A couple of years ago, when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, a lot of us thought carefully about whether or not a Dylan song is “literature.” Dylan himself was surprised to find his work evaluated in that light, so he and we spent a while pushing around ideas about his approach to text and the nature of a lyric without its tune. In Conor McPherson’s play-with-music Girl From the North Country, now on Broadway, you get to have an upside-down version of that conversation all over again. The Irish playwright McPherson was given carte blanche to use Dylan’s songs in a theatrical treatment, and the not-exactly-jukebox result is an Americana-flavored atmospheric. So what’s left when Dylan’s literary lyrics are abraded away by deliberate misreadings? What’s left when all those wildly varying songs are smoothed into pretty, same-sounding mood pieces? Dylan without the music wins a Nobel — but Dylan’s music without the meaning wins…less.
McPherson, who also directs and co-arranged some songs, responded to the Dylan corpus by dumping all elements of biography but one: his birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota. McPherson then concocted a soap-opera version of Depression Era Duluth, extremely hard-up yet surprisingly diverse and rich in complication. The staging itself evokes a radio drama: As the company fills an empty stage with pieces of mismatched ’30s furniture, Doc (Robert Joy), a knockoff of the Stage Manager from Our Town, grabs a microphone to give us the character rundown. We’re in a hotel run by Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), who is perilously close to foreclosure and ruin, constantly distressed by his wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), who has dementia, and mildly involved with a boarder, Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle). He’s also keenly irritated with his children, the drunk writer-wannabe Gene (Colton Ryan) and pregnant-but-unmarried Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl). The hotel and town have their own crooks and seekers too, but despite the many satellite narratives McPherson throws up in orbit, Nick is clearly his central point. Don’t worry about that title — swap out that “Girl” for a Man.
Doc, when he gets on that Garrison Keillor mic, talks very quickly. It’s the winter of 1934, and the economy is about to tear all these people apart. Before that, he’s got to download whole life stories, like how a young black Marianne wound up the white Laines’ adopted daughter, how she got pregnant (a hint that it might be a supernatural child goes nowhere) and whether a new arrival, the boxer Joe (Austin Scott), might be a good or a bad suitor for her. There are ten other characters, jockeying for our attention too, who often rally together for foot-stompin’ arrangements of Dylan songs from deep down in the catalogue. You will not hear “Blowin’ in the Wind,” my friends. You will hear “Idiot Wind” instead; you will hear “True Love Tends to Forget.”
McPherson can cram a dozen stories into two and a half hours because he works in sketches, using quickly recognizable clichés which let us fill in the outlines for ourselves. The Bible salesman (Matt McGrath) with the greasy hair? A villain, obviously, no need to show us why. The tall, strong man (Todd Almond) with the mind of child? Don’t bother explaining that he’s got terrible violence in him, because we all read Of Mice and Men in junior high. McPherson’s plays, many of them spectacularly good, have sometimes used these thick crayon-strokes — those self-deceiving, gamble-happy drunks in The Seafarer are recognizable when they walk onstage too. But when McPherson writes in Irish stereotype, American eyes smile. When he rocks up trying to deploy our stereotypes? My eyes got very narrow indeed.
McPherson’s main dramaturgical problem here is magnitude. The size of the show is wrong, the size of the stories, the scenes, everything. It’s simultaneously too long and too short — at times, so many people are getting introduced, it feels like a pilot episode, setting up the machinery for a ten-episode season. We know McPherson, when undistracted by songs, has one of the great senses of theatrical balance: He wrote plays like The Weir and The Night Alive, so perfect that they seem to continue on even after they’re over, like a bicycle still wheeling along with the rider gone. That equilibrium abandons him in this, his first musical — he hasn’t worked out how to get into songs gracefully, nor how to disguise that repetitive, get-to-the-next-number structure.
And there’s something perverse about the way Dylan’s lyrics are handled. We are kind of meant to pay attention to them, kind of not. For instance, the boxer Joe sings a gale-force version of “Hurricane,” which is indeed about a boxer. Those parts, you’re allowed to process. But you should also be cool enough to ignore all the lyrics about “the hot New Jersey night,” since that part’s obviously not applicable. What is signalling here? What’s just noise? The push-me-pull-you annoyance of it leaves you unwilling to parse the lyrics at all. This reaches its absolute peak when the wonderful Luba Mason — a hotel tenant with secrets and woes to spare — sings “Señor” glumly, but with intensity. “Señor, señor” she croons, scuffing the floor with her shoe. What? You have to laugh.
Part of your response will depend on your reverence for Dylan’s originals — and at the very least, your familiarity with them. Be warned, Bobsessives: Simon Hale’s arrangements — lovely and folksy and full of tambourines — sometimes depart from the musical spirit of the versions you know. To turn the bitter-toned, up tempo “I Want You” into a love song, for instance, the team has slowed the pace like the molasses done froze. After a brief scene in which we meet Kate for the first and only time, Gene (Colton Ryan) and Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) come kissing-close, and sing “I want you” a dozen times, very deliberately. The lyrics make sense here. They do in fact want each other — but the originally spiky song takes on a new, syrupy flavor.
It’s also where McPherson sets up what will become a pattern for how the music functions. Someone will do something awful. Let’s say Gene shrieks at Kate, driving away a girl who clearly cares for him. Gene establishes that he’s a self-pitying, aggressive creep; Kate establishes that she is out of there. And then they sing to each other so we can see the “truth” of the moment — that they are acting this way out of sorrow and love. This happens a number of times: In a spoken scene, people are cold or deranged or, in one crucial case, a murderer, and then they sing very emotionally while the light kisses them gently from above. Because the lyrics don’t always mean anything, the music does the talking. And what it says again and again is: See this person whose behavior is bad? Underneath, there is a beautiful soul, singing.
As dramatic metaphysics, that’s an interesting way to use music. Ethically, though, I’m more than a little troubled at the amount of forgiveness the music ladles out. Frankly, after a father (Marc Kudisch) kills his cognitively disabled Lenny-ish son, who is himself a danger to the young girls of the north country, I would like for them not to unite in Song Space while warbling, gorgeously, about the “Duquesne Whistle.” Given their rapturous expressions, the Whistle is supposed to be a metaphor for parental love and filial grace and the glory that passeth understanding, but one of them just killed the other one. Not only do these choices rob the lyrics of any meaning, they rob the plot of any sense of consequence too.
Over the course of the show, the mismatch between the gloomy every-man-for-himself script and the ecstatic every-voice-raised-in-song arrangements grows increasingly silly. We watch the community of Duluth gather over and over, pitching in to play instruments, harmonizing around ribbon microphones or dancing at a Thanksgiving celebration, all while McPherson’s script insists that they’re all sad and unsupported and suicidal. So at some point, you just…divorce the music in your mind. Experienced as a concert with occasional wrong-headed interruptions, Girl from the North Country has some gorgeous stuff in it: the company’s voices sweetly gathered;, Bayardelle stripping the paint of the Belasco walls with her incandescent high belt, Winningham’s clear, effortful voice infusing real pathos into “Like a Rolling Stone,” Almond wailing on the harmonica, Mason whaling on the drums. Their joyful noise is what I’ll remember. The rest—let’s agree to forget it. Best to lose some things to that blowing wind.
Girl From the North Country is at the Belasco Theatre.
*A version of this article appears in the March 16, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!