Yeah, I’m one of those guys—we’re almost always guys—who can quote Bob Dylan lyrics like some people quote Scripture, who has a favorite underrated Dylan album (Street-Legal) and deep cut (“Dark Eyes”), who didn’t even see fit to engage with the debate over his 2016 Nobel Prize because, I mean, duh.
So when I heard that Conor McPherson, a playwright I admire and whose work we’ve published, had created a new play with Dylan songs, I was excited—well, excited and scared. I’d mostly suffered through Twyla Tharp’s misbegotten The Times They Are a-Changin’, not to mention any number of bad jukebox musicals (a burning Ring of Fire). Could McPherson make Dylan’s songs, with their iconic characters and word-drunk imagery, live onstage in a fresh or meaningful way? And would it speak to non-Dylanophiles, the kind of poor benighted souls who might say they like his songs but only in other people’s versions?
Most who saw the show in its hit London run this past year seemed to think he pulled it off. It won a raft of Oliviers, a video of Sheila Atim’s slow-blooming rendition of “Tight Connection to My Heart” made the rounds, and TCG published the script. It was only a matter of time before Girl From the North Country, as the show is called, would make it to the U.S. It is, after all, set in Depression-era Minnesota, not far from where Dylan himself was born in 1941, making this McPherson’s first original script not set in his native Ireland (his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds was set in New England). Now in previews at New York City’s Public Theater, it opens tonight with an American cast featuring Mare Winningham and Stephen Bogardus (it was just extended to Dec. 23).
To craft the play, set in a boardinghouse full of misfits, schemers, and borderline miscreants, McPherson was granted free rein to use any of Dylan’s 350-plus songs however he wanted, and without any input from the songwriter except through intermediaries. McPherson—whose plays include The Weir, The Seafarer, Shining City, and my personal favorite, Port Authority—opted for a non-literal approach, telling a braided, multigenerational story of desperate folks and missed opportunities. The songs he chose, arranged by Simon Hale for period-appropriate instruments, range through Dylan’s five-decade career, with a particular emphasis on the 1970s and ’80s.
I sat down to talk with McPherson during rehearsals at the Public for a recent story in The New York Times. Below is an edited version of our full interview, in which we discussed the play’s development, the mysterious alchemy of theatre, and, of course, the oeuvre of one Robert Allen Zimmerman. I started by asking him how he picked the songs for North Country.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I haven’t yet seen the play but I’ve read it and listened to the London cast album. This doesn’t seem like it could have been assembled by a playwright who doesn’t know music himself. I know that Simon Hale made the arrangements, but did you have a good sense of how these songs might sound apart from the original recordings? Did you actually sit with the songs and play them through?
CONOR MCPHERSON: I did. I’ve played guitar since I was 10, and was in bands as a teenager. So I would play them on the guitar—sometimes slow them down, sometimes listen for where we could make space for choral arrangements within them. In rehearsals when we were doing the show the first time, I brought my guitar in case there was a song I suddenly felt we should try and get into the show. I would say, “Right, we’re gonna learn this song,” then play it together, sing it together. Having a guitar is a great way to very quickly make it happen.
You’re saying you would teach the cast the songs?
Sing it and do it, yeah.
Are any basement tapes gonna surface of Conor McPherson’s Dylan covers?
I sincerely hope not.
In the preface to the published play you write about how you steeped yourself in Dylan’s songs while you worked on this project—that you would dream about these songs, and sometimes wake up and decide to put one the show and it would somehow just work. Could you give me an example of a song that you just dropped into the show like that?
Well, say, a song like “License to Kill,” which on YouTube you can see him performing on David Letterman in 1984, and it’s very unlike the album, which is very slickly produced. This is a year after the album’s come out, and he’s got these three guys with him who are this young punk band, and he plays it and it’s just a different song. He just tears into it, it’s so rough and ready. It’s a bit more like Neil Young or something. The guitars are wailing, he’s going for it and the energy is spectacular. I was just like, “I’ve got to get this song into the show.” We were doing “Slow Train” in the show, so it was like, we’re just gonna stop and suddenly start playing “License to Kill.”
