouver in January 2012 to sold-out houses and rave reviews and comes to the Factory Theatre this month. The cast includes the composer Hille, along with Dmitry Chepovetsky, Bree Greig, Daren A Herbert, Selina Martin and Barry Mirochnick.

The piece started as a 20-minute cabaret in 2009. Richardson, who currently hosts Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, admits to scanning Craigslist in a “minor way” when he came up with the idea of using the ads verbatim as lyrics.

“At first I was just looking for cheap laughs,” he says, “just something with the necessary lightness and brightness for a few songs.

“I first realized that maybe this thing had legs when I watched Veda set the first piece to music, the one about headless dolls. She just sat down at the piano and created the music — that how’s she works. It was amazing to watch her. That’s when I thought it might have possibilities.”

“My daughter likes to pull the heads off dolls,” reads that first piece. “The therapist says we should let her, so we do. We have lots of headless dolls. Some of the heads may be retrievable. Most probably not. Free to a good home. Washington, DC.”

“As more pieces were written and assembled,” says Richardson, “stuff started to emerge which we hadn’t really taken into consideration, a quality, a certain pathos.”

The ads baldly state people’s needs but they don’t supply a narrative. We never get know what happens after someone answers an ad. So Richardson got to flex his imagination; about 50 percent of the text is original.

So what is the production, a cabaret or an actual musical?

“There are cabaret elements but I guess the best way to describe it is as an old-fashioned revue,” says Richardson. “Many people have said it’s like Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Well, it’s nothing at all like Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.  But I get it; it reminds me too of Jacques Brel, how, out of a random assortment of songs, a unity emerges. It’s kind of spooky how that happens. There’s a funny kind of existential impact that is difficult to anticipate, a certain grim quality. No, grim isn’t right… a strain of melancholy. It does what comedy should do, it operates on two levels, funny and sad.”

How saucy does the Craigslist Cantata get? “I’m not the one to identify if anything is too saucy,” says Richardson who, in addition to hosting iconic radio shows like Richardson’s Roundup and As It Happens in the past, is author of an eclectic range of novels and non-fiction works including Guy to Goddess: An Intimate Look at Drag Queens, Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast, and Scorned and Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics. You can see how this new production fits into Richardson’s overall oeuvre if you see him as a kind of contemporary anthropologist of the odd.

“Some of the pieces exhibit a carnal playfulness,” he says, mentioning the piece about a bathtub full of noodles and a call-out for naked bathers. “But I wouldn’t call them saucy. Though they are not appropriate for eight-year-olds… but then again not much is.”

DO YOU WANT WHAT I HAVE GOT? A CRAIGSLIST CANTATA $35-$47. 8pm. Tue-Sat. PWYC. 2:30pm & 7pm. Sun. Thu, Feb 7-Mar 3. (Plus 2pm. Sat, Feb 9 & 23.) Factory Studio. 125 Bathurst St. (416) 504-9971. factorytheatre.ca.