"Cabaret of Souls" cast, Royce Hall 2011
Richard Thompson wants you to go to Hell.
“That’s the idea,” he says.
Such a wish from a musician generally known as a kind soul swathed in English reserve?
“It will also be at the same time, magically enough, at the Broad Stage,” he qualifies.
Ah, yes. This is a fittingly pre-Día de los Muertos three-day Broad run of Thompson’s evolving music-and-theater piece “Cabaret of Souls,” starting Friday. Joining him at the Santa Monica theater will be a cast fronted by satirist-and-beyond Harry Shearer and singer-songwriter-and-beyond Judith Owen, plus a small band that will include bassist Danny Thompson (no relation, but a long-time collaborator and fellow icon of the English folk-rock scene, among other things as a founding memnber of Pentangle) and the 12-piece Symbiosis string ensemble conducted by Peter Askim.
The concept: “The audience has just died.”
“Stepped across the threshold from life to death and is in the waiting room for the Underworld. And the Keeper of the Underworld, who is bored with and jaded with humanity and his job, and is nasty and mischievous, entertains the new intake of souls with some inmates of the Underworld. He drags them out to perform for the audience. In the songs they reflect the drama of their life. There are 12 characters and after each song is performed, the citizens of the Underworld perform a retort, a mockery.”
Perhaps unnecessarily, he adds, “It’s sort of a dark comedy. Supposed to be funny and supposed to be dark.”
Other than that, Thompson finds it difficult to explain exactly what it’s supposed to be.
“It’s a strange piece,” says the musician, who notes that he hadn’t been involved in any theater production since high school. “Not quite sure what it is. I kind of like that about it. I like that it’s not a musical, not an opera, not a musical play. Really it’s an oratorio, but now an oratorio with more of a dramatic element.”
That latter part is newly expanded for this version of “Souls,” the third or fourth (depending on who’s counting and what’s being counted) presentation in its growth into a fully staged show, now including dancers and puppets. Anyone who saw the production last year at UCLA’s Royce Hall (“Cabaret of Souls” Mark II or III) will notice differences upon entering, with the more intimate setting allowing for the audience to be more directly engaged with the action. As well, the Friday opening night will be a Halloween masquerade, with attendees invited to costume up (there will be a contest), while Saturday's show will be followed by a Q&A with Thompson and Shearer. Sunday's show, fyi, is a 4 p.m. matinee.
The Royce version was the first featuring the performers (led by Shearer as the Underworld keeper and Owen vibrantly embodying a number of characters) in makeup and costumes. Earlier stagings, at London's 2010 Meltdown Festival [see video clip below] and the premiere at Penn State University, were more concert readings.
Even that, though, was a long way from the original intent.
“This originated four or five years ago as a bass piece for Danny Thompson, commissioned by the International Society of Bassists for their convention at Penn State,” Thompson says, a bit sheepishly, explaining how it took on a life — er, afterlife — of its own. “What they asked for and what they got were different things. They asked for something short, six minutes, to feature Danny. This piece currently runs 85 minutes or so. Basically, because I’m a songwriter, I started writing this feature as a series of songs with bass solos because I thought there were so many sides to Danny’s playing and wanted to cover them all. Wanted a lot of tempos and styles represented — he does folk and jazz and all kinds of things, and I was trying to reflect on his talents in this piece in a way a lot of composers wouldn’t. And probably at some point it became something it wasn’t supposed to be. I thought, ‘Darn it! I’m going to have to keep going with this because it’s interesting.’”
And he’s still going with it. But where?
“Hard to say,” he says. “We’re really happy to have a short run here, with three performances together. Every time we’ve performed it’s been a year gap. One problem is it’s expensive to stage, requires funding. We are being underwritten at the Broad, which is fantastic.”
Then he allows himself a bit of looking ahead:
“Our ambition is to take it off-Broadway, so they can have some run to it,” he says.
Meanwhile, in other RT news, he’s recently wrapped up recording a new album — his 20th-or-so studio album (plus assorted collaborations, film score, live and other releases) since leaving the band Fairport Convention in 1972 — in Nashville with producer Buddy Miller. It’s a tight trio for the most part, with Thompson and his always-astounding guitar playing supported by his regular bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, plus Miller (seen in recent years playing with and producing Robert Plant). The album is due for February release on the New West label.
“I think it turned out really well,” Thompson says. “Quite funky, actually. Folk-funk. Or funk-folk?”