And the weird thing is, because it’s Bob Dylan, it works. It’s a bit like, say, at a funeral, someone says, ‘I’d like to read a poem now by Philip Larkin,’ and it’s a poem that has nothing to do with death, yet somehow everyone goes, ‘That poem was really perfect.’ Bob Dylan is that kind of writer. The lyrics are so suggestive, universal, and penetrating all at the same time. It’s like it’s actually real literature. It hits you in a place that’s beyond reason, beyond rationality, and so at any point in this show I realized you could tear into a song and it’s only going to deepen what’s happening and actually make everything resonate. You don’t know why, but you’ve just got to make space for Bob to make that happen for you.
But it’s not like you could just shuffle them into a different order, right?
No, instinctively you’ve got to say, “I feel this is what should happen now.” But you’re just using your instinct. You’re not using a lot of brain power. Sometimes if someone would say, “What do you think?” I’d go, “I don’t think thinking is going to help us.”
You’re directing this as well, and many of your actors are musical theatre performers who can really act a song. Are you directing their songs in relation to their characters, figuring why they’re singing, what they want, all that?
No, they can’t do that. Nobody in the show is singing to anybody in the show. They’re singing and we’re catching them, sort of in a moment. The actors say to me, “Where is my focus?” Your focus is in the microphone. It’s not in the distance. It’s your own head. It’s allowing the audience to be taken into the character.
Whoever that character is, right? It’s not necessarily Marianne, say, the young woman adopted by the boardinghouse owner and his wife, who sings “Tight Connection.”
Well, if she’s singing it then it is her, but at the same time it’s Bob Dylan and everybody knows that, so it’s like being in a hall of mirrors. It’s like, “What’s going on?”, which in theatre is what you’re always trying to achieve. You’re trying to get a bunch of very disparate things to reflect off each other, and the meaning is somewhere within where the light is bouncing off everything; it’s not necessarily in that image. It’s in the tension between all the different things that are happening.
Most of the songs don’t relate directly to the characters, but it’s hard not to notice that “Hurricane,” a song about middleweight Rubin Carter’s wrongful conviction for murder, is sung by an African American boxer.
That’s almost a deliberate blemish, because it’s so on the nose, character-wise. Of course, it’s completely anachronistic and…
He’s singing about Paterson, N.J.
Right. To me, it’s just irresistible and kind of stupid. It’s probably from an early iteration of how I would make something like this work, a kind of prehistoric throwback to where my ideas might’ve been, and it’s lasted only because I like the song so much.
“Hurricane” goes into a bit of “All Along the Watchtower,” because the chords do kind of match.
And then Marianne starts singing “Idiot Wind.” I had all these Bob Dylan albums in my iPod, and I was walking along and “Idiot Wind” came on. It’s in C minor, a very unusual pop song key—it starts in C minor and it goes to D major and then resolves in G major. It’s bold, big, weird chords. And the way he sings it—it’s one of those recordings, like a lot of Bob’s recordings, where he’s almost throwing it away, like he’s tossing it at the listener almost contemptuously. I was thinking to myself, the melody in that is really stunning, when you sort of just pull it back and get someone to sing it—fuck me, he writes incredibly hooky melodies. Then he, as a recording artist, which is probably separate to him being a songwriter, he’s not very reverent to his own work. We’re a little more reverent.
That’s a great segue for me to ask about “I Want You,” because that’s a song where in Dylan’s original he isn’t even hitting pitches.
That happens a lot, where the melodies are inferred. There’s no other artist like that. But then when you actually go to the inferred melodies, they’re stunning.
He would often sing full out, on pitch, but that song is one where he does the oft-parodied Dylan talk-speak all the way through.
That’s what he does. He’s hearing it and he knows what it is. That’s what I mean—I’m not saying it’s contemptuous, but he doesn’t care if you get it. It’s got a lovely throwaway quality. It’s what gives that song a kind of breeziness. It’s not needy, that’s the thing—it’s very strong. Melodically that’s a stunning song. Even just the chords in there, it’s just beautiful tension all the way through that song. Then when he rises into—he writes great middle eights—he goes up a tone: “How all my fathers, they’ve gone down.” It just soars like Debussy or something there. It’s incredible.
Yeah, it’s true. His bridges or middle eights are often overlooked, because so many of his famous songs are just verse, chorus, verse, chorus.
He writes great middle eights, which he also throws away. It’s amazing.
But if you sing that song on pitch and slow it down, does it lose that breezy quality? Is it more needy?
