As a Dublin-born playwright with no musical theater experience, Conor McPherson didn’t understand why he was approached nearly a decade ago about deploying the Americana classics of Bob Dylan in a stage show. But despite his initial trepidation, the esteemed dramatist couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities.
Dismissing the biographical jukebox musical structure — in which a body of existing songs is used to tell a musician’s or group’s story onstage — McPherson considered the kind of fable that could accompany Dylan’s mournful melodies and timeless lyrics. Inspired by experiences visiting Dylan’s home state of Minnesota in the dead of winter, McPherson (whose “The Seafarer” is playing at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre) subsequently conceived of a 1930s tale set around Thanksgiving at a Duluth flophouse, where disparate, hard-luck souls could interact in a Eugene O’Neill-like drama.
“So I just typed out a couple of pages with this idea and sent it off,” says McPherson, 52. “As I remember it, within a few days, I got word back to say that Bob Dylan liked this idea. ‘He’s happy for you to go ahead and to just use whatever songs you want. You can just do whatever you want with them.’ And I was like, ‘What?’”
So McPherson got to work on writing and, eventually, directing the musical “Girl From the North Country.” After a 2017 London premiere, 2018 off-Broadway run and 2020 Broadway debut — yielding seven Tony nominations, including best musical — the poignant portrait of Depression-era hardship in the Midwest embarked this year on a North American tour that’s running at the Kennedy Center Dec. 12-31.
While the show features more than a dozen selections from the Dylan songbook, it has been widely hailed for not feeling like much of a jukebox musical, as McPherson wields those tunes not as plot devices but as expressionistic insights into his characters. During a recent video call from his Dublin home, McPherson traced the steps to incorporating five of the Dylan songs featured in “North Country.”
(Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
‘Tight Connection to My Heart’
Marianne Laine, the pregnant, adopted daughter of the family that runs the boardinghouse in “North Country,” performs a longing version of this groovy earworm from the 1985 album “Empire Burlesque.” Appearing early in Act 1, the stripped-down song comes as Marianne is falling for a new houseguest — a penniless convict fresh out of prison — just as her father is setting her up to marry an older, more financially blessed widower.
Marianne is in a difficult situation, so immediately you go to songs which are going to speak to that. One was a song from the late ’90s called “Lovesick.” It’s a really great song, but it was just too obvious. “Yeah, her situation is that, and now the song is that.” Everyone would be looking at their watch going, “What’s the next thing?”
But then there was “Tight Connection to My Heart.” It’s got a real ’80s production on it, but underneath it was buried this other song, which we began to explore by having our performer in the first production, Sheila Atim, sing it in a completely different way. It was really beautiful and much more oblique. The song didn’t seem to just bang right into Marianne’s situation. It seemed to glance off it with suggestive images. It was a real showstopper.
‘I Want You’
Gene Laine, Marianne’s alcoholic brother, performs this traditionally peppy tune as an aching duet with his ex-girlfriend, Kate Draper, after she breaks the news that she’s engaged and moving to Boston. Still, the former lovers can’t help but fan the flames of their smoldering romance — as evidenced by their achingly harmonized take on “I Want You,” off the 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.”
This is one of my all-time favorite Bob Dylan songs, and it had been before we ever did the show. So trying to find a way to get it in felt right. It works for us in a couple of ways. Even though we see a couple and things are not working out for them, by allowing them to sing this song together, we see an ideal version of what would happen if they could just work it out. But we know it’s not really happening.
Although the chorus is saying, “I want you, I want you so bad,” the verses have nothing to do whatsoever with any kind of romantic relationship. “The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ grinder cries, the silver saxophones say I should refuse you” — it’s just incredible imagery coming at you. That is what’s so great about what Bob does: He pushes you to think about something else. It’s not just a song saying, “I love you.” It seems so much more than that, and you don’t even know what the “more than that” is. You just feel it and sense it and intuit it.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’
The show’s most recognizable chart-topper arrives late in Act 1, when Elizabeth Laine, the dementia-afflicted matriarch, steps up to the microphone and belts out the ubiquitous anthem off the 1965 record “Highway 61 Revisited.” Although it’s Elizabeth’s number, the lyrics’ existential anxieties — “How does it feel to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?” — could apply to any of the adrift characters’ plights.
I mean, this is not just a song — it’s an artifact in the history of pop music. It just comes at you like a tornado. Having said that, it’s also really, really beautiful. It has a gorgeous minor-key chord progression in the verses but then has a beautiful three-chord rock-and-roll major chorus. So it gives that sense of release.
The first production we did [in London], Shirley Henderson was very much unleashing some kind of unhinged energy. When we got to America and did it with Mare Winningham, her energy was more in that rootsy kind of place. And the great thing about that song is that it’ll go wherever you want to push it — it’s so sturdy. Jennifer Blood plays Elizabeth in this production you’ll see at the Kennedy Center, and she sings the hell out of it.
The song feels so fresh, even now, that it could’ve been written last week. To me, it’s a song about the fear of homelessness. It’s so at the heart of all the insecurities that are amongst these people all trying to figure out how to live. It just sits perfectly.
‘Girl From the North Country’
McPherson takes a stealthier approach to incorporating the show’s title tune, which comes off the 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” As Marianne’s older suitor, Mr. Perry, launches into a diatribe on mortality, backing singers concurrently deliver Dylan’s forlorn lyrics about a lost love.
A lot of people don’t think the song “Girl From the North Country” is in the show, but we do it. It’s sung a cappella with beautiful harmonies underneath this scene where Mr. Perry explains to Marianne that they’re both in a desperate situation and that he really is at the end of his life.
We were just trying to always find new ways to hear the songs and to present them and to perform them and to arrange them. We’re getting toward halfway through the second act here, so we’re really reaching into new places. It’s a real favorite of mine. I love that moment.
Joe Scott, a nomadic boxer rebuilding his life after a wrongful conviction, waits until Act 2 to unleash his resentments with a fierce rendition of this protest song off the 1976 record “Desire.” Written about the imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the pointed lyrics echo Joe’s circumstances without presenting a one-to-one parallel to the character’s backstory.
It’s the song which is probably most on the nose in terms of what the character has experienced in the story. So it’s a different feeling. Suddenly, it seems to coalesce in the show in a way that the songs don’t really do at other points. I just love the sense of anger that comes off that song, and I love the history that’s contained in that song where Bob Dylan got behind the cause of Rubin Carter.
When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963, his support act that day was Bob Dylan. He was right at the forefront of that movement in the early ’60s to try and change things and try and get some kind of perception of racial equality. And he went out there and put his money where his mouth was. Just incredible energy comes off the song because of that.
Girl From the North Country
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.
Dates: Dec. 12-31.