Girl from the North Country, which has just opened at the Old Vic is not easy to describe. Other theatrical events have had strange origins – for example, most of Peter Sellar’s oeuvre, or Jonathan Miller’s staging of the Matthew Passion; but the genesis of this play with music, written and directed by Conor McPherson, strains the imagination. According to the Old Vic programme essay, about four years ago Bob Dylan’s record company approached the playwright asking “Would I consider using Bob Dylan’s music in a theatre show?” The playwright, most celebrated for The Weir, written in 1997, had never written a musical and, anyway, didn’t consider Dylan’s music as suitable for a musical.
But some weeks later, in his own home city of Dublin, McPherson had an idea – relating Dylan’s songs to the decade-distant background of the songwriter’s own life, Depression-era Minnesota. As we know from McPherson’s later work, this is the sort of material with which he works so well; plus, he is musical himself, having played in bands as a teenager. So he changed his mind and accepted the challenge.
photo Manuel Harlan
Dylan’s record company knew exactly what it was doing. The McPherson/Dylan match is near perfect. The result is a dramatic hybrid of theatre – and something like oratorio – and is completely thrilling. I long to see (and hear) it again, but there’s little chance of that, as it’s probably the hottest ticket in years. Indeed, when the ushers insisted on seeing our tickets again when we returned from the 20-minute interval, I had to wonder whether this was for security reasons, or to prevent people who couldn’t buy tickets sneaking in for the second half?
The structure of the performance is novel, I believe. Set in a boarding house in early 1930s Duluth, Minnesota (where Bobby Zimmerman was born in 1941), the characters are the owner, Nick, his wife Elizabeth who suffers from early-onset dementia, their adopted black daughter, Marianne, and their son Gene; and several boarders – one a sexy widow waiting for her husband’s estate to be probate (who is having an affair with Nick, the landlord), a family with an enormously large, handsome, but brain-damaged son; and a pair who turn up late at night needing beds, an evangelical Christian con-man and a black boxer.
Then there is the local medic, Dr Walter, who is the Our Town-style narrator. He is played by Ron Cook, the only member of the cast I am certain I have seen before. Don’t worry. By the time this has finished its run, most of them will be household names.
The casting is superb – all of them can sing and dance, and several double on drums, keyboards and harmonica. Every one of them manages a mean tambourine or tin-can shaker. The choreography is organic; it just grows out of the music, and makes you appreciate that Dylan’s mastery of rhythm is musical as well as poetic – they’re not totally the same: there’s a difference between metre and measure, between dactyls and sambas. There’s cakewalk, jiving and jitterbug, and the entire loose-limbed ensemble seems to have captured the dancing African-American soul.
photo Manuel Harlan
Dr Walker’s narration sets the time and place, à la Thornton Wilder, and fills in the plot as well as the back-story. The musical numbers, all twenty of them, connect only vaguely, if at all, with the dramatic action – which is about sad love affairs, joblessness, debt, penury, criminal acts past and present, suicide, murder and other cheerful aspects of life during the Great Depression. The characters go – though sometimes only slightly – out of character, often picking up an old-fashioned microphone, and singing directly to the audience. In the background the ensemble boogies away, pairs or trios of them coming front-stage to deliver a chorus or just to add the harmonies. It’s almost like an old-fashioned musical review, except with weaker connections between the theatrical and the musical. The twenty songs are from the whole of Dylan’s songbook from the 1963 title song through the 1965 “Like a Rolling Stone”, to “Hurricane” and “Forever Young” of the 70s, a couple of less familiar songs from his dotty Christian period in the 80s, one from 1997 and “Duquesne Whistle” from 2012, which could easily have been written in the early 60s, when the Nobel Laureate for literature was briefly my flatmate.*
The performances are so uniformly good that I can’t single out any for special praise – you just have to see and hear it yourself. Though there are unlikely to be any tickets for the Old Vic run, I’d be very surprised if this doesn’t get a West End transfer and outdo The Mousetrap in longevity.
The management say they don’t know whether Bob himself has any plans to see Girl from the North Country. As a very, very old acquaintance, I’d urge him to drop in one evening at the Old Vic before it ends on 7 October.
*“Flatmate” gets Nobel Prize for Literature:
My flatmate Bob
The year was 1960 and a guitar-playing drop-out with long hair had just arrived in Chicago to audition for a folk festival. Paul Levy recalls how he took in young Bobby Allen Zimmerman
Friday 11 May 2001
So Bob Dylan is going to be 60, too. Funny, when he slept on my floor for a few nights in 1960, I had thought he was younger than me. Of course, he wasn’t called Dylan then. He was Bobby Allen Zimmerman, a drop-out from the University of Minnesota, just another Jewish kid with long hair, a guitar and ambitions to be a somebody in the kind of music that was then dominated by Pete Seeger and his group, the Weavers.
Dylan – it’s only fair to call him by the name he made his own legally two years later – was a wannabe folk performer waiting for an opportunity to audition for the first annual University of Chicago Folk Music Festival. He did get a try-out, but he failed. The poor kid wandered around looking miserable. He was completely alone, without friends or acquaintances. And he didn’t have anywhere to stay.
