Conor McPherson. Girl From the North Country. Directed by Conor McPherson, 12 Nov.
2021, Belasco Theatre, New York.
REVIEW BY James O’Brien
Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, is one of two Broadway productions since 2006 that prominently incorporate Bob Dylan’s songs. Critics have attributed both of these productions to the genre, or sub-genre, of jukebox musicals – featuring songs by artists predating the given show’s creation, typically recorded by known and famous musical artists – in these cases, Dylan.
The earlier of the two was Twyla Tharp’s production of The Times They Are a-Changin’, its story set in a circus and focusing on a father-son relationship. Opening in 2006, the musical closed on Broadway after twenty-eight performances and critical reception that questioned its reportedly literal staging of Dylan’s lyrics and music. While critical reception to Girl From the North Country has been significantly better than reviewers’ take on Tharp’s work, McPherson’s presentation of Dylan’s songs is challenging in its own way, and the production warrants attention in light of how it incorporates music and lyrics, and to how audiences experience new versions of known songs within a jukebox musical.
Girl From the North Country is set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan was born in 1941) in the winter of 1934, during the Great Depression. The house’s proprietor, Nick Laine, lives in and runs the place while caring for his wife, Elizabeth, who has dementia and is dependent on the town doctor for steadying narcotic doses. Laine strives to persuade his son, Gene, a would-be writer, to take work with the railroad and so help support the household. Meanwhile, Nick’s business partner and lover, Mrs. Neilsen, also lives in the house, and the two plan for the day her inheritance will allow them to escape together to another town. With them lives Marianne, whom Nick took in as a child, and who is now pregnant, but by whom it is not clear. Laine plans to marry Marianne off to Mr. Perry, an elderly cobbler in town.
These relationships occupy act one. Also entering the mix are a preacher, Mr. Marlowe, and his coincidental traveling companion Scott, a boxer just out of prison for a robbery he denies committing. They arrive on a stormy night. Fights ensue, and arguments include a sloppy punch-up between Gene and Scott. However, when Scott meets Marianne, they kindle a new and hopeful spark. Complicating the development, though, is the character of Mr. Burke, a washed-up businessman staying in the house with his bitter wife and their son, Elias, a grown man with a child’s mind. Burke recognizes Scott from watching him in the ring and pressures him to hire his services as a manager. Meanwhile, Marlowe, the preacher, suspects that Elias has killed a child, and he attempts to extort money from Mr. Burke to keep the information from the police.
These scenes play in the run-up to the night of the second act, the eve of Thanksgiving. It is a night of strife. Lodgers run out of credit, characters disclose old traumas, lose inheritances, plan escapes, attempt robberies, and Elias mysteriously drowns during a walk with his father near the river. As the dust settles, Nick gives his son Gene some money and suggests that he and Elizabeth will soon take their own lives to end their troubles.
Throughout these scenes, characters sing and perform parts of nineteen works from Bob Dylan’s catalog. Songs also play from an on-stage radio, or the actors play them on pianos and other instruments as part of the action story during a party or a moment alone in the house. The selections encompass albums Dylan released between 1963 and 2012, with nine of the nineteen drawn from records issued in the 1970s – New Morning, The Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Planet Waves, Street Legal, and Slow Train Coming.
When it comes to the jukebox musical, a framework under which audiences and critics can consider Girl From the North Country, the roots of the production approach rest in the 1970s and 1980s. Jukebox musicals achieved significant popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the production of Mamma Mia! (drawing on songs recorded by the group ABBA).
Before then – at least since the 1940s – musicals typically wove songs into the narrative, advancing the story and revealing new details of the characters, their motivations, and the plot. However, the jukebox musical positions the songs as a primary draw, especially in the cases of well-known songwriters and groups. In examples such as Mamma Mia!, there is an original story featuring the songs with a degree of narrative or thematic integration that does not explicitly reference the creators of the songs. In other cases, the jukebox musical presents a tribute to a genre or an era – such as Rock of Ages, focusing on rock music of the 1980s – and the concept of the genre or era is central to the audience’s experience. And then, sometimes, the focus is on the biography of a given musical artist, such as Lennon, and the action of the musical’s book presents the story of that artist’s life and often traces the creation of the songs performed. Still, other approaches blur the framework, and boundaries soften, as they do when genres and formats overlap. For example, there is something of the jukebox musical in Springsteen on Broadway, but in performance (and marketing), it was the artist in person, performing from a script and playing his own songs. Given time, formats tend to exceed tidy definitions.
