How awful is The Times They Are A-Changin’, the Broadway musical based on the songs of Bob Dylan? What if I told you “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” gets sung to a dog? And what if I told you the dog is played by a mime wearing floppy puppy ears? Twyla Tharp had a hit with her Billy Joel revue, Movin’ Out, so it must have seemed like a good idea to set her loose on the Dylan songbook. But Times does for the jukebox musical what William Zanzinger did for table manners – and like Hattie Carroll, it will die an early death, closing on November 19th after just twenty-eight performances.
No wonder it was doomed to failure. It’s hard to describe the show without making it sound like a stoned nightmare, but here goes. It’s set in a circus, for no apparent reason besides giving the singer a chance to point to “the jugglers and the clowns” during “Like a Rolling Stone.” There are three main characters: Captain Ahrab, the mean ringmaster; Coyote, his fresh-faced son; and Cleo, the exotic dancer, surrounded by scary clowns, mimes and acrobats. Despite Tharp’s reputation, there’s little dancing, just inane attempts to act out the lyrics. During “Desolation Row,” one clown opens an umbrella to show he’s “expecting rain.” When Coyote sings “Masters of War,” the clowns begin to fight, and we see Ahrab threaten his poor pooch with a whip. The clowns get mad at Ahrab, so they sing “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and then they kill him with flashlights before he sings “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Coyote takes over the circus, which makes the clowns happy, so they all sing “Forever Young.” The end.
Why did this seem like a good idea? It’s hard to say. Tharp didn’t bring her A game, and the Broadway belters have no feel for Dylan’s meter or melodies; they just ham up the songs with dumb touches like Ahrab grinding his hips as he sings, “She makes love just like a woman!” Neither a Broadway crowd nor a Dylan crowd could have been expected to cough up $111 a seat for this. Farewell, The Times They Are A-Changin’. If you got to witness this, you will have a one-of-a-kind war story at barroom Dylan conversations the rest of your life; if you didn’t, you didn’t miss much.
This story is from the November 30, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.