What: The Girl from the North Country
When: February 2020
Musical by Conor McPherson, Songs by Bob Dylan (used by permission, Dylan has no formal involvement)
This is not “We Will Rock You” or “Mamma Mia”. The Queen and Abba musicals are essentially vehicles to promote the greatest hits in the back catalogue of two acts that are no longer recording. The songs are made to measure into storylines of varying ridiculousness and unbelievability.
It is also not “Jersey Boys”. There the story of Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio’s musical partnership is told (albeit in a truncated form) and the songs are inserted to illustrate the development of the 4 Seasons’ career. This indeed was a level higher and a completely different approach to your average “jukebox musical” as the first category has often been labelled.
No, “Girl from the North Country” is a different breed of animal all together.
Firstly, Mr McPherson has given us an interesting (and believable) storyline. It reminds me, in tone not storyline, of one of the plays that Arthur Miller wrote later in his career. I’m thinking The American Clock or something like that. It is set in a boarding house in depression-era U.S.A.. Its first Dylan-link comes from the fact that the boarding house is in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob’s hometown.
The owner/manager of the establishment is struggling financially and caring for his wife who appears to be suffering from some form of mental illness or dementia. He is sexually-involved with one of the residents. His adopted daughter is pregnant but not married. His ambition is to collectively solve a number of his problems by marrying her to an aged widower who is wealthy and secure. She has little interest in cooperating.
The story starts to unfold when two new residents arrive: a black former boxer and a travelling Bible salesman. The Bible salesman is given a room. The ex-boxer is given a mattress to sleep on the floor.
The story is inter-woven with songs from Mr Dylan’s career. Evidently, he has given permission for them to be used but it is not his musical, not his storyline and not his choice of songs.
The choice of songs is surprising. The bulk of them come not from the Sixties or some Greatest Hits compilation but from an era which begins in 1970 and closes in the mid-eighties. The earliest from this selection-period are taken from “New Morning”. Other albums that have song featured include “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”, “Street Legal”, “Slow Train Coming”, “Saved”, “Infidels” and “Empire Burlesque”. Some songs from other periods resemble more their 1970s live performances than their original studio recordings. Most noticeable in this category would be Blonde on Blonde’s “I Want You” which is transformed into a yearning ballad.
There are earlier and later songs, and these are the better-known ones – “Like A Rolling Stone”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, “Make You Feel My Love”, for example. I had to smile at a bunch of ladies in the row in front of me discussing why “that Adele song” would be in a Bob Dylan musical.
Some songs work really well – “Tight Connection to My Heart”, “What Can I Do for You”. Some fit their characters really well. “Slow Train” is given to the travellin’ Bible puncher. “Idiot Wind” to an estranged couple.
Others really don’t. The worst moment in the play is the wild, rock and rolling version of “Like a Rolling Stone” which runs roughshod over the lyrical subtleties.
And this I think is the problem with the play. Most of the script and acting is fine. Most of the songs are performed reasonably well.
However, some songs don’t feel like they belong. One of the few predictable inclusions is “Hurricane” – especially when we find out that the ex-boxer is an escaped prisoner. But the lyrics are just too personal to the Rubin Carter-case and they don’t fit. And to add to the problem, it is used as part of a party scene. Not good.
So, we have a play which probably could have used original songs and songs which deserve to be heard in the West End and on Broadway, but they didn’t need to be in this particular musical. Three-quarters success in the quality of the storyline, three-quarters success in the choice of the songs but this equation doesn’t of course add up to one-and-a-half of a success. Those sums don’t add up like that.
And this is because few of the singers inhabit the songs and the lyrics in the way that Dylan does on his best days. Now, his live performances aren’t always his best days. He is inconsistent but he feels the words he has written and the weight behind them in a way that no-one else can. They don’t have a prayer. Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.
But I go back to where I came in. This is streets ahead of “Mamma Mia”, “We Will Rock You” and that ilk. Not least because it is a real play with a deep story that is worth exploring. This is a good afternoon/evening at the theatre.