How Bob Dylan Gave His Blessing to “Girl From the North Country”

Playwright Conor McPherson is still amazed at the creative freedom Dylan gave him with the musical, playing this month at the Aronoff Center.

Irish-born Conor McPherson had already established quite a career for himself on London and New York theater stages when Bob Dylan came calling with an offer: The playwright could use any of his songs in a new work if he came up with a good concept. The resultant Girl From the North Country features the cast performing 20 Dylan songs as part of its tale of travelers at a Depression-era guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota, where Robert Zimmerman (Dylan) was born.

After successful engagements in London and on Broadway, where it was nominated for seven Tonys and won one, the touring musical comes to the Aronoff Center for the Arts October 17–29. (By coincidence, Dylan performs October 20 at the Andrew J Brady Music Center.)

How did this partnership with Dylan come about?

My agent said people had come to him wondering if doing a show based on the music of Bob Dylan was something I was interested in doing for the theater. I said, “That doesn’t sound like a great idea to me,” because I’d never done a musical and I wasn’t sure if Dylan’s songs were musical theater-type songs. Then, out of the blue, I had the idea of a show set in the 1930s with a kind of Eugene O’Neill–type of feeling. I felt Bob’s songs could fit into that.

So I wrote out an idea for a story set during the Great Depression in a boarding house up in Minnesota, where the guests were looking for somewhere to live because times were hard. I thought that could generate an interesting scenario for the story. I sent it off to my agent, and in a couple of days I was told that Bob Dylan really liked the idea and, if I wanted to proceed, I had his blessing to use his songs.

How would you describe this compared to the many “jukebox” musicals that tell bits of their subject’s biography between performing their songs?

Weirdly, it never occurred to me to think of this as a biographical story. I suppose I knew that if that’s what he wanted me to do, probably there’s a million people he could get to do that. So maybe he was looking for something else.

I’ve discovered over the years that Broadway is a kind of genre when it comes to musical theater. It has a certain kind of sound and a certain kind of energy. In the shows that are successful and popular, you can tell the songs are from a musical when you hear them. Quite often they have a certain slightly overwrought energy, which works in that genre.

With Bob Dylan songs, first of all, what are they about? That’s still up for debate. They’re poetic and impressionistic a lot of the time. In terms of driving a narrative forward in a show, they’re not obvious choices. Just in terms of 90 percent of what might be available to go and see if you wanted to buy a Broadway ticket for tonight, you’re probably not going to get a lot of songs like Dylan writes in any of those other shows. So it wasn’t obvious to me what a musical theater–type presentation of Bob Dylan would be like.

Having said that, I know they tried to do another Dylan musical in the past, which I don’t think was a biographical show either. [In 2006, Twyla Tharp brought The Times They Are a-Changin,’ a musical of Dylan songs, to Broadway for a short run.]

You’ve talked about being able to remove the songs from Dylan’s own biography, but that’s not completely the case. The show is set in Duluth, where he was born in 1941. He grew up in nearby Hibbing. Was it critical that you had that direct connection to Dylan?

The idea to set it in Duluth in the years before Bob was born there felt like a beautiful way to honor him. In a sense, there’s the idea that things change when Bob comes into the world, the same way that things change when Jesus Christ comes into the world. There are prophets who come into the world, and things change. I feel that artistically about Bob’s presence, so for me maybe there were those kinds of feelings going on.

I wanted to ask about the Dylan song “Girl From the North Country” and whether using it for the title of the musical came after your vision for a show set in Minnesota.

I like the song anyway, and then the title was good for us. The weird thing is I think the North Country that Bob is referring to is in England. That song is based on his interpretation of songs like “Scarborough Fair.” It’s an early folk song for Bob, and a lot of early folk songs are a development of other folk songs.

That didn’t really click with me until after we had done the show, because I thought the “Girl From the North Country” did refer to the northern U.S. But I don’t think people in America really refer to those states as the North Country, do they? For me, though, it works geographically for our show.

And in our show, that song is done pretty much a cappella, with beautiful choral backing underneath, and it’s actually an underscore while someone is talking about something else in the show. So, in a way, the title song of the show isn’t foregrounded in the show—it’s hidden there in the background. I guess it’s like lots of things about this show, and like Bob Dylan: There are many unexpected things.

Might I ask you about using “Like a Rolling Stone”?

Because they’d given me complete freedom to use any songs I wanted, they sent me all his albums. I set about listening to everything. “Rolling Stone” is one of Bob’s most famous songs, if not the most famous, and also happens to be a really good song. It’s also such an influential song—a lot of musicologists would see it as a landmark in the development of popular music. It’s just too big to ignore.

Also, the lyrics are particularly striking, being about the fear of destitution and the fear of being homeless. For a pop song to articulate that very freely is so unusual, so revolutionary. And it has a pretty chord sequence in its verses and bridge, and then its chorus is really three-chord rock and roll, which gives it that big release. It’s such a good song, it can be performed in different ways. It’s very well built.

How about one with a very mysterious lyric, “Sweetheart Like You?”

That’s a lovely song, from Bob’s album Infidels. Wow, some great lyrics in the song. I mean, oh my God! That’s just Bob doing a beautiful free association—he’s talking to you, he’s singing to you, it’s kind of like a love song and yet it also seems far more philosophical than that. It’s a religious song perhaps. It’s terrific.

One more song, also one of his most famous: “Forever Young.”

Such a lovely song. It’s almost like a hymn, that song. It could be sung at a wedding or a funeral or a baptism or any of those things. It’s a beautiful song of blessing and healing. I think there’s a lot of warmth and goodness that come from the sentiments in a lot of Bob’s songs. This is one of pure benediction, so having that song toward the end of our show is really moving for its healing feeling.

I read he saw a show and was moved to tears. How do you respond to making Bob Dylan cry at the beauty of his own work and of course the beauty of your work, too?

Through the whole process we never really had any contact with Bob. He gave us that freedom. I asked his manager, “Does Bob want to see a tape of a show or a rehearsal run-through?” He said, “I think the way Bob feels is he’s just going to let you do it the way you want to do it, because if he says something, you’re going to feel pressured to change what you’re doing.”

So we never knew what he thought until he spoke about it. I wasn’t there the night he came. He slipped in from the back of the theater, watched it from the audience, and then left. When we heard what he thought about it and how moved he was, I suppose it was the ultimate praise. Getting that reaction from that particular audience member, it’s like “job done.” Even if the whole world hates this show, I’ve done my job. (The show has gotten strong praise from critics and audiences and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical.)

Since then, Bob has written to us and sent us lovely gifts. When he’s met members of the cast, he’s been very gracious and spoken to them about it. He’s been hugely supportive of the show.

What kind of gifts?

Bob makes a bourbon called Heaven’s Door, and he sent a whole load of that to the cast. He also sent me a painting he did, which I treasure. It depicts a farm in the Dust Bowl, a Grapes of Wrath feeling with a 1930s car and a rundown farm. It’s a real picture of that time and that feeling. So he definitely did it or chose it with something of the show in mind.

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