Girl from the North Country brings Bob Dylan songs to Lowry

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)
Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

LET’S be honest, it’s not every day you are contacted by Bob Dylan’s management asking if you might have any ideas how to use the great man’s music in a theatre 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 don’t have any ideas’,” he said. “It was all quite strange - after all, I’d never done a musical.”

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

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

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

“After a while I started thinking about it again and I came up with this idea that if it was something set in 1930s that resembled a Eugene O’Neil play, that had Bob Dylan’s songs in there and if it was set before he was born it might free it from constrictions about being about him and his life,” he said.

“I really wasn’t sure if that was what they wanted but I wrote a couple of pages, just a synopsis of an idea, and sent it off. A couple of days later I got an email to say Bob Dylan loved that idea and would love me to proceed with it. That was how it all started.”

‘It’ is Girl from the North Country, set in an American boarding house in the 1930s which features 20 songs by Bob Dylan. It has received rave reviews in both the West End and on Broadway, been performed in Canada and Australia and is now embarking on its first UK tour including The Lowry, Salford Quays, later this month.

Conor has both written and directed the production.

“It’s been an incredible and unexpected journey,” he said. “When I did it at first I was just wondering how could it work at all and I was just happy that I got it together. Since then it has just continued to grow and it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)
Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

Having been told to effectively put on the show, the realisation hit Conor.

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

Although clearly a Bob Dylan-inspired piece, Conor has been surprised at how little input the singer has had in the project.

“I did get this massive parcel,” said Conor, “which was of all Bob Dylan’s albums. But strangely there’s never been any direction about what songs to use. I just got a note saying dive in and pick anything I wanted.”

Given that Bob Dylan’s back catalogue runs to over 50 albums, Conor wasn’t exactly short of songs to choose from.

“I loaded up everything on to my iPod and went on long walks,” he said. “I’d pick anything that I had an emotional connection to as I thought they would probably do the same with an audience.

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)
Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

Girl from the North Country (Picture: 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 brought music into any of his previous work.

“Bob’s lyrics are very subjective and suggestive and almost have a lot of unrelated images going on which I find really useful,” he said. “It’s almost up to the listener to work out what they are about and that gave us a lot of freedom when we brought them into the production.”

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

“They were mostly from the Sixties and Seventies,” he said. “There was a big hole in my knowledge of his songs from the end of the Seventies onwards.

“But I listened to everything including his born again Christian phase which I think a lot of fans steer clear of and realised he had some great songs in that period and a number of them feature in the show.”

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

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)
Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

“When you are writing plays you are just using words and trying to achieve some kind of emotional release; it’s like you are a mountaineer labouring at high altitude and then someone turns round with this oxygen tank full of music and says ‘here, do you want some of this?’

“You take a blast and you’re ready to go. It has that amazing power.”

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

“When I was writing it, around 2016, Brexit had just been voted on and Trump was coming down the tracks in America,” said Conor. “It felt like we were heading back to the 1930s with arguments over borders and nationalism on the rise.

“What I hadn’t appreciated was that this scary stuff would just keep on going.”

Although set in the Depression Conor describes Girl From the North Country as being “ultimately life affirming and uplifting”.

“Many of the shows I’ve done in last 20 years go into the darkness but I always want the happy outcome of a positive ending. You have to.”

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)
Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

Girl from the North Country (Picture: Johan Persson)

Conor is still to meet Bob Dylan although he’s reported to have seen the production - in disguise - on several occasions.

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

With Girl From the North Country established all over the world, Conor is now getting the chance to look at new work.

Is he tempted to do another musical?

“Working on this has certainly opened me up to the idea but it’s also shown me that musicals are tricky things to get right and not to be entered into lightly,” he said.

“But having done this I would sort of be open to anything now. After all I’ve been down where the buses don’t run with this one. Anything from now on would be more conventional.”

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