The Jokerman cometh

October 11, 2018

Some years ago, an agent friend suggested I audition for a new musical based on the life and songs of Bob Dylan. The director-playwright had met Dylan at a carwash and got the rights to his song catalogue. Dylan appeared as a character played by two actors, one young and one older. I wasn’t cast, which might have been a blessing as the show got negative reviews. In 2006, Twyla Tharp choreographed a dance piece to Dylan’s music, “The Times They Are a Changin’,” which also met with hostile reviews. Many critics declared Dylan’s songs unsuited for theater.

Undaunted, Bob Dylan’s people asked acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson to create a play using Dylan’s songs. In July 2017, McPherson’s Depression-era musical called “Girl From the North Country” opened at the Old Vic in London. The title is taken from an early song Dylan wrote about a high school sweetheart. The play’s concept is provocative. Impoverished transients like Steinbeck’s dustbowl migrants from “The Grapes of Wrath” gather at a rundown boarding house with vintage microphones set up to broadcast their stories live. There is a narrator reminiscent of “Our Town.” This fall, “Girl From the North Country” opened at the Public Theatre in New York with an American cast and may set box office records.

The most positive and influential review came from one of New York’s most respected critics, Ben Brantley. Brantley is a generous reviewer, kind with shows he dislikes, while rarely giving rave reviews. Here is a quote from Brantley:

“That respect for the ineffable has been translated into the most imaginative and inspired use to date of a popular composer’s songbook in this blighted era of the jukebox musical. In unfolding his portrait of the desperate tenants of a boardinghouse in Duluth, Minnesota (Mr. Dylan’s birthplace), in late 1934, Mr. McPherson never uses songs as a substitute for or extension of dialogue, à la ‘Mamma Mia!’” Brantley went on to say, “If you’re a hard-core Dylan fan, you’ve heard these songs before … but, for me at least, they’ve never sounded quite so heartbreakingly personal and universal at the same time” (Brantley, New York Times).

Dylan’s songs are used to flesh out the subtext of these lost destitute souls, though some critics suggested the songs didn’t always connect to the scenes. Tim Teeman insisted “This production is beautiful in so many ways, but this critic ultimately wanted less of a musical master and more of the playwright’s vision.”

Based on the YouTube clips I have seen of the London and New York productions, perhaps a direct connection between the scenes and songs is unnecessary. In a recent interview, McPherson noted, “We found that the more the songs had nothing to do with what was happening, the better it fit.” For some, two songs might seem anachronistic. One tenant of the boardinghouse is a black boxer who suffers from racism and sings Dylan’s “Hurricane” about the boxer, Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, wrongly convicted of robbery and murder. (He was later exonerated after two trials.) Carter was born in 1937, three years after the time of the play. In “License to Kill,” there’s a reference to the first moon landing of 1969. If the music is evocative, however, does it really matter?

By consensus, the show stopper in the show is Mare Winningham playing a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s who knows her husband is cheating on her with a young woman at the boardinghouse. She sings Dylan’s iconic “Like a Rolling Stone” as a curse. The performance and theme all come together with a devastating effect. It is interesting to note McPherson didn’t use many of Dylan’s top hits except for “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Not all critics were enthusiastic. David Cote called the musical “a portentous load of Depression-era literary clichés and Hollywood stereotypes set to a Dylan snob mixtape.” Brilliant or cliché, “Girl From the North Country” is an artistic and commercial hit and will probably head to Broadway. I hope regional theaters and universities consider staging it, including Idaho State University.

And if anyone needs an actor, singer, guitar player…

Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.

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