Likewise, Girl From the North Country takes more than one approach from the jukebox musical’s book. For example, at the start of act one, when the ensemble forms a band and performs “Sign On The Window,” Dylan’s song serves primarily as diegetic music for the scene. It does not convey a narrative or give information about the characters or the setting, save perhaps setting a mood with the help of lyrics that speak of loneliness and crowded quarters. Similarly, when the company opens act two with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” – segueing somewhat unexpectedly into “Jokerman” – the performance is arguably thematically relevant but no more explicitly narrative than “Sign On The Window.” Shortly after the singing stops, the doctor dispenses narcotics, and the characters talk about infidelity, suicide, and addiction. While there is some relevance to be noticed in the lyrics of the immediately preceding performances – topics of stasis, the lure of comfort, or perhaps the nature of a “joker man” in one’s midst – the incorporation of Dylan’s lyrics is not specific or pertinent to the action on stage.
In other cases, the show gives Dylan’s songs in ways that suggest a more narratively linked approach. In the first act, Gene and his departing girlfriend Kate lament the end of their relationship. They sing parts of Dylan’s song “I Want You.” The song’s sentiment is in the right place, and the lyrics correlate with what the script has told us about these characters. We can even consider these lines in light of inner desires – the couple is parting, yet their longing for each other remains. Still, Girl From the North Country confounds neatly arrived at expectations. In the same scene, as Kate returns a necklace to Gene – a token of their relationship – the action is accompanied by kaleidoscopic lines: “The guilty undertaker sighs / The lonesome organ grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I should refuse you.”
The constructions and imagery of Dylan’s more freewheeling lyrics tilt toward being at odds with the actors in action, complicating the literal action with the introduction of undertakers and organ grinders and a chorus of silver saxophones. The performance and its forlorn delivery speak to the themes of Gene’s and Kate’s relationship. Still, it also uncouples those themes from the plainness – and plains-ness – of the setting and characters, the prosaic, penniless plaid and dungarees of a Minnesota heartbreak in 1934.
Another complication is that Dylan’s lyrics do not always sync with the given details of the characters and setting. For example, while it’s possible to correlate some of the lyrics of “Hurricane” with the character Scott, the fugitive boxer who sings part of it in the second act, the details of Rubin Carter’s plight provided in Dylan’s lyrics are significantly different from the story Scott tells in Girl From the North Country. As the song goes, its action is set “on a hot New Jersey night” decades later than Scott’s story; the action of “Hurricane” is a long way from winter in Minnesota, 1934. Anachronism is the case McPherson gives us. Approaching “Hurricane” in the context of Scott, the character, one way to frame these convergences of lyrics and script is to consider them as layers, as a way of situating and deepening Scott’s story. His is one of many similar tales; he isn’t the only Black person “in the joint serving somebody else’s stretch” (as he says in a line from the script). If so, the gain of layering “Hurricane” into Scott’s scene is to elevate the character from one time and place – an everyman of some sort – to one that spans times and places. Under this light, the mentioning of characters in the song Scott sings – Patty Valentine from the upper hall, a man named Bello, and so on – means that the role of this lyric, and perhaps a function of other instances throughout McPherson’s production, is to move the musical around mysteriously. Dylan’s songs comment in some way on the story, but obliquely and occasionally in a fashion that seems out of time with the action on the stage.
One factor at work within an audience that goes to see a musical such as Girl From the North Country is a desire to see and hear performances of the songs that Bob Dylan wrote. In that context, any jukebox musical performance markets to and attracts its attendees with the same dynamic. At the core of the experience is the lure of the cover version: new renditions and interpretations of the songs.
