Last fall, I caught Bob Dylan at the Beacon Theatre in New York. On Broadway, as it happens. From my balcony seat, I peered down onto the stage, where Dylan and his band ran through familiar music in unfamiliar ways. I adored my vantage point. The stage seemed like a music box, with Dylan as my own anonymous dancer.
Curtains opened and closed, he came and left, barely acknowledging or even fully facing the audience. He has removed himself from his music as much as possible. He’s not the story – his songs are. He let us know the score with his opening song, Things Have Changed: “People are crazy and times are strange/ I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range.”
This past weekend, Conor McPherson’s precise, poetic musical Girl from the North Country made its Canadian premiere at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. The soundtrack was Dylan, but the story was written by McPherson, at the prompting of the troubadour’s record company. Although the play is set in a rooming house in Dylan’s wintry hometown of Duluth, Minn., it takes place during the Depression, years before Dylan’s birth in 1941. It would “free the songs from the burden of relevance for our generation and make them timeless,” McPherson has said.
Dylan himself approved of the musical, on the condition that it not be biographical. His songs do not drive the plot, although a black boxer character with a rap sheet does sing Hurricane, about Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a prize fighter wrongly convicted of murder in 1967. In selecting the songs for his play, McPherson, an Irish playwright and screenwriter whose 1997 drama The Weir won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play, chose deep cuts over hits. If the play, which premiered at London’s Old Vic in 2017, were a typical jukebox musical, it might have been called something like All Along the Watchtower. For a November-set story that takes place in a particularly desperate, deceitful time in history, McPherson doesn’t use that song. Lines such as “outside in the cold distance” and “there must be some way out of here” are only implied.
Sony Music Entertainment UK, one of the production’s producers, had sent McPherson a package of some 40 Dylan albums, with a note saying he could use any song as he pleased. “I was looking for songs that had a verse, a bridge, a chorus, a middle eight, all that stuff that gives the performers the chance to lean into something emotionally and go deeper and deeper and deeper into the music,” the 48-year-old McPherson has explained.
Mostly eschewing well-known material, McPherson dove into the artist’s underregarded albums of the late 1970s and 80s, including the so-called Christian trilogy of LPs after Dylan found God in a Tucson hotel room in 1978. Representing the evangelical years are Slow Train, from Slow Train Coming, and What Can I Do For You?, a question from 1980’s Saved, which opens the second act.
Watching a sad, poetic play about humanity in harrowing times, one might expect to hear Not Dark Yet. But if the line "There’s not even room enough to be anywhere” could have fit the sentiment perfectly, “It’s too hot to sleep” would have been out of season. Besides, by 1934, it was 100-per-cent “dark yet.”
The soundtrack of Girl from the North Country is played on period instruments and sung to the audience, not character to character. Gospel and roots-rock arrangements are the style. The 20 songs range from the 1963 title tune to 2012’s upbeat and old-timey Duquesne Whistle, a song of hope.
A full 15 cuts come from the 1970s and 80s, including the play-opening Sign on the Window, a wistful, key-changing, soul-sung ballad about loneliness. A reworked Like a Rolling Stone works as a sign of the times in a transient, spirit-crushing era: “How does it feel to be a complete unknown, with no direction home?”
Instead of writing about himself, Dylan has always looked at the world around him, pulled apart what he sees and reassembled it best he could in verse, melody and chorus. The play about false dreams closes with the characters leaving the boarding house, in chase of … something. They probably know what Dylan knew – You Ain’t Going Nowhere is presented in Act 2.
The man won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, but sometimes all that is left to be said is hello, goodbye and “whoo-ee.”
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