Sure, except because what they actually sing in the verses is so impossible to understand it escapes the neediness—they don’t really seem to be asking for anything. They’re talking about guilty undertakers and drunken politicians, and it’s like, what the fuck are they singing about? I have no idea. This is what I mean. It’s the way theatre works for me too—within the tension that’s created between not understanding what’s going on and yet at the same time absolutely feeling you do know. Somewhere in that vibration is the great feeling.
So you’ve got quite a few songs from some of Dylan’s less beloved albums: Street Legal, New Morning, the three Christian records. A lot from the ’70s and ’80s. What is it about that overlooked period that attracted you?
I went for the songs that made me feel something, okay? The Woody Guthrie Bob doesn’t do that for me. I was just chasing the music. Part of the great fascination with Bob Dylan early on was the mystery: No one ever felt they could really know him, no one really felt they could understand his songs, and that was what made him perpetually fascinating, as well as the incredible songwriting craft—the songs are built like tanks, they are just unbreakable. But suddenly in the late ’70s, he starts singing in a way that you know exactly what he’s saying. He’s making no attempt to hide anymore. Suddenly you’re getting this glimpse into the engine room of his passions, and it’s an incredible period for him as an artist, because, especially if you look at all the live performances then, he absolutely means it. You are seeing someone who is without guile, without disguise. It’s not easy but he’s doing it, and the songwriting at that point is so meticulous—everything has an intro, verse, chorus, bridge. The backing vocals are arranged superlatively, all the bands are very chosen. Everybody’s playing really good. There’s no out-of-tune guitar on that stuff, whereas sometimes in the ’60s stuff, like on Blonde On Blonde, there’ll be someone whacking away on a guitar, and it’s probably him, and that’s the take he chose to use! That’s not happening in the Christian period. It’s very careful, and it’s got an R&B gospel feel. He’s crossed from white music into black music in a huge way, and it’s opened up enormous energy in his work. Onstage that’s very exciting.
I can hear that more in the live versions than in the original albums. It’s interesting, some of the songs from the Christian era are so on the nose, like “Property of Jesus,” but others—like “Slow Train,” which you have in the show—that’s a pretty obscure metaphor. It is about the Second Coming, or the train to the afterlife?
Each verse seems to be about something completely different. “I had a woman down in Alabama, she was a backwoods girl, she sure was realistic.” That’s not very religious. I think it’s probably about a kind of Armageddon. He got big into Armageddon, into the end of the world and Revelation.
“The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” He did get into a pretty apocalyptic version of Christianity for a while.
The funny thing is that for such a searing intelligence, he doesn’t have a clever take on the Bible. His take on the Bible is literal. He’ll see these metaphors and go, “This stuff is going to happen,” and you’re like, “Really? You really think so?” It’s like, yes, he really believes it. You kind of think: Where were you in your life that this stuff all of a sudden made sense to you? Where did you get to? He might’ve been in a bad place.
I guess I haven’t taken the Christian stuff as seriously as it might deserve, because to me it’s like he just traded in Ma Rainey and Beethoven and Desolation Row for Jesus and the devil. If you read Chronicles, it really sounds like he spent his youth filling his brain with all of American history, literature, the Civil War, the Bible. Then in the Christian period it’s like he’s decided to just pull narrowly from the Bible files of his brain, but in a less freewheeling and ironic way because he’s too reverent about it.
Yeah, there’s no irony in these albums, but they’re beautiful songs. And on Street-Legal, the songwriting is great, just beautiful. I’m always stunned by those songs.
Are there periods that you don’t like? He certainly has had some ups and downs.
I think no matter where he was in his career, there are songs on every album that are better than anybody else could do. He never lost it, but who can stay at the top for 50 years? Nobody has ever done it.
I wanted to ask about “Like a Rolling Stone.” You didn’t pick a lot of hits for Girl From the North Country. Did you put that in because you were thinking, “I should at least throw one in there that people know really well”?
It’s got the same chord structure as “I Want You,” except it’s inverted. Where “I Want You” goes down, it goes up, so we splice them together, and it works really nicely. For me, it was right in the pocket of the very major/minor tension, so it absolutely fit for me. The problem was it’s such an iconic recording, and it was the hardest song for us when we did it in London to figure out how to present. Again, here now, we’re finding it’s the one I keep coming back to, only because it’s such a mountain as an iconic recording.
