Girl From the North Country: Conor McPherson on using Bob Dylan songs in hit musical

Playwrights are always trying achieve an emotional connection with their audience, Conor McPherson tells Mark Fisher, but when you introduce music to the mix – particularly the music of Bob Dylan – “it adds rocket fuel"

Production image from Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson with Music by Bob Dylan PIC: Johan Persson
Production image from Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson with Music by Bob Dylan PIC: Johan Persson

A decade ago, when Perth Theatre was staging Conor McPherson's supernatural drama The Seafarer, the playwright told me about his need to identify with his characters. The Dublin-born writer is famed for plays such as The Weir, with its bar-room ghost stores, and St Nicholas, first performed by Brian Cox, about a hard-drinking theatre critic who moves in with a band of vampires.

It would be misleading to suggest his plays are autobiographical, but they do come from a personal place, he told me. He had tried writing about characters he had no connection with and found that they did not "zing" in a way that happens when "you write about the dirtier, darker parts of your psyche".

"That's what unlocks a communication with an audience," he said.

Production image from Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson with Music by Bob Dylan PIC: Johan Persson

Catching up with him again all these years later, I was intrigued to know how he connected to the characters in Girl From the North Country. That is partly because this musical is set in the American heartlands during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And it is partly because it takes its lead from the songs of Bob Dylan. How easy was it for him to connect to a physical and artistic landscape that was not his own?

"There is a lot of personal stuff in the play and I was able to get inside the characters as I normally would," he says. "Obviously, I don't live in the 30s in America, but there was enough of a connection. But also what was useful was having music to add that deeper layer of emotion. It almost feels like cheating, because normally playwrights try to achieve an emotional connection or a cathartic release, but when you introduce music, it adds rocket fuel."

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The show sounds like the perfect commission. Dylan's management made the first move, approaching McPherson with the idea to write a piece that would draw on the musician's songbook. Beyond that, there were no parameters. He was free to tell whatever story he wanted and to use whatever songs would help him do it. This would not be a jukebox musical, catering to a hungry audience demanding the hits, but a freestanding piece of theatre.

"Initially, all of those fears were definitely there about the things that would block me from being authentic," he says. "It was only when I had the idea to set this thing in the 1930s, before Bob Dylan was born, that it freed it from his personal story. Suddenly, I could do whatever I liked. Because they had given me total freedom – no constraints whatsoever – it was like having a composer in the room that could just give you anything you wanted and made no demands on you."

Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music by Bob Dylan PIC: Johan Persson

It was, indeed, typically Dylan, a musician who has ploughed his own path, followed his own creative instincts and never pandered to anyone else. "I would put him in the same league as those brilliant, mysterious writers like James Joyce and WB Yeats that confound you, pull you back, make you look at things again," says McPherson, who also directs. "Being asked to do the show was very unexpected but also entirely in keeping with how he rolls. He just seemed to trust his instinct and that was it."

Naturally, Dylan's instincts were right. When it opened in London, Girl From the North Country raked in the five-star reviews. The Guardian called it "a remarkable fusion of text and music".

Being no aficionado of musical theatre, McPherson took the show in the direction that seemed right to him. He made a deep dive into the Dylan canon, selecting songs for their mood and poetry, less than for their narrative drive. The world he envisaged was one of economic stress, his characters dealing with poverty, blackmail and disappointment, the songs giving voice to their private frustrations.

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"I had to explore all of Bob Dylan's work, which I hadn't done before," he says. "There is a lot of what his hardcore fans would regard as detours. One of those is his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s and early 80s, which I found really inspiring. You're watching somebody who has clearly caught fire and is putting a tremendous amount of energy into his work. We ended up with a lot of those songs, which you would never have expected, but the show is a personal artistic response rather than a cash-in."

He adds: "A lot of his songs are subjective and oblique, a series of images that seem disconnected. For us, in a drama, to have a song that can be about anything is incredibly powerful because it opens the whole show up. It's not pushing it forward into one linear narrative. It makes it deep and takes it into a dreamscape of the inner life of the characters."

And what of Dylan himself? The famously gnomic musician let McPherson get on with the job and even today, the two have never met. But he did drop in to see Girl From the North Country at the Public Theater in New York and shared his enthusiasm with the cast. "He loved it," says McPherson. "He was genuinely surprised by the song choices. There's a song in there called True Love Tends To Forget from his album Street Legal and he said to the cast, 'Well, what do you know, it turns out that's a good song.'"

Girl From the North Country is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 13–17 September; Edinburgh Playhouse, 18–22 October; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, 21–25 February