North Country girl brings Bob Dylan songs to Lowry

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Let’s be honest, it’s not every day that you get contacted by Bob Dylan’s management asking if you might have any ideas on how to use the great man’s music in a theater show.

But that’s exactly what happened to Conor McPherson.

“They just got in touch out of the blue and my first reaction when I saw it was ‘honestly, I really have no idea,'” he said. “It was quite strange – after all, I had never done a musical.”

But as the writer behind The Weir, Shining City and The Seafarer, Conor had clearly done something to get the big man’s attention.

Conor McPherson (centre) during rehearsals for Girl From The North Country (Photo: Johan Persson)

“After a while I started thinking about it again and got the idea that if it was something that was set in the 1930s and felt like a play by Eugene O’Neil, there was Bob Dylan songs and if it was before he was born it could free him from the constraints of him and his life,” he said.

“I really didn’t know if this was what they wanted, but I wrote a few pages, just a summary of an idea, and sent it. A few days later I received an email saying that Bob Dylan liked this idea and would like me to continue. That’s how it all started. »

“It” is Girl from the North Country, set in an American boarding house in the 1930s and featuring 20 Bob Dylan songs. It has received rave reviews in the West End and on Broadway, played in Canada and Australia and is now embarking on its first UK tour, including The Lowry, Salford Quays, later this month.

Conor both wrote and directed the production.

“It was an amazing and unexpected trip,” he said. “When I did it at first I was just wondering how it could work and I was just happy I put it together. Since then it has grown steadily and it has taken on a life of its own.

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

After being ordered to effectively put on the show, realization hit Conor.

“That’s when I thought ‘what have I done?’ he’s laughing.

Although this is clearly a Bob Dylan-inspired piece, Conor was surprised at how little the singer contributed to the project.

“I got this huge package,” Conor said, “which was of all the Bob Dylan albums. But strangely there was never any direction on what songs to use. I just got a note saying to dive in and choose whatever I wanted.

Considering that Bob Dylan’s back catalog has over 50 albums, Conor wasn’t exactly short of songs to choose from.

“I loaded everything onto my iPod and went for long walks,” he said. “I would choose anything that I had an emotional connection to because I thought they would probably do the same with an audience.

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

“I went for an instinctive response rather than looking for songs that tried to fit the narrative.”

Although an accomplished musician himself, Conor had never incorporated music into any of his previous works.

“Bob’s lyrics are very subjective and suggestive and contain almost a lot of unrelated imagery that I find really helpful,” he said. “It’s almost up to the listener to figure out what it’s all about and that gave us a lot of freedom when we brought them into the production.”

Like many music lovers, Conor already had his fair share of Dylan albums in his collection.

“They were mostly 60s and 70s,” he said. “There was a big hole in my knowledge of his songs from the late 70s.

“But I listened to everything, including his born-again Christian phase, which I think a lot of fans shy away from and realized he had some great songs at that time and a number of them were in series.”

Conor appreciates the extra dimension the music has added to the show.

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

“When you write plays, you just use words and try to achieve some kind of emotional release; it’s like you’re a mountaineer working at high altitude and then someone turns around with this oxygen tank full of music and says “here, do you want some?”

“You take a breath and you’re ready to go. He has this incredible power.

Girl From the North Country opened in London’s West End in 2017 and on Broadway the following year.

“When I was writing this, around 2016, Brexit had just been passed and Trump was going down the rails in America,” Conor said. “It was like we were back in the 1930s with border disputes and rising nationalism.

“What I didn’t appreciate was that this scary stuff would continue.”

Although set in depression, Conor describes Girl From the North Country as “ultimately life-affirming and uplifting.”

“A lot of the shows I’ve done over the past 20 years go dark, but I always want the happy ending with a positive ending. You have to.”

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

Girl from the north of the country (Photo: Johan Persson)

Conor has yet to meet Bob Dylan although he has seen the production – in disguise – on several occasions.

“He sent me one of his paintings and some lovely messages,” Conor said.

With Girl From the North Country established worldwide, Conor now has the chance to watch some new work.

Is he tempted to do another musical?

“Working on this subject certainly opened me up to the idea, but it also showed me that musicals are hard things to pull off and not to be taken lightly,” he said.

“But after doing that, I would kind of be open to anything now. After all, I went where the buses don’t run with this one. From now on, everything would be more conventional.

Girl From the North Country, The Lowry, Salford Quays, from Tuesday 20 September to Saturday 24 September. Details at www.thelowry.com

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