Bob Dylan may have won the Nobel Prize in literature, but he hasn’t had much luck with Broadway.
In 1970, at a crossroads in his career, the mercurial singer-songwriter made a stab at writing some tunes for a Broadway play called Scratch, an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster by the eminent U.S. poet Archibald MacLeish. The collaboration didn’t jell, however, and in the end, MacLeish’s play opened on Broadway minus Dylan’s music – and bombed. The songs Dylan wrote for the play instead wound up on his “comeback” album, New Morning.
Decades later, Dylan did make it to Broadway, via a razzle-dazzle, circus-themed musical by avant-garde choreographer Twyla Tharp, scored to a bevy of his best-known songs. The Times They Are A-Changin’ opened in New York in 2006. It, too, bombed.
This winter, however, Dylan may find the third try is the charm.
Girl from the North Country, a Depression-era drama by Irish playwright-director Conor McPherson that weds Eugene O’Neill-style gravitas to Dylan’s vast back catalogue, is due on Broadway in the new year, beginning previews in February at New York’s Belasco Theatre. Meanwhile, a new British production is opening in October at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, in advance of another run in London’s West End.
Already the show has critical approval, receiving rapturous reviews when it premiered at London’s Old Vic in 2017 and again when it played Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2018. It seems that this time Dylan has found the right artist to bring him to the theatre – one who isn’t afraid to rip up the jukebox-musical blueprint and dig deeper into his work.
Indeed, when Dylan’s people approached McPherson to see whether he’d be interested in submitting a proposal for a show, he almost turned them down.
“I just assumed that they wanted a standard, very commercial musical,” says the bespectacled, ginger-haired Dubliner, on the phone from London after a day directing rehearsals for the Toronto-bound production. “But then, without really thinking too much about it, I suddenly had this idea of setting something in the 1930s.”
He envisioned a dark U.S. drama in the O’Neill vein, about the discontented residents of a decaying guesthouse in Duluth, Minn. – Dylan’s birthplace – weathering the bleak economic times in the decade before the songwriter was born. He whipped up a two-page treatment and sent it in. “I think that was read to Bob Dylan backstage at one of his concerts and he said, ‘Yes, that one.’ With those words,” he says, laughing, “I was committed.”
McPherson, an Olivier Award winner and Tony nominee, whose intense, often otherworldly plays include The Weir, The Seafarer and The Night Alive, had never done a musical. His knowledge of Dylan’s music, meanwhile, was limited to a handful of classic albums. Instead of assembling the typical greatest-hits package, he listened to Dylan’s complete oeuvre (38 studio albums, never mind the many official bootlegs and live recordings) and cherry-picked songs of all kinds that seemed to jibe with the story he wanted to tell.
The result is something far more sophisticated than your average entry in the jukebox genre. And it’s not alone. Girl from the North Country arrives on Broadway just a couple of months after Jagged Little Pill, the hotly anticipated Alanis Morissette musical written by another unlikely librettist, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody of Juno fame. That show, too, is a serious drama, creatively repurposing Morissette’s seminal 1990s album to tell the tale of a contemporary family in crisis.
“I think it’s going to continue,” McPherson says of the mould-breaking trend. “It’s a whole new way of introducing the music to another generation. It’s also a much more fun way to go, rather than feeling you have to just do a biography of the artist.”
Of course, there have been some artistically ambitious attempts to build a better jukebox before, with varying success, from Green Day’s American Idiot to the late David Bowie’s Lazarus – the latter written by McPherson’s compatriot, Enda Walsh. But the default has always been the musical Bildungsroman – witness those current Broadway baby-boomer magnets, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
“It’s great if you can find a way to crash into [the music] at a weird tangent, instead,” McPherson says. “That’s much more exciting for me as a playwright, and I can see other playwrights definitely wanting to do it.”
Girl from the North Country plants itself in the Dust Bowl-era of Woody Guthrie – one of Dylan’s major early influences – with a tale of drifters, grifters and simple people struggling to get by. It centres on the proprietor of the guesthouse, Nick Laine, who is trying to fend off foreclosure while dealing with a troubled family that includes a wife slipping into dementia, an alcoholic son and a pregnant 19-year-old daughter. The Laines and their boarders find their lives changed on a tumultuous night when a Bible-peddling preacher and a fugitive boxer turn up on their doorstep.
Although the black boxer, Joe Scott, is clearly inspired by Hurricane, Dylan’s fiery ballad about Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, McPherson says the other characters grew out of the setting rather than the songs. Instead, the show’s 20 numbers – performed by the cast concert-style, before vintage microphones – serve as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, on the action.
McPherson says Dylan’s writing lent itself to that approach. “Because his songs are so suggestive and quirky, in a sense, you can sort of put them anywhere and they’ll connect to whatever is going on,” he says.
The song selection is no less quirky. While there are some familiar Dylan masterpieces – Like a Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind – many of McPherson’s choices are lesser-known tunes from such minor late-1970s, early-1980s albums as Street Legal, Infidels and Empire Burlesque. McPherson says he found that oft-dismissed period in Dylan’s recording career, which included a spell as a born-again Christian, to be surprisingly fertile.
“When he entered his ‘born again’ phase, his songwriting just really takes on a whole other energy. There are far more gospel tunes, he starts getting more into soul and R&B, which is very exciting,” McPherson says. “When you see his concerts from that time, you can see how energized he is and messianic and committed. I knew I wanted to get some of that into our show, too, in terms of the musical style.”
There are also a couple of ditties from the bucolic New Morning, which open the show. McPherson is aware of Dylan’s first, failed shot at a musical, but he says their inclusion was entirely coincidental: “I just like a lot of the songs from that album. So, it’s kind of like we’re rebooting that project in some weird, karmic way.”
The music, orchestrated by Simon Hale, is performed on thirties-era acoustic instruments and the arrangements hark back to the pre-rock era, revealing Dylan’s chops as a tunesmith. “His craft is impeccable,” McPherson says admiringly. “He grew up before rock ’n’ roll, where the songs he heard on the radio were Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein, this beautifully structured songwriting. And that’s all in his work.”
Dylan should appreciate the retro treatment; his most recent recordings have found him covering the standards of that era. What his phantom collaborator thinks of the musical, however, McPherson can’t say. As elusive as ever, Dylan has stayed at arm’s length from the show. No one is even sure whether he’s seen it.
“He was in New York when it was on at the Public Theater, so there’s every possibility,” says McPherson, who has yet to meet the man. “All I can say is that he’s been hugely encouraging, through his management, for us to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Girl from the North Country runs from Sept. 28 to Nov. 24 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto (mirvish.com).