Richard Thompson, friends return to ‘Cabaret of Souls’ this weekend


The following post has been updated. See note below for details.

When Pop & Hiss last checked in with Richard Thompson two years ago, the acclaimed English singer-songwriter-guitarist was in the midst of prepping his ambitious theatrical composition “Cabaret of Souls” for its West Coast premiere at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

This weekend, Thompson and much of the same supporting cast, including actor-comedian-satirist Harry Shearer and his wife, jazz-pop singer-songwriter Judith Owen, will mount performances Friday through Sunday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Thompson’s work involves a parade of humans who find themselves in some kind of purgatory, each attempting to defend his or her earthly lives before a Simon Cowell-like judge, portrayed with wicked glee by Shearer.


One of the big differences this time out is that the musical group accompanying Thompson -- including the 12-piece L.A.-based Symbiosis Ensemble orchestra -- will feature double bassist Danny Thompson (no relation), who is a key player in the piece, considering Richard Thompson was commissioned to write it as a showcase for him nearly five years ago.

“[Danny Thompson] brings a whole different aesthetic to it,” Richard Thompson said Monday just after rehearsals had gotten under way. “He has his own inimitable style, and of course is one of the most distinctive bassists on the planet. So it’s fantastic to have him here -- he’s flown over especially for these performances.”

The show premiered in 2009 at State College in Pennsylvania at the annual convention for the International Society of Bassists, but there are key differences this time out. “There’s a fairly big visual change,” Thompson said. “We’ve brought in more elements to make it more theatrical: Now we have some dancers involved. There are also puppets -- not little tiny puppets, but large, human-size ones.”

Addtionally, he said, “The music has shifted a little bit, lyrically, it’s shifted a little bit and some new elements are coming in. It’s a little frsutrating too: Because it’s a fairly hard thing to stage, the performances tend to have a year or two years in between.”

Following the premiere performance, Thompson also staged “Cabaret of Souls” at England’s 2010 Meltdown Festival, which the guitarist also curated. The UCLA staging a few months later was the last time he’s brought it to the stage.

Given that Thompson said he’d be gratified to see the piece take on a life of its own, I asked whether he’s taken heart in seeing the Broadway success of “The Book of Mormon” as he maps out a future for his own dark comedy that touches on issues of spirituality and religion.

“Well there you go,” he said. “That’s probably a little more upbeat than this, but ‘Cabaret’ is basically a comedy; it supposed to be funny. We’ll know if that works if people actually end up laughing. At Royce, the funnier aspects came over very well. The audience seemed to get it. I hope they will this time. Behind the tears they’ll be laughing.”

As for some critics of the Meltdown production who complained that sympathetic characters were few and far between in Thompson’s sharp-edged work, the composer said, “I think all the characters are to some degree obnoxious. But we deal with human failings all the time, and we forgive people their faults.

“We look for that little tiny crack of humanity in the most offensive human beings, the most evil human beings,” said Thompson, who also has a new studio album slated for release early next year. “Look at ‘Silence of the Lambs’: [Hannibal Lecter is] a totally unredeemed human being, but we’re still looking for some humantiy in him. A story like that throws you into a moral dilemma. ‘Cabaret of Souls’ isn’t that extreme -- these characters are flawed but lovable.”

Updated Oct. 23 at 11:06 a.m.: A recording of “Cabaret of Souls” has just been released on CD, featuring the performers from the 2010 UCLA staging, and is available on Thompson’s web site.

“I’m so in love with this music,” Shearer said in a separate interview following his question-answer session and performance Monday at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. “Every time I hear the CD it takes me back to that feeling of how fortunate I am to be part of this amazing piece.”

Danny Thompson, in town for “Cabaret of Souls” rehearsals, also took part in Shearer’s performance Monday. Only half jokingly, I asked the veteran British musician if he took it personally when he learned that the piece Richard Thompson created to showcase his skills in front of his peers at the International Society of Bassists turned out to involve a talent contest in the underworld--a theme that’s faded in subsequent performances.

“I grew up there,” Thompson quipped without missing a beat, “so not at all.”


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