There are aspects to the experience of the cover song, whether performed for an audience or issued on a recording, that are often part of the audience’s expectations. Audiences and listeners commonly expect a cover song by an artist or group to present an interpretation of a well-known version of the work. A significant driver of the cover song’s reception lies in the differences – and the similarities – as apprehended in the context of the well-known version that the covering artist is referencing. Given an artist that changes his own recorded songs in sometimes radical ways, on record and in performance (though it would be problematic to refer to these variants as cover versions), much of Dylan’s audience is deeply familiar with the underlying concept of differences between versions and the pleasure or displeasure (or indifference) these introduced changes can elicit.
However, in the case of jukebox musicals, cover versions performed on stage often manifest differently. The performances can be diegetic, part of the story and not referencing, acknowledging, celebrating, or being explicitly bound to any knowledge of the songwriter or their catalog directly (while a cover song, by its nature, is almost always bound to its referent). Conversely, the cover versions in some jukebox musicals do present a celebration or an accounting of an artist’s music and career that explicitly references and acknowledges the songwriter of focus. There are also differences in how audiences can experience the cover versions of the songs that a jukebox musical incorporates. Chief among these are the cast albums released for listening without the context of the on-stage actors and sets. Each of these manifestations is significant in terms of the songs and their consideration as cover versions.
For example, in Girl From the North Country, the differences between the well-known versions of the songs in question and the versions performed on stage are almost always rooted in the diegesis. The characters sing the songs Dylan wrote in the context of the musical’s scripted setting and action. A dance. A lament for a lover. A flight of imagination or release. It is not clear that an audience watching the production receives these performances as cover versions in the traditional sense, as far as the root definition goes: a performance or recording that prioritizes attention to the differences and similarities from a well-known preceding work. Instead, for the audience in the theater, while a listener may note the differences between the way “I Want You” is performed on stage in Girl From the North Country and the version they’ve heard on Blonde on Blonde, within the context of the musical the differences in the arrangement are tied to character, plot and setting. This is an experience distinct from, say, listening to a recording of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” in which his electrified interpretation is considered against Dylan’s subdued performance on John Wesley Harding, which is the primary – and perhaps only – context at work.
That said, the experience of the cover version is different yet again when it comes to the cast recording of Girl From the North Country. The album released in 2021 does not include dialog or any other audible context for the songs. So, a listener who puts on the album with no knowledge of the characters, plot, or setting of the musical almost certainly approaches these recordings as cover versions free of diegesis. This would be an experience more like listening to Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.” What are the differences in play? What are the similarities? Pleasure, displeasure, or indifference. The same feelings may well arise for the spectator in the theater seat, but the whole of the experience is no longer coupled to the primary context of the cover version and the recorded artist’s interpretation; instead, the experience of the differences and similarities is couched in the on-stage action and story.
The cover version, then, and its pleasures (and risks) must be a term and an experience bound to the circumstances of its presentation. Girl From the North Country knows this, and the dynamic becomes especially evident during one of two concert-style performances of Dylan’s songs within the production. There is a moment when the character Elizabeth, played by Mare Winningham, sings “Like A Rolling Stone,” which starts as a spare, slow piano-based lamentation and then turns into something closer to the version first released in 1965 on Highway 61 Revisited. About a minute and a half into the song, a band enters the arrangement, ramping up to a solo drumbeat, a sudden measure of silence, and then the performance reemerges as an upbeat gospel-rock version of the song buoyed by a chorus that would have sounded at home on Dylan’s 1979–80 gospel tour.
When Winningham performed the song on November 12, 2021, at Belasco Theatre in New York, she stood at the stage’s apron, bent at the knees, leaning into the music and Dylan’s lines. There was something familiar at work in even the blocking and choreography. If a member of the audience in 2021 had happened to see Dylan sing in years recently preceding, especially in the 2010s when he often performed without playing an instrument, letting the band take the parts, wielding only a microphone, occasionally dipping at the knees, then Winningham’s knee-bending, song-and-dance moves suggested a point of reference or tribute, or cover, there in the moment at the edge of the stage. Such tribute is also the work of a jukebox musical, and the closest Girl From the North Country comes, on stage to giving the cover version in its common context, a significant role to play.
Braun, Kimberly. Jukebox Musicals. Masters thesis, Gustavus Adolphus College, 2019, 1. Accessed
April 23, 2022. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6107&context=etd
Kennedy, Michael and Joyce. “cover (version).” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, edited by
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