Here’s what the creators of the Bob Dylan stage musical learned about his songs along the way

  October 4, 2019  

Toronto Star Fri., Oct. 4, 2019
By Ben Rayner Pop Music Critic

So an Irishman, an Englishman and Bob Dylan decide to collaborate on a musical …

Well, perhaps “collaborate” is the wrong word. While writer/director Conor McPherson and orchestrator and musical supervisor Simon Hale most definitely worked hand-in-hand in crafting the moody theatrical production “Girl from the North Country,” Dylan himself was more of a silent partner in the process. Silent to the point of invisible, really.

Although the project was indeed solicited about six years ago by Dylan — or by proxy, at least, by his management and his label, Sony Music — the legendary singer/songwriter has maintained a typically inscrutable distance from the entire thing, offering his occasional encouragement and approval through various intermediaries but otherwise exerting absolutely no creative control over how his music wound up being used in the final product. No one involved has a clue, in fact, whether or not he’s ever actually seen the play.

“I’m not sure. We’re not sure,” admits McPherson, pausing for coffee with Hale this past Tuesday before a final day of work on the Toronto production of “Girl from the North Country,” which has been showing in previews since last Saturday at the Royal Alexandra Theatre but officially opens this Sunday, Oct. 6, on a run that will extend until Nov. 24. “We know a lot of people very close to him have been in and we’re not sure, really, but he’s just been hugely encouraging. So he’s with us.”


Katie Brayben, Shak Taylor and the cast of GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY Toronto/London Company. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, 2019.
Despite his initial reticence at signing on to draft a piece of musical theatre that seemed “a bit of a mismatch” on paper, the Dublin-born McPherson — who first gained wide attention for 1997’s paranormal drama “The Weir” and has since penned enough spooky stage fare such as “Shining City,” “Port Authority” and “The Seafarer” to have earned the title “theatre’s patron saint of lost souls” from American Theatre magazine last year — received swift approval after heeding the call for submissions and firing off a quick proposal that suggested situating selections from the deep Dylan catalogue within a multi-pronged narrative about various rootless characters, guarding deep secrets and/or doomed dreams of a better future, gathered together in a boarding house in Robert Zimmerman’s hometown of Duluth, Minn., during the Great Depression. Within a couple of days, a box containing all of Dylan’s recordings (“It was, like, 50 albums,” laughs McPherson) landed on his doorstep. He was committed.

At the suggestion of London’s Old Vic theatre, where “Girl from the North Country” eventually debuted in July 2017, McPherson partnered with Hale in figuring out exactly how to incorporate Dylan’s music into the broodingly fatalistic story taking shape. The two were emboldened to let their imaginations run wild, McPherson recalls, when they were sent a brief comment from Dylan to “just do what you want to do” and “don’t be too respectful.”

By setting the play in 1934, seven years before Dylan’s birth, McPherson figured he had “cut it loose of all the expectations” to make it about the singer’s life or his pivotal role in 1960s counterculture while still maintaining a tether to the Depression-era folk-music tradition that would cast such a shadow over his early songwriting. As he puts it, “perhaps it would give a sense of the soil from which he emerged, in some way.”

To further leaven the burden of expectation, too, McPherson decided to pull songs from the less-travelled reaches of the Dylan catalogue — tunes like “License to Kill,” “Jokerman” and “Sweetheart Like You” from the 1983 album “Infidels,” “What Can I Do for You?” from 1980’s “Saved,” “True Love Tends to Forget,” “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” and “Is Your Love in Vain?” from 1978’s “Street-Legal” and “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love)” from 1985’s “Empire Burlesque,” for instance — instead of honing in on more obvious “hits.”

So, no, “Girl from the North Country” is definitely not a “jukebox musical,” although occasionally an “I Want You” or a “Like a Rolling Stone” or a “Hurricane” does intrude on the proceedings, albeit often in far-from-faithful form.

He wasn’t being intentionally obscure, he says, but in diving deep into that box of Dylan records McPherson found himself marvelling at the myriad of gems hidden even within the late-’70s and early-’80s albums that got absolutely no respect at the time.