I lived in a slum, the ground floor of a house on 53rd Street, in the university area of Hyde Park. I shared the dump with another 19-year-old who came from New York, played the guitar and was also involved in the festival. All the beds and most of the floor space were taken. The rejected kid from Minnesota was going to stick around for the festival, as some important blues artists were scheduled. We let him sleep inside a deep, door-less closet – the only place he could stretch out without being in somebody’s way, or getting trodden on by passers-by. He stayed two or three days. I suppose we must have fed him as well, although we barely managed to feed ourselves.
The committee had been split about whether to allow the kid with the gravelly voice to play a set. I had the deciding vote – and I was against. I shudder to remember my horribly non-PC reasons. Dylan was neither blind nor black, and I was in purist mode: topping the bill were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, both black, and Terry was blind to boot. In retrospect, Dylan would probably have agreed with my position: we learn from Robert Shelton’s groundbreaking biography that Dylan at this time was “the purest of the pure. He had to get the oldest record and, if possible, the Library of Congress record, or go find the original people who knew the original song.” And we learn that he despised rock’n’roll.
It was a time of crisis in this corner of the music world: the folk revival of the 1960s was on its way, and it was about to evolve rapidly into protest music and attract a mass audience. We folk hangers-on never suspected a thing; we thought folk music was a minority interest, like jazz or classical.
I can’t think why I was on that original committee. It seemed to me that I was one of the very few undergraduates at this elite Midwestern university who did not play the guitar. But why did I have the swing vote for this three-day event at Mandel Hall, the university’s largest auditorium? I was compere for some of the concerts of these great figures of the folk world. I remember introducing Terry and McGhee. Maybe that was the reason, or it may have been for political reasons.
The only remotely sophisticated thing about me was that I was Jewish – like Bobby Zimmerman. In the heady days of the civil rights and ban-the-bomb movements, though, it was easy to become rapidly politicised, and soon I was marching on demos and standing on the sidelines cheering our touch-football team, the Flying Bolsheviks. The University of Chicago was an amazing place. I met TS Eliot, Leo Szilard, Claes Oldenburg, Paul Goodman, Josef von Sternberg, Mary MacCarthy, Norman Mailer, Milton Friedman and Hannah Arendt, and was taught by Saul Bellow and Norman Maclean (who wrote A River Runs Through It).
I knew that most of my New York friends were hereditary lefties. What was never spoken of was – in some cases – their parents’ membership of the Communist party. McCarthyism was fresh in the memory, and my friends could remember their parents hiding their volumes of the Little Lenin Library. Some of the graduates were probably old enough to have been party members themselves. I’m sure none of them was still in the Communist party. McCarthyism had made that too dangerous, and it was the height of the cold war.
My own generation’s innocence and idealism were almost impossible to harness for the purposes of the nearly dead communist movement, for we were ignorant of – and indifferent to – the internecine battles that defined our elders’ positions on the left. Folk music was a fertile recruiting ground for the older generation’s new project in which we were rapidly enrolled: the new left.
We were willing to pay good money to hear the black blues singer Josh White, and the black ballad singer Odetta, perform in clubs in Chicago and Greenwich Village (or to venture over to the then black ghetto of 63rd Street in Chicago to hear Ray Charles and lots of other blues singers). The banalisation of folk music by Peter, Paul and Mary was a year in the future. Joan Baez was then hanging around the coffee houses of Cambridge, Massachusetts. When he slept on my floor, Dylan had written a few songs, such as The Klan, but – according to Shelton’s sources – was not really very political himself.
Even so, Dylan’s protest songs seemed like anthems of the new left. Though we’ll never forget the words to Blowin’ in the Wind, the new left programme (and many of its adherents) went the same way Dylan did, and got every bit as chaotic as his career. The New Grove Encyclopaedia of Music says: “In retrospect, Dylan’s folk period (visiting Woody Guthrie, dressing, talking and sounding rural) seems an invention.”
That’s a bit harsh. Dylan was on his way east when he stopped off and stayed with us in Chicago in 1960; he finally arrived in New York in January 1961 and managed to pay a visit to Guthrie, who was confined to a New Jersey hospital with Huntington’s chorea. But look how quickly the lad got on. The New York Times review by Robert Shelton that made his name came only months later – on September 29 1961.
His recording contract with Columbia followed instantly, and his first album came the next year. In summer 1966, when we were 25, Dylan had his motorcycle accident. When we were 38, in 1979, he became a Christian. In 1982 we were 41, and he’d sort of forgotten about his new religion. Seven years later we still weren’t 50, but communism was dead.
Incidentally, when Robert Shelton wrote his biography of Dylan in 1986, he couldn’t account for Bob’s movements between leaving Minnesota and arriving in New York. While one witness placed him in Chicago, others said he spent a few days in Madison, Wisconsin. Well, we’ve filled part of the gap. Nice to feel one’s contributed to scholarship