'I'd always liked the stage and even more so, the theater," Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir, Chronicles. "It seemed like the most supreme craft of all craft." But for nearly five decades, the idea of a Dylan musical has been as elusive as the songwriter himself. In the late Sixties, poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish tried to recruit Dylan to write songs for a theatrical show called Scratch ("After hearing a few lines from the script, I didn't see how our destinies could be intermixed," wrote Dylan). In 2006, choreographer Twyla Tharp directed The Times They Are A-Changin'. Set at a traveling circus, it closed after three weeks.
Girl From the North Country, which opened in July at London's Old Vic Theatre, seems to have finally cracked the code. Set during the Depression in Dylan's birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, the show is a surreal, Coen brothers–style portrait of the old, weird America Dylan has long channeled. Written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson (whose Broadway thriller Shining City was nominated for two Tonys in 2006), the play centers on a dysfunctional family (the mother, the title character, has dementia) and its boardinghouse, which becomes a way station for a boxer, a sleazy preacher and others who pass through. With accompaniment by a small band, they express their thoughts by way of songs both well-known ("Like a Rolling Stone," "I Want You") and obscure ("License to Kill," "True Love Tends to Forget"). "I never wanted a standard musical," says McPherson. "It's a Bob musical. Once you say that, all bets are off." The show opened to positive reviews, and plans are in the works to bring it to the U.S., possibly Broadway.
Work on the show began in 2013, when Dylan's management and his label, Sony, jointly agreed to take a shot at a musical. "We didn't want something that dealt with Bob's life," says a source close to the Dylan camp. "If you want to see Bob, you can see him live or watch No Direction Home. We were hoping for something more creative." After seeing several proposals, the producers were most intrigued by McPherson's heartland concept. "By setting it before Bob was born, we could cut it loose from all associations with him and the Sixties," says McPherson. "This gives it a feeling of the Nativity: that when Bob entered the world, everything changed."
Dylan eventually gave the final go-ahead. When he played London in 2013, McPherson's two-page pitch was read to him backstage. The producers got approval that night. "The proposal had the texture and a great feel," says the Dylan source.
McPherson owned only "about five" Dylan albums when he started writing. He was sent most of Dylan's catalog and told he could use any song. "I began to get into Infidels, so I stuck in three songs from that album," McPherson says. "It was a magical journey exploring the music." He often sent drafts to Dylan's camp, but received minimal feedback. "I said, 'Does Bob want to hear a tape or see a rehearsal or something?' " McPherson says. "I was told, 'If Bob is there, you're going to feel pressure. What if he says he doesn't like a song? It's better you keep doing what you're doing.' " The one mystery that remains is Dylan's reaction. "To the best of my knowledge, Bob has not seen it," says the source. McPherson is fine with that: "Seeing the way the audience reacts every night, you know it works. Once we do that, my job is done."