PuSh Festival: Do You Want What I Have Got? An expanded song cycle conjures stories from classifieds
When the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival announced its 2012 lineup, regular attendees were surprised to see Veda Hille and Bill Richardson’s Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata described as a premiere—especially if they’d already encountered it at PuSh, way back in 2009.
But the classified-ad-inspired song cycle that runs at the Arts Club Revue Stage for 24 days in January and February is not the same as the one they saw. Not, says Hille, by a long shot.
“The version you saw was only 20 minutes long, and I may say this is 85 minutes long,” stresses the singer and pianist, who’ll be on-stage alongside drummer Barry Mirochnick and actors J. Cameron Barnett, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Bree Grieg, and Selina Martin when the expanded show makes its debut.
“My original idea was to do a series of 20-minute musicals [for Club PuSh],” Hille continues, speaking to the Straight from her East Vancouver home. “And this one just seemed to have a life of its own. So we’ve been working on it for the last three years. We’ve presented workshop versions about once a year, but this is really the new, finished, goodest version, if I may use Craigslist grammar. This is the bestest one!”
In other words, the show refuses to die. In fact, several Canadian companies are interested in producing Do You Want What I Have Got? once its Arts Club run is over.
The reason for this is simple: composer Hille and librettist Richardson have encapsulated exactly how it feels to be alive during an era in which face time with loved ones is being replaced by blogging, tweeting, and perusing the online classified ads.
“Bill wrote a beautiful thing for the program where he talks about how he sees very little difference between the Craigslist of today and the personals in the Winnipeg Tribune when he was growing up,” says Hille, a revered songwriter whose other conceptual projects have included album-length odes to Emily Carr and the Yukon. “And you know, Hemingway, when he was asked to write a six-word novel, wrote it in the form of a personal ad: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ So I think there’s a lot contained in these little missives.
From left: Dmitry Chepovetsky, Bree Greig, and J. Cameron Barnett star in Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata. Tim Matheson photo.
“And the thing with Craigslist,” she adds, “is that because there’s no cost on words, as there used to be in the old days, people write these little essays, these beautiful little stories about where they got something and what it means to them and what they might like in exchange. Some of them have become a little more knowing, perhaps, in the last few years; since we started the project, people have become a bit savvier with writing Craigslist. But my favourite ones are the ones that were just written in a burst of excitement or longing or disgust. The ones that are a real little emotional outburst mean a lot to me.”
Those who saw the original mounting were almost universally delighted by its sophisticated blend of pathos and hilarity, delivered through music that combined an acerbic indie-rock world-view with the techniques of musical theatre. Hille enjoyed delving into the Stephen Sondheim catalogue during the research process, while Richardson’s task was to sift through Craigslist for stories that might prove as poignant as Hemingway’s booties.
“I didn’t really have a point; I was really just trying to be funny,” says CBC Radio host and author Richardson, in a separate telephone interview. “But that was one of the things that surprised me about the piece in its 20-minute form: how much tenderness emerged, and how much longing, I guess. That’s really what the piece is about, if I think it’s about anything.”
Indeed, who can forget the hapless heterosexual dude who hungered for bromance, preferably in the form of drunken, underwear-clad hugs? Rather than mock this presumed closet case, Richardson and Hille gave him a weird kind of dignity, while leaving audiences teary-eyed with laughter.
According to the pianist, a lot of Craigslist postings are about looking for community. “It’s a gathering place of sorts,” Hille says. “It’s probably going too far to say that it’s replacing the church, but it’s certainly a place where people meet, like the steps of the church used to be.”
In writing about this phenomenon, she’s also found herself part of another community: artists obsessed with social media and the blogosphere.
“People are realizing that the Internet is really nice to sing,” says Hille, citing Josh Groban crooning Kanye West’s tweets as evidence that she and Richardson are surfing a bigger societal wave. “I think we’re doing this at just the right moment—and next I’ll start working on my Facebook musical.”
Like the Cantata itself, though, this shouldn’t be taken too seriously. “I’m kidding,” Hille adds, laughing. “I’m so kidding.”
Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata runs at the Arts Club Revue Stage from next Thursday (January 19) to February 11.