Wanted: A New Musical

Date posted: February 17, 2011

A Craiglist Cantata declassifies the world of online ads into a quick-witted song cycle by John Threlfall

When it comes to finding inspiration for musicals, no source material remains unsung: literary classics (Les Miserables), artistic masterpieces (Sunday in the Park with George), Oscar winners (Sunset Boulevard), historical tragedies (Assassins), TV shows (The Addams Family), children’s literature (Seussical), comic books (Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark) . . . even pay toilets have resulted in, uh, flush musical prospects thanks to the likes of Urinetown. So it should come as no surprise that, given the nature of our point-and-click age, someone has finally turned their attention to websites. What is surprising, however, is that anyone could find lyrical inspiration on Craigslist. After all, most people use Craigslist to find a new apartment or a free bike; you’d have to be pretty darn quirky to create a live stage show out of such real-life ads as “Slugs for lease”, “Wanted: pre-1965 folding money for time travel” and “Dead moose, free for the taking.”

Enter the uber-quirky creative team of Vancouverites Bill Richardson and Veda Hille, who have transformed a website full of people’s needs and desires into Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata. First mounted in 2009 as a 20-minute musical for Vancouver’s PuSh Festival, A Craigslist Cantata was then remounted in 2010 on the Arts Club Revue Stage; the current incarnation now runs about 70 minutes and features a cast of five (including Hille herself) with direction by Amiel Gladstone (Theatre SKAM, The Ends of the Earth). “It is like a staged presentation of ads, some of which are in musical form and some spoken,” explains Hille, last seen on the Belfry’s stage during her Field Study album tour back in 2002. “Some ads presented themselves as songs to me almost immediately-those I put straight to music fairly unchanged-but others we did write lyrics for. There’s a fair variety in there.”

While many may know Veda Hille better for the dozen albums she’s released over her 20-plus years as one of Canada’s foremost indie singer-songwriters, she also has a long history of writing music for the stage: notably her pair of Emily Carr projects, The Brutal Telling for Mascall Dance and the song cycle Here Is A Picture (which she’ll be remounting at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria on March 6), her shows with Leaky Heaven and her work as composer-in-residence with Vancouver’s Theatre Replacement; she also penned a children’s opera, Jackpine, for Vancouver Opera last year, and has no less than three other stage shows launching in 2011. And as a famed CBC host and the award-winning humorist behind the much-lauded Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast series of books (among others), it’s pretty safe to say Bill Richardson truly needs no introduction. But what does bear telling is how the darn thing got started in the first place.

“I was having drinks with Bill and John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, and Bill had an idea for a musical called Knees! about short pants being introduced in the Senate,” Hille recalls, “and I said ‘That sounds like a musical that would be about 20 minutes long’ and John said he’d write the music, and that got me thinking about the idea of 20-minute musicals. I loved the idea of something starting so simply and so short, and then seeing what kind of life it had afterwards.”

Alas, while Knees! never came to fruition (“Sadly, John had to drop out”), the conversation did result in the creation of Theatre Replacement’s 20-Minute Musicals project, in which four different writers were commissioned to create four short musicals-including Richardson, who had the idea about Craigslist. The resulting 20-minute Do You Want What I Have Got? became a hit at PuSh, the Arts Club asked the pair to develop it further, and you can see the current incarnation as part of the Belfry’s acclaimed annual SPARK Festival in March. “The original piece was very raw but quite spirited,” Hille admits, “and we’re still trying to define the arc, but that’s just the way musicals go-it usually takes a couple of years to put them together. It’s still at a fairly loose stage, so I think the performances will change as we try things out, which could be fun for an audience to come and witness the possible permutations.”

A mix of spoken text and song, Hille does feel it is actually more like a cantata (a short vocal composition with instrumental accompaniment, often featuring a chorus of voices) than a traditional musical. “We’re working on having little story arcs happen, but I also wanted to stay true to the idea of Craigslist, which is the mass of humanity pressed against the glass-you don’t get to know whether people’s ads get answered, you just see the huge crowd of people with all their desires, posting what they want or what they have.” Just don’t come expecting disco balls and Fosse-style choreography, she says. “We’re not going to have a lot of smoke and mirrors, it’s just about the songs and material on the stage. I guess it’s kind of like a rock show, but the music isn’t really rocking at all. It really works with just the piano and five voices.”

Yes, all the ads are true, but no, neither Richardson nor Hille have ever been dedicated Craiglisters. “My husband uses it a lot, and I do have friends who use it at almost an addictive pace who have come forward and made suggestions,” she laughs. “But the fact that Bill and I are outsiders entering the territory fresh means we’re just going for what we’re interested in; we haven’t created an all-encompassing portrayal of Craiglist, it’s just what Bill and Veda are interested in about Craiglist. You have to chase what you’re interested in-that’s the only way it will be interesting to other people.”

Of course, given that there are more than 700 local Craigslist sites in 70 countries with over 50 million new ads posted monthly in six languages-a far cry from the original email list started by San Francisco’s Craig Newmark back in 1995-Craigslist is obviously interesting to a whole lot of people. That said, does Hille think Craiglisters who aren’t necessarily theatre people will still enjoy her show?

“I think so. There’s been a lot of non-theatre people who’ve really enjoyed this work, because it’s such a relatively contemporary cultural reference. And it’s pretty frickin’ funny, I have to say, with songs about penguins and noodles . . . it’s really an endless source, we could write this musical forever.”

True, but you only have five days to see it live. After that, you’ll have to post on Craigslist to find out what you missed. (“Do you have what I missed? Bootleg of A Craiglist Cantata wanted. Don’t tell creators.”)

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If John Threlfall allowed himself to shop on Craigslist, he’d spend all his time searching for reasonably priced James Bond memorabilia, pre-1950s Orange Crush artifacts and books on how to control impulse spending. Instead, he fills his time by writing, listening to musicals, being a father and working as the new communications officer for UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Veda Hille photo by Geoffrey Farmer and Una Knox