Inside the New Bob Dylan-Inspired Broadway Musical

Girl From the North Country
Matthew Murphy

Austin Scott and Kimber Elayne Sprawl in Girl From the North Country.

Seven years ago, Bob Dylan’s longtime manager Jeff Rosen sat down for a cup of tea in London with producer Tristan Baker and Steven Lappin (then creative director at Sony Music Television) to discuss a nascent idea: a Dylan musical. Rosen already had experience with one — Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, which debuted on Broadway in 2006 and ran for under a month. Still, a source close to Dylan’s team says there was openness to try again.

The result is Girl From the North Country, currently in previews at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre and opening March 5, following acclaimed runs in London (the Old Vic and West End theaters) and New York (the Public Theater). Award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson, who wrote the book, says he wasn’t immediately convinced it would be “a slam-dunk.” McPherson had never worked on a musical before — and wasn’t exactly a Dylan obsessive. “I was a little bit mystified,” he recalls. “[Dylan’s] music is so thoughtful and wide-ranging, it felt like such vast territory. I just thought, ‘I’m sure someone will do a good job on that, but I’m not sure I know how to.’”

However, he submitted a treatment for the musical, and according to the Dylan team source, the singer loved the premise: a group of down-on-their-luck vagabonds who pass through a boarding house in Depression-era Minnesota. Throughout the show, the diverse cast performs over 20 of Dylan’s songs — and while a few are recognizable hits (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Hurricane,” “Forever Young”), most are alluringly reinvented and lesser-known, leaning on tracks from the artist’s late-1970s Christian conversion period. “What Conor had was a fully imagined idea that didn’t have anything to do with who Bob is,” says the source. “It was a natural thing to say yes to.”

But the most surprising element of the production may not even be the music itself: Dylan was totally hands-off in the show’s creation. After submitting the initial treatment, McPherson found out Dylan had granted him free and full use of his catalog — and shortly thereafter, received a care package of nearly 50 Dylan albums delivered to his door. “[Dylan] spends a lot of the year on the road,” says the source. “He just trusts he found the right person and doesn’t try to make them do something else.” It was an unusual move for Broadway, where musicals involving living artists’ catalogs typically include some level of input from the artist, ranging from attending rehearsals to coming onboard as producers. (Sony Music Entertainment, Sony/ATV and Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries — owner of Warner Music Group — are among the new show’s producers.)

Dylan hasn’t been entirely absent, though. Around Christmas of 2018, he showed up to a Public Theater production an hour before his own headlining show uptown at the Beacon Theatre, telling the cast how moved he was. McPherson missed his visit. “I haven’t met him,” he says with a laugh, “and I probably never will.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 29, 2020 issue of Billboard.