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Conor McPherson on Being Inspired by Bob Dylan’s Music

For the celebrated Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Girl From the North Country represents a number of firsts: his first musical, his first work set in the United States, and, oh yes, his first project commissioned by Bob Dylan — the first theater piece ever commissioned by the iconic Nobel Prize–winning singer/songwriter.

Technically, it was Dylan’s management team who approached McPherson — known for psychologically and spiritually stirring plays such as The Weir, The Seafarer, and Shining City — about structuring a book around selections from their client’s vast cherished catalog. McPherson assembled “a very short treatment, maybe two pages,” he recalls. “That was sent off to Bob Dylan, and then his management came back very quickly and said, ‘You could do what you like.’ I was quite stunned.”

Since then, Girl has been staged to glowing reviews — under McPherson’s direction — at London’s Old Vic on the West End, and Off-Broadway at the Public Theater. Currently launching a Toronto run, the show will then head to Broadway, where it’s set to begin previews February 7 and open March 5 at the Belasco Theatre.

The musical is set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s hometown, during the Great Depression. (Dylan himself was born a bit later, in 1941.) “The last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘30s,” McPherson says. “It’s a decade we need to be studying now, as we face more borders, more walls, more division.” The conceit felt “instinctive. Usually when an idea comes I have no control over it, and often the first idea is the only one I have. And musically, this freed the songs up; by setting it in the ‘30s, we could do them another way. I knew I wanted a lot of vocals, and a lot of choral harmonies.”

A guitarist himself, McPherson had always been interested in Dylan’s music, but he admits, “I was not one of those people who could cover every decade of his career. I had about six albums. Then this project came along, and it took me into a whole other realm. I became interested in stages a lot of people don’t know about — like when he became a born-again Christian, and he was making these terrific albums, fired up by his passions and his belief. Then he moved in other directions, and I wanted to follow him on his various journeys.”

In crafting Girl, McPherson was also “trying to include songs that were not the ones everyone knew, though they meant something to me. A lot of the time, the songs actually have very little to do with what’s going on in the story, but they reveal something about the story that you didn’t know about. That’s how great a writer Dylan is.”

For McPherson, the song “Hurricane” is used in the most literal context. Dylan wrote it about the black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent nearly two decades in prison after having been wrongfully convicted for homicide in the 1960s. The downtrodden characters who pass through Girl include a talented boxer, also black, whose fledgling career is unjustly thwarted by the law.

McPherson was mindful of “racial inequality in the United States, and everywhere now” in crafting Girl, and of the inspiration Dylan has continually drawn from African American traditions. “I think Bob Dylan was influenced by so many different types of music. He was influenced by gospel music as much as he was by Woody Guthrie. Even when he went into his born-again Christian phase, it’s pretty much gospel music — he has a gospel choir singing with him. I wanted to bring that feeling of liberation, and of expressing the feeling of being threatened, of what it’s like to be judged mostly by the color of your skin.”

Other songs included in Girl, as of the Public production, range from “Went to See the Gypsy” — of which McPherson muses, “Some people say it’s about when Bob Dylan met Elvis, but Bob Dylan claims he never met Elvis” — to favorites such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “I Want You.” Each time the musical has been presented thus far, McPherson notes, “we’ve tried to squeeze in another song, but I don’t know if there’s any space left. You’re inspired by the performers. If new people are involved, you get new ideas.”

But McPherson adds that the Broadway incarnation is being built “around the Public production, so hopefully we’ll get as many performers back as we can.” (The recently announced Broadway cast includes many holdovers, among them Mare Winningham, playing the mentally decaying but still painfully alert woman who runs the boarding house with her husband — a role that earned Shirley Henderson an Obie Award across the pond.)

Working on Girl has proven so gratifying that, McPherson quips, “it’s almost hard now for me to conceive of writing a play where people are not going to sing. I don’t know how I’m going to go back.”

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

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