The men behind the Dylan jukebox musical “Girl From the North Country,” writer and director Conor McPherson, left, and musical director Simon Hale, pose at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on Oct. 1.Writer and director Conor McPherson, left, and musical director Simon Hale.  PHOTO: ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR

“His lyrics seemed to be so oblique, suggestive, playful, mischievous and serious all at the same time that it seemed like his songs could bounce off almost any situation even if it seemed to have nothing to do with it … so I just set about it like that,” he says. “But then, of course, the great joy was that my admiration really grew for his musical gift, which is stunning because, in a way, in Bob Dylan’s songs there’s nowhere to hide. The chords and the melody seem quite simple and yet they’re so sturdy, the songs, that the next step is always the right one. And it just struck me that to even write one of those and make it work, you would get a whole career out of it. And yet he has dozens and dozens of those great songs. I found that on almost every album there was a song where you could say ‘Wow, that’s as good as anything he ever wrote — or anybody ever wrote.’ ”

For Hale — known for supplying string arrangements to diverse pop recordings by the likes of Jamiroquai, Charlotte Church, Kylie Minogue and Susan Boyle, as well as theatrical productions of “Tootsie,” “Strictly Ballroom” and “Guys and Dolls” and the “Fifty Shades Darker” soundtrack — being given carte blanche regarding what they would with the source material was both liberating and terrifying.

“Probably in the other order, actually,” Hale says, laughing. “But still, that’s true. Once we’d decided what this was about and started thinking about the sound world and the colours of it, that was really exciting.

“We’re telling stories using his songs — not specifically to do with the narrative, necessarily, but still as part of the colour of the piece. We’re not thinking about Dylan’s recordings or his performances or him as an artist. We’re taking these songs by this living composer — one of the most famous ever songwriter/composers in popular-music history, who’s still alive — and to have the ability to use any song in any way and without any sort of artistic shackle being there is incredible. Once I got over that sort of ‘You can’t do that to Bob’ worry, it was just an amazing opportunity.”

In the end, “Girl from the North Country” actually treats Bob Dylan’s catalogue with utmost reverence. The songs aren’t blown up into lavishly orchestrated musical-theatre pieces at all; they’re simply sung, unvarnished, by the 19 cast members solo or in gospel-tinged chorales. Those chorales double as, to borrow a wry phrase from McPherson, “a very gnomic Greek chorus that’s not actually helping you” at odd moments in the play — somewhat outside the action, engaging in “conversation” with the narrative rather than propelling it forward directly or standing in for dialogue. 

A four-piece band playing acoustic instruments appropriate to the period — piano and harmonium, violin and mandolin, guitar and upright bass — is situated onstage amidst the action at all times, while every so often one of the actors takes up residence at a minimal drum kit set up at the front of stage left.

Again, this is not a jukebox musical akin to “Mamma Mia!” or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Dylan’s songs just wouldn’t work in that sort of context.

“A lot of the point of all that is that the music sounds like the songs — the recorded songs — and this is not what we’re doing at all,” says Hale. “It’s not about Bob, of course, and we’re not trying to sound like any of his recordings or any cover versions or anything else. We’re trying to tell this story using these songs as if he’s written them for the show. Except not that.”

“I can’t think of too many songs where Bob Dylan is very literal,” adds McPherson. “The only ones where he is kinda literal are maybe around his born-again period, where you actually know what he’s singing about and he’s very definite about it. But apart from that era, y’know, what is any Bob Dylan song about?

“It’s so musically satisfying because the raw material is so sound that, actually, you can sort of do anything you want and it holds up. I always say the songs are built like tanks. They just have incredible integrity … All the backing vocals we do are really leaning into what’s already there in the song. We don’t change anything radically at all, they’re so sound.”

If “Girl from the North Country” winds up disappointing classic-rock fans hoping for a more straightforward musical experience, so be it. McPherson was told by Dylan’s manager at one point that “Bob’s hardcore fans are never truly happy unless he’s pissing them off” anyway, so perhaps the play’s success in accurately capturing the spirit of Dylan’s musical oeuvre can actually be measured in the number of disgruntled patrons who walk out of the theatre in a huff at the end of the night.

“Girl from the North Country” has done far better than its creators could have imagined, regardless. McPherson and Hale were speeding to New York this week to get cracking on a revival of last year’s Public Theatre production now bound for Broadway’s Belasco Theatre in February, while a revamped version of the original Old Vic production is set to return to London’s West End at the Gielgud Theatre in December.

Turns out a grim Depression-era drama in the vein of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder rife with musings on the timeless American traditions of poverty, racism, and the commercialization of religion is exactly what some Dylan acolytes wanted.

“Not having done a show like this before, you’re not sure where it will fit,” says McPherson. “Part of me was thinking, ‘Oh, I hope this doesn’t seem like it’s too commercial.’ And yet, I think people who like musical theatre come in and they’re a bit, like, ‘What is this?’ It’s totally not what they’re expecting at all. So I think it’s hit into its own little area which, in a way, is appropriate considering it’s Bob Dylan. It’s slightly ornery in that regard.”

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