Musicals of any stripe are notoriously difficult to pull off. They’re certainly more difficult than a straight play. This is largely due to so many moving parts, including bookwriter, lyricist, composer, arranger, choreographer, conductor and musicians.
When a musical is based on an original story, the creative team starts with a blank slate. When it’s adapted from a different medium (novel, straight play, film), the creators begin with the main characters and the bones of the story, but the writers invent the dialogue and lyrics, so long as they don’t wander too far off from the source material.
The most difficult musical to craft is one that pulls songs from an artist’s diverse songbook and attempts to weave them into a coherent story that an audience, it is hoped, will experience as a seamless narrative with propulsive force. When the writers are restricted to music and lyrics from an existing songbook, the portion of the dialogue that appears as lyrics has already been written. The writers find themselves in the thorny position of reverse-engineering a story from characters and lyrics that may have little or nothing in common. The product on stage is more often patchwork quilt than medieval tapestry. Jersey Boys, based on the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, is probably the most successful musical of this type. Mamma Mia, based on Abba’s songs, has also enjoyed commercial success.
A few years ago I saw this attempted with the songs of composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell). Titled Snapshots, it had a book by David Stern, a veteran writer who had initiated the project. That project never gained traction despite substantial developmental productions in Connecticut and Seattle. Schwartz, one of the most generous artists in the theatre world, went so far as to modify lyrics so they’d better fit the romantic-comedy story Stern had devised. Still no go.
“Jukebox musicals” are a more cynical approach producers sometimes take. Abandoning the pretense of a cohesive narrative, they supply a minimum of connective tissue so as to elevate the performance above a mere revue. A successful example is Movin’ Out, which choreographer and director Twyla Tharp built around Billy Joel’s songs. In 2006 Thwarp created a musical out of Bob Dylan songs and called it The Times They Are A-Changin’. Set in a surreal circus, the play was not a success. That misfire, however, has not deterred Thwarp or Dylan from collaborating again. Dylan Love Songs is a dance piece that will run in New York this September and October.
The latest major-league effort to build a play from an existing songbook has been attempted by Conor McPherson, an Irish playwright I much admire. (His play Seafarer, produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2009, is one of the best plays I have seen in the last decade.) Offered full access to Bob Dylan’s voluminous songbook, McPherson couldn’t resist the opportunity. Actually he did decline when the offer first came up five years ago. But later he had a vision of a Depression-era hardscrabble boardinghouse in a Minnesota winter, around which he believed he could build a play. (There is a two-minute interview with McPherson here about the origins of the project.)
Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters ever and, as of last year, a Nobel laureate to boot. An offer of full access to Dylan’s work would be irresistible for most any dramatist.
The result of McPherson’s effort is titled Girl From the North Country, after the Dylan song. (As I was writing this piece I came across a poignant decades-old video of Dylan and Johnny Cash singing “Girl from the North Country.”) The musical opened last month at the Old Vic Theatre in London. McPherson also directed the production. It was the first musical he has worked on. Not planning a trip to London anytime soon, I just read the script.
McPherson’s production features a large cast of 13. They’ve all been knocked down by life. For those with any gumption to pick themselves up, the Depression makes sure that won’t happen. Girl From the North Country put me in mind of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, with the boardinghouse here taking the place of Harry’s Bar. In both, down-and-outers take turns picking each other up and knocking each other back down.
The pasts of the characters in Girl are tainted with lost loves, crimes, false identities. The plot brings us affairs, theft and blackmail. A former boxing champ has just got out of prison after serving three years for a crime he may not have committed. A doctor with a fondness for morphine serves as a narrator and carries an echo of the Stage Manager from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For a taste of the staging and how McPherson interweaves the music, check out the song “Tight Connection to My Heart”, performed by Sheila Atim in the leading role of Marianne, an adopted 19-year-old who may or may not be pregnant.
While McPherson has woven a coherent story, it is disjointed in places and lacks the rock-solid structural integrity his other plays have. Mortar being visible between the bricks is a flaw perhaps unavoidable for projects where the creativity of two original artists has been cobbled together.
Still, there are scenes that are moving, and I did find myself invested in the characters, wanting to know what will happen to them. If I were in London, I would certainly make my way to the Old Vic and treat myself to 20 Bob Dylan songs performed by musicians on stage and sung by characters Conor McPherson created. The London production runs through Oct. 7.
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