It’s such a potent thing to put into a show, I imagine.
Also I think it’s a song everybody thinks they know so well, where actually you listen to it and you go, “What’s this about?” It really does seem to be about becoming a vagrant, and the reality of that, the fear of that and what that must be like. So in that sense it’s a very sympathetic song; you really see him getting into that place of the people you walk by on the street every day, and he’s actually in that place with them.
That’s interesting—you’re taking the words at face value. His original is sort of sneering, the way he says, “How does it feel,” but you’re saying, when you really think about it, the words are asking: How does it feel? The great Shirley Anderson sang it in London, and Mare Winningham is singing it here. She’s a tremendous singer. How do their versions compare?
Shirley sang it in a very emotional way. Mare’s sound is a rootsier sound, more American, like a Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris kind of sound. I can’t push it into the kind of Patti Smith place. This is a broader thing too, to do this show with all Americans. Now I’m dealing with people who understand these songs, where they come from, more than me in a way. It was my idea to set it in America, as I’m someone who’s always been fascinated with American culture and who started writing plays, reading Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and David Mamet, so for me it felt kind of natural. But it was always going to be my idea of that stuff as opposed to coming from the fiber of my being. Now that we’re doing it here in New York and we’ve got three generations of American actors, suddenly it’s an education for me of seeing that these songs are coming from these people’s DNA, whereas for the company in London, we were like, “Oh, that’s a very cool Bob Dylan thing.” For these people it’s much more a part of—not going to church, but they grew up with it.
Oh, it’s like church for many of us. One thing that also struck me, as a fan of both your work and Dylan’s work, that on the page this felt like a McPherson play but also something different—like a play that you wouldn’t have written without these songs, which I guess is whole idea.
In a way I am still just that kid strumming my guitar. This is exactly what I probably always was trying to do but just never did it. It’s in one way quite natural. At the beginning it was frightening because you go, “Oh, this is a musical and it’s a Bob Dylan musical,” which sounds a little like something from Spinal Tap—they could get a whole movie out of that. But the thing about Bob is, he doesn’t give a fuck. If I could get myself to that same place, you know what I mean? You’ve got to reach that place of just feeling free.
Apart from “Hurricane,” did you feel drawn to illustrate any of the stories or characters in his songs?
What we found was, the more the songs had nothing to do with what was happening in the play, the better they fit. All his songs have to do with something universal.
I took a few notes, and a few lines in your play read like lines Dylan could have written. At one point Mr. Burke says, “Everybody got to wait in line, just like everybody else.”
I think the way he writes just sounds like the way people talk. A line like, “Look out, kid, it’s something you did, God knows when but you’re doing it again.” George Harrison said that’s a whole karmic philosophy, and it’s true. One of my favorites is from “Jokerman,” where he says, “Shedding off one more layer of skin, keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.” That’s everything right there.
Another line that jumped out at me, not even necessarily for its Dylan sound, was when Elizabeth, the boardinghouse owner’s wife, says, “You know the devil’s only trying to be your friend because you give him your blood.” That’s quite an image.
Yeah, and to be honest with you, I don’t know where that came from.
Really? I guess you can’t get the God or the devil out of your work.
Listen, all of my plays, I think a lot of the time I’m writing a kind of Nativity play. That’s why his songs, to me, they’re like hymns, and this whole thing is like a religious service. I think theatre is ideally built to hold those very transcendent feelings. I can’t say I’m a card-carrying religious person at all, but that feeling you get of the hair standing up on the back of your neck in the theatre—if you can get the energy flowing toward that place where you’re feeling like, this can all just maybe take off through the roof of this theatre. I think Bob’s music is really like that.
To be honest with you, writing a play for me is like writing a song. You’ve got your intro, you’ve got your verse where you’re setting it all up and then you’ve got, “This play’s going to be about this”—that’s your first chorus. Then this comes back, then you’ve got a solo. In a way, writing plays is like having that sense of balance you have in a song, and this is no different.
Have the Dylanologists and superfans been circling around a little bit, in London or here?
Fans seemed to like when we did it in London. I think they thought it would be terrible, but actually they were coming again and again.
Well, we do love a good Dylan cover.
There you go, because you hear it in a new way.