Graham Reid | | 4 min read
For an investor, theatre is the cruelest of the arts: you simply don't know if the expensive production is going to work until it's in front of an audience. And by then it is too late.
Broadway has taken down some very big names, and the financial backers with them.
Paul Simon's folly The Capeman – which occupied him for seven years and had a script by Nobel-prize winning novelist Derek Walcott – closed after 68 performances and had cost US$11 million to get on stage.
A financier known to Elsewhere could celebrate the success of Jersey Boys but wasn't so lucky with Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, a musical with lyrics and songs by Bono and The Edge of U2.
It initially did well – once it finally got to the stage after innumerable delays – but it was never going to get even close to recouping its US$75 million outlay.
Still, it lasted longer than Into the Light – a musical about scientific analysis of the Shroud of Turin? – which had only six performances.
And who would put any money on a theatre production which featured the music of Bob Dylan?
Even its creator, the Irish writer/director Conor McPherson admitted to Elsewhere in a lengthy interview, “if someone had said, 'Hey, you want to see a Bob Dylan musical?' my response would've been 'No'
“So I recognise it's a tough sell because Bob doesn't fit in the world of musicals. And the world of musicals doesn't want Bob Dylan either!”
But here it is, Girl From the North Country which has enjoyed commercially and critically successful runs in London and on Broadway, has scooped a number of awards and takes its audience into Depression-era America – Duluth, Dylan's hometown – for a dark ride through violence, madness, repressed sexuality and poverty.
All with songs by Bob Dylan.
If it sounds bleak, it can be. This is a serious piece of musical theatre delivered by an international cast and the few laughs there are come as welcome.
But the storylines – multiple characters with different backgrounds and secrets – are deftly woven together and Dylan's lyrics echo some characters' inner thoughts, gently move the narrative forward or add another dimension to the narrative.
Bookended by comment from the Doctor/Narrator in the manner of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion (although less whimsical), Girl From the North Country plays out in a boarding house where the white family struggle to stay solvent in the troubled times, and their adopted black daughter is pregnant but with no father in sight.
There is a suitor for her companionship, various guests, a couple of fugitives passing through and . . .
Yes, a dark ride.
But somehow the cast bring not just the characters to life but the palpable tension that crackles between many of them, leavened at times by the songs delivered with uplifting gospel spirit by the ensemble.
It's the kind of musical where Dylan's Tight Connection to My Heart, I Want You, Idiot Wind and Pressing On are rethought and sometimes take on very different meanings and emotions.
With live musicians on stage and the songs woven through (sometimes just snippets of Dylan or two songs segued together) Girl From the North Country is a musical which takes its art seriously and delivers a powerful series of stories.
Director McPherson – who had Dylan's permission to use any songs he wanted – had a keen sense that Girl From the North Country was going to be a success.
“I remember the first preview and we got to the interval and I was backstage making a cup of tea and there was a Tannoy so backstage could hear what was happen on stage.
“That was still on and I could hear the audience and that buzz, and it felt like a really positive energy.
“So I watched the rest of it and towards the last few minutes I thought if they start shifting around we'd have lost them. But they didn't and then at the end of the response was incredibly spontaneous.
“I've done enough plays and previews to know if something works, it works or it doesn't. If it doesn't you can change things, but it doesn't help if it doesn't have it.
“I knew we were alright.
“But more than alright, we'd done something quite new and it's worked.”
If there is one thread which seems slightly tacked-on it is that of the black boxer who insists he has been wrongly accused of a crime (cue Hurricane).
That seems an attempt to shoe-horn a Dylan hit into a narrative which otherwise allows a number of less familiar lyrics to carry the additional dimension they bring.
As McPherson told Elsewhere, “When Bob Dylan saw the show he met some of the cast who went to see his concert in New York and there is a song in our show True Love Tends to Forget [from Street Legal].
“I guess he hadn't thought about it for a long time and he said to them, 'Well, what do you know, turns out that's a good song'. ”
Girl From The North Country with an international cast plays at the Civic Theatre in Auckland for a season from July 5
You can hear the original Broadway cast recording of Girl From the North Country at Spotify here.
Elsewhere has created a playlist of the Dylan originals used in Girl From The North Country here
Elsewhere tries to take a different approach to reviewing live concerts, often looking at the bigger picture or wider context rather just a setlist recount of the show.
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