Duluth in the midwestern United States during the 1930s Depression was a long way for Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s mind to time travel and set a musical there.

Having built a body of stage work renowned for its grit, lyricism, malevolence and redemptive character arcs, McPherson, now 50, was approached by the office of Bob Dylan to pitch to use the singer-songwriter’s music to create a work.

Conor McPherson

Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose new work is set in Duluth, Minnesota, the city where Bob Dylan was born in 1941. Image supplied.

McPherson’s idea was to set the musical in the Minnesota city where Dylan was born in 1941. The result is Girl From The North Country, a hit on London’s West End and on Broadway, and which has its Sydney Festival premiere in January to be followed by seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne.

In the all-Australian cast, Lisa McCune plays Elizabeth Laine, a character who has a kind of dementia and is babbling uncomfortable truths, while Zahra Newman plays her daughter Marianne and Terence Crawford is the local physician who is also a morphine addict.

Peter Kowitz plays Elizabeth’s husband Nick, who’s facing foreclosure on this big, dilapidated house. Nick is the only character who doesn’t sing.

Speaking via video conference from his home in Dublin, McPherson tells Limelight that the production always casts actors who can sing, rather than performers who primarily singers.

In this case, they all auditioned for McPherson and his team via Zoom, and McPherson’s associate director, Kate Budgen, is overseeing the production in Sydney. McPherson hopes he can still travel to Australia in time to see it.

Listening to the London cast soundtrack, I tell McPherson that Forever Young (May your heart always be joyful / May your song always be sung) has quite different phrasing from Dylan’s original, sounding a bit gospel-like. The little hairs on my arms stood on end while hearing it.

The Dylan songs are recognisable, but the arrangements feel fresh. The New York Times critic Ben Brantley describes the songs’ presentation in the musical as a “parallel universe, a realm that abuts the dreary reality of the play’s here and now but never overlaps it”.

“It wasn’t a specific idea to make them sound a particular way,” says McPherson, “but usually we’ve always tried to hear how each particular performer sounds and wrap the song around them, so that they feel natural doing it.”

“Bob Dylan has his own particular way of delivering his songs, so I think it would be foolhardy to try and imitate him.”

Girl From The North Country strictly only uses instruments from that time and place in the 1930s: piano, bass, guitar, drums, harmonica, fiddle and harmonium. “The secret weapon then that you have is vocal harmonies and back-up vocals, which is a very powerful tool in your armoury.”

Girl From North Country

A scene from the West End production of Girl From The North Country. Image © Tristram Kenton.

McPherson received private notes from Dylan about the work but has never met the artist or had a phone conversation with him, so he doesn’t know if Dylan has ever seen any of his plays.

“I was one of a few writers who were approached … and he responded to the idea that I had of setting a play in the 1930s, setting his music out of his lifetime; I think there was something about that which appealed to him.”

“I think that he also had a strong affinity with Irish culture over the years, so he may have been aware of Irish playwriting.”

Growing up in 1970s and 80s Dublin, did Dylan’s music form a part of the playwright’s childhood and teenage years?

“I was aware of his music because from the age of about ten I was a big Beatles fan, they were the first band that I liked, and the 60s I was very aware of – Bob Dylan, the Byrds, those kinds of artists – so I knew a bunch of his songs all right from quite a young age.”

“Growing older, obviously, as a music fan I was really aware of Bob Dylan, and had read a lot about him and had a bunch of his albums – but I didn’t quite know how many he actually had until we were working on this show, because the breadth of his recordings is vast and so it was a really lovely pleasure to get to discover all of that.”

In his Times review, Brantley summed up the musical thus: “A nation is broken. Life savings have vanished overnight. Home as a place you thought you would live forever no longer exists. People don’t so much connect as collide, even members of the same family.”

That précis sounds as much like the US in 2021 as it does in 1934, I tell McPherson. How does the playwright feel about the American project in light of recent events such as the storming of the US Capitol at the start of the year?

“I think they’re having a reckoning right now,” he says. “It seems like most very big countries are in some sense dysfunctional on some level; there’s a roiling, kind of boiling cascade of issues.”

“It’s been heartbreaking watching America convulsing. Our Broadway production, which is running at the moment, we opened in March of 2020 and everything shut down for COVID, and then when we reopened in October of this year … such fundamental, profound changes had happened.”

“How we related to each other just seemed somehow less innocent, you know? Sadly. But at the same time there was some lovely reflective times because of that.”

The Australian cast of Girl From The North Country. Photo supplied

In a 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Times, McPherson said the plays he “used to write were gloomier, so it probably has something to do with having a relatively more stable demeanour”. He gave up drinking at age 29.

“When you’re younger, things are much more volatile,” McPherson says now. “I definitely grew up more in my 30s and 40s and I think my plays did become more redemptive.”

“Tougher, maybe, too, but at the same time, definitely optimistic in having a more balanced view of life and existence, seeing that things didn’t feel meaningless, that perhaps everything in some way, even though it’s a mystery to us what it means, but in some way that you can have faith in the mystery itself, in a funny way, that we’re all part of something.”

I tell McPherson I recall seeing his great play The Seafarer performed at Sydney’s Darlinghurst Theatre Company. The actor and director Maeliosa Stafford, who had played the boozing, bullying character Richard Harkin in both Dublin and Sydney, told me in an interview that McPherson’s writing is “like music”, the script being “quite specific about rhythm and beats”.

Is McPherson conscious of the musicality in the dialogue of his characters generally?

“I think I probably do hear it when I’m writing it, the dialogue I tune into the rhythm of it,” he says.

“If an actor is stuck [in rehearsal], it sometimes might look [on the page] a bit weird or a bit funny, so you say it for them and they go, ‘Oh’, and immediately they’ve got it.”

“But having said that, Girl From The North Country is not written in a dialect I grew up speaking, so it’s probably a little bit different in that way, trying to help the performers find [the rhythm] I’m some help,” he smiles and laughs, “but in some ways I’m not, and we’ve got to try and figure it all out.”

“Having done the show in America you iron out a lot of those wrinkles, which is useful.”

Girl From The North Country plays Theatre Royal Sydney for Sydney Festival from 5 January, Adelaide Festival Centre from 25 March to 10 April, then at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre from 29 April.

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