Mare Winningham and Simon Hale on Adapting Bob Dylan for Broadway

She’s a veteran stage and screen actress, a singer/songwriter, and she has several albums, two Emmy Awards, and Tony and Oscar nominations under her belt. He’s an eminent musician, composer, and arranger, noted both for his collaborations with a wide range of pop artists and his orchestrations for a string of hit musicals, most recently Tootsie, for which he collected his own Tony nod. Now Mare Winningham and Simon Hale are both returning to Broadway in Girl From the North Country, a new musical that pairs songs by Bob Dylan with an original book by acclaimed playwright Conor McPherson.

“It sort of encompasses every dream I’ve ever had creatively,” says Winningham, who joined the company of Girl when it transferred from London for a much-praised run at the Public Theater last fall. The show, which casts her as a woman running a boarding house with her husband in Depression-era Minnesota, marks Winningham’s first Broadway musical, though she appeared Off-Broadway 12 years ago in 10,000 Miles, which featured songs by another critically admired, if less iconic, troubadour — Patty Griffin.

Dylan “was a huge influence on me,” Winningham notes. “His lyrics have a way of opening up my heart. No one writes a love song like he does; I find them so romantic and poetic and smart. And Simon’s exploration of his songs, and Conor’s choice of the songs — it’s still a mystery to me, how beautifully they pieced it all together.”

Hale admits that he “wasn’t an expert” on Dylan’s catalog when he was first approached for Girl, which he worked on from the start, arranging and orchestrating music for its world premiere at London’s Old Vic and its subsequent West End run. “I knew a lot of his songs, but I discovered more, and I found the variety and the depth extraordinary.”

As part of his research, Hale watched No Direction Home, Martin Scorcese’s 2005 documentary tracing Dylan’s artistic journey. “And I listened to his recordings, and found quotes of him talking about records that he didn’t think were definitive versions of his songs.” Where instrumentation was concerned, Hale adds, “my first thoughts were about getting the sound to be authentic.” He notes, “Dylan’s records weren’t made in 1934.”

Like McPherson, Hale also followed his instincts. “I don’t contrive to do things specifically,” he says. “Conor plays guitar, and sometimes he would pick it up and play along; if something wasn’t working, we’d stop.” During the process, Hale devised arrangements “that don’t sound anything like Dylan’s versions. I’d challenge people to identify some of the songs.”

Winningham recalls working with Hale and McPherson on one of Dylan’s most beloved tunes, “Like A Rolling Stone,” which her character sings in the show. Another actress, Shirley Henderson, had performed the role to rave reviews in London, “and her voice is so definitive. Simon and Conor wanted to figure out how I could wrap my voice around it, and we ended a lot of rehearsals at the Public by banging out the song over and over, after everybody else had gone home” she says. “Each time I’d get insecure, they would say, ‘We’re going to find it.’ They were so positive and optimistic about it.” And rightfully so: Critics raved about Winningham’s singing, among them Variety‘s Marilyn Stasio, who called her delivery of “Stone” and “Forever Young,” another song featured in Girl, “a revelation of the poems Dylan meant them to be.

After the Public production wrapped, Winningham went back to the West Coast to spend time with her family, and “a funny thing happened”: While driving, she heard Dylan’s “True Love,” another song included in Girl. “I had to pull over, it was such a moment of bliss,” she says. “I can’t wait to be hearing these songs again, every day of my life.”

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