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Does Dylan Belong on Broadway?

You know how you can sometimes tell just from listening to a radio ad whether an upcoming musical theater production is likely to be worth seeing? If the selections chosen for the promotion irk you, what are the chances that you’ll feel differently about the rest of the music in the show?
I loved “Movin’ Out,” the Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp musical. And you could already tell from the promos for “Jersey Boys” that it would do justice to The Four Seasons. But I’m already dubious about “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” choreographer Tharp’s take on another singer/songwriter I esteem, Bob Dylan. (It opens on Broadway this Thursday.)
Many people have successfully covered Dylan songs: The current Morgan Library and Museum show provides recordings of many covers in its listening booths, so that people put off by Dylan’s grating vocals can still appreciate his oeuvre.
The vocals in the radio ads indicate that Tharp’s treatment has given Dylan’s rough-edged music a slick Broadway gloss—essentially killing it. According to the show’s website, “Dylan has contributed to the orchestrations” and has deemed show “the best presentation of my songs I have ever seen or heard on any stage.” I guess he hasn’t seen himself.
Tharp’s Billy Joel adaptation worked because it was true to his spirit and his music, thanks to its Vietnam-era story line and, especially, the perfectly keyed performance of lead vocalist and keyboardist Michael Cavanaugh (who now, according to his website, is reduced to doing corporate gigs).
The story line of the Dylan show is phantasmagorical and, perhaps, allegorical. An article in yesterday’s NY Times Sunday Magazine (which was as much about Alex Witchel‘s difficulties in interviewing Tharp as it was about the show’s gestation), says the play depicts “a traveling circus run by an abusive father at odds with his artistic son; complicating things further is the woman who comes between them.”
According to the Times, it was Dylan who approached Tharp, after the success of ‘”Movin’ Out,” to give him similar treatment. If this enterprise tarnishes his legacy, he can’t say, “It ain’t me, babe.”

an ArtsJournal blog