Reflections after seeing preview of GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at Public Theatre. Written and directed by Conor McPherson incorporating songs by Bob Dylan.
What makes a musical, what makes a jukebox musical, what is a song supposed to do when juxtaposed with dramatic dialogue? In general, a song condenses and distills while (live theatre) dialogue tends to expand. A song following a dramatic moment is expected to bring that dialogue into an interiority that dialogue may not be able, at least within the strictures of theatrical realism, to access or sustain (I think this is a variation on something Sondheim said). But what if it doesn’t? Or if you know the song already from another context (an inherent issue in a jukebox musical) and/or another voice? An interesting tension appears in GIRL FROM NORTH COUNTRY that sometimes serves dramatic tension and at other times seems either arbitrary or a little too “on the nose;” especially with the songs delivered one-after-the-other. But because this is the elevated human voice, technically strong and emotionally engaged for the most part, those issues are subsumed under the glory of the voices, Dylan’s very un-Broadway music/lyrics, and the slow forward movement of the plot. Song and book merge and diverge, as these songs have their own “plots” which are very different structurally from theatrical drama. And of course there is the “plot” that we bring to them in our familiarity with them in other contexts. I had to try to suspend that identification with some of the songs. It’s perhaps liberating to hear them in a voice that is not Dylan’s, though I have had that opportunity in individual songs (Nina Simone, The Byrds, Emmylou Harris, even Sarah Vaughn if my memory serves) Some iconic, some not so much. Here, we are hearing for the most part beautifully strong textured voices adding emotional color to these songs that in several cases provide a very different context.
It’s difficult not to recognize the dramatic structure McPherson seems to be adapting. We are in a variation of Grover’s Corner, the fictional group drama established in Wilder's OUR TOWN, or perhaps in Lanford Wilson’s HOT L BALTIMORE. It’s an evocative structure, and one that allows for a relaxed flow between talk and song. Has OUR TOWN ever been re-thought as a series of songs? This one is set in Duluth (Dylan’s birthplace), in a boarding house during the Great Depression, something neither Dylan or McPherson lived through, providing perhaps a bit of aesthetic distance.
This was not what I expected, having assumed that Dylan and McPherson’s collaboration meant new songs specifically written for this drama. Instead, McPherson sorted through Dylan’s songbook and selected. Did he write the script first or find the songs first? Dunno. I’m assuming he came up with the basic structure of the piece after some deep listening, and then placed the songs. Perhaps that’s what we do as listeners when we are familiar with the collected works of a specific songwriter. We place them in some version of our own internal drama. Or not.
Does the drama (the book) live up to the songs? Around intermission I realized that isn’t what matters. This is a re-presentation of the familiar; let that be what it is. There was only one glaring violation, when the treatment of “Hurricane,” from the glorious 1976 album Desire, turned a song about a man unfairly arrested and imprisoned into a kind of barnyard stomp. It worked rhythmically, but wrenched the song out of its political/social context, putting a smile where there needs to be a snarl.
There are a few times when I wondered if McPherson didn’t quite grip the context in which the songs were originally written and sung. That’s another potential problem with resets, but it also gives a song a chance to break out on its own.