John Moyle goes behind the scenes of Girl From The North Country, interviewing the key creatives behind the show which revolutionises Bob Dylan’s oeuvre.
Bob Dylan is one of the most transformative artists of any time, having had his songs covered more than 105,000 times by many of our greatest artists, as well as countless bedroom crooners.
The Sydney staging of Girl From The North Country, running at the Theatre Royal until 19 March, features 22 of his songs taken from albums spanning 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to 2012’s Tempest.
The songs are brought to life by the cast of 19 which includes Lisa McCune, Helen Dallimore, Peter Carroll and rising English star Callum Francis.
Set in a 1930s American flophouse during the Great Depression, with the usual cast of suspects, Girl could have easily fallen into cliché if not for the skillful and at times hilarious writing of writer and director Conor McPherson.
“When Dylan spoke with Conor about doing this work, he said that he wanted Conor to take his work and make a new piece with it,” Andrew Ross, musical director, said.
“Dylan sent Conor the boxed set of everything that he had recorded and Conor spent three months walking through the woods listening to the music.
“The songs that made it into the show were the ones that helped the storytelling, though this is a musical that doesn’t follow a normal narrative style and the music doesn’t forward the action.”
This makes Girl very different from the majority of jukebox musicals. Its use of innovative staging, choreography and lighting put it into a realm of its own.
The music of Dylan is transformed by arrangements using double bass, fiddle, resonator guitar and drums that are rooted into the 1930s, while staying true to Dylan.
“The arrangements on the whole are authentic to the period of the 1930s, even though we are playing music that was written many years later by Dylan,” Cameron Henderson, guitarist, said.
“There are also a couple of tunes from his folk period, where he was influenced by the blues, and there are a couple of tunes that have some jazz influence, as he was exploring swing in some tunes in his later albums.”
This show is very unusual as the musicians are part of the ensemble, mixing with the cast or being part of the flophouse’s ‘wallpaper’.
“On shows before, the musicians were either in pit or somewhere separate from where the action was going on, but this is very different as we are integrated and we are literally the house band in the boarding house,” Henderson said.
Another unusual approach to the staging is getting two of the actors to play drums during the show.
“I’ve never been in show that has the kind of situation where actors get involved in playing musical instruments,” Henderson said, referring to Helen Dallimore and Greg Stone, who learned drumming as part of their roles.
“Helen had some lessons and her teacher said that she is a natural. She certainly looks comfortable behind the kit, and even gets drummer face where the lips protrude ever so slightly,” Andrew Ross said.
“Helen really grooves, particularly when she sings and plays ‘True Love Tends to Forget’ and this is no easy feat when you have never played drums before,” Cameron said.
That the musicians and the large ensemble can move about the stage effortlessly and with considerable elegance is due to the skill of choreographer and movement director Lucy Hind, who also worked on Girl’s 2017 Old Vic production.
“Dylan songs do not normally bring to mind dance movement, so how do you achieve this?” Hind said.
“The dance can’t take away from the story and the script is so naturalistic and elegant that I wanted the dance to match that,” she said.
“I started with the setting, the time, the characters and we did work on the 1930s bodies of the people, and how that affects how they relate to one another and how they move about the house.”
One extraordinary moment in the show is when Blake Erickson steps out of the background to perform ‘Duquesne Whistle’ from Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest.
“The moment when he sings ‘Duquesne Whistle’, you suddenly see a man with a voice and a body he wished he could aspire to,” Ross said.
“He is really one of the darkest characters with confusion and mystery about him.”
All of the Australian cast and creative team are in awe of the way Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson approached the production.
“Conor is an extremely collaborative artist, he plays his guitar in the room with the musicians, and he really gets involved,” Hind said.
“He absolutely trusts his team.”
That the production was ever realised was also due to the trust between McPherson and Dylan, who is often portaged as difficult and contrary.
“Maybe for Dylan, his voice and his singing ability corralled and trapped his music in a way that he recognised and he wanted to give it another life,” Ross said.
“There was always the philosophy of relinquishment and letting go, and allowing somebody else to work with it.”
After bumping out of Sydney, Girl moves to Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on 25 March and then onto Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre on 29 April.
Girl From The North Country plays the Theatre Royal, 108 King Street, Sydney until Saturday, 19 March, 2022. For tickets and further information, visit www.northcountry.com.au.
John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.