Brow Beat

Let’s Not Forget the Last Time Bob Dylan’s Music Was on Broadway

The cast of Broadway's new Bob Dylan musical.
Cast of the musical Girl From the North Country.
The Public Theater

After successful runs on the West End and at New York’s Public Theater, Irish writer and director Conor McPherson’s musical Girl From the North Country, featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, is heading to Broadway. The plot follows the inhabitants of a Depression-era boarding house as they suffer a harsh and early winter in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota.

Through a script described by the New York Times as “forbiddingly fatalistic,” Girl From the North Country explores how experiences like poverty, addiction, mental illness, and domestic abuse mark the human spirit. The synthesis of Dylan’s music with the subject matter results in a tone that Vulture describes as “overwhelmingly static and morose,” and the Washington Post calls evocative of the “perpetual sense of panic and emotional exhaustion” associated with “destitution.” For a jukebox musical, Girl From the North Country sounds unusually, refreshingly dark.

In honor of Bob Dylan’s return to Broadway with Girl From the North Country, let’s take a moment to recall the last time Dylan’s music ended up there: Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’.

We may never be able to fully understand how Tharp’s followup to her successful Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out went so wrong. Movin’ Out has the kind of plot that one might conceive of naturally after listening to an album like Storm Front, setting Joel’s music to the story of “friends from Long Island through the 1960s, the Vietnam War and into the 1980s. The choreography and lyric text work in tandem to tell their story of loss, love and forgiveness.” Movin’ Out reflects and corresponds with the content of its music.

In contrast, for The Times They Are A-Changin’, Tharp seemingly cherrypicked certain lyrics from Dylan’s songs to create “an allegorical tale of a struggling circus, the oppressive ringmaster Captain Ahrab and the strained relationship with his son Coyote” in which “the poetic qualities in Dylan’s music and lyrics are woven into a dream world in which the action takes place.” Jody Rosen, in his review for Slate, described the resulting one hour and twenty-five minute long show as “an aesthetic car crash.” He continues:

Jukebox musicals make a mockery not just of rock ’n’ roll, but of Broadway: the noble, charming, witty tradition of the American musical comedy, of Rodgers and HartComden and GreenOklahoma!, and My Fair Lady. In The Times They Are A-Changin’, you get to watch two great native art forms get buried in kitsch. Toward the end of the show, Tharp pulls out what may be the most arcane song choice of the night, “Dignity,” an outtake from Dylan’s 1989 Oh Mercy album that was remixed and included on a 1994 greatest hits collection. The song is delivered in fist-thrusting stentorian fashion by Arden, standing at the lip of the stage. “Searchin’ high, searchin’ low / Searchin’ everywhere I know … / Have you seen dignity? / Have you seen dignity?” he cries. And then a clown in a polka-dotted jumpsuit flies past.

But to truly understand the disconnect between the show’s content and style, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is best seen for yourself. Here’s a sample performance on The View in which Michael Arden, dressed as a child in the role of “Coyote,” struts and prances across the stage while pretending to play an oversized glittery guitar and belting “Like a Rolling Stone.” Things really get weird when Arden joins in synchronized choreography with five backup dancers dressed as mimes.

This bizarre story and hyper-literal interpretation of Dylan’s catalog made The Times They Are A-Changin’ an easy target for ridicule. (“What the fuck was that?” asked Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show.) Tharp, a prominent choreographer, was clearly unrepentant, as she once again used Dylan’s music in 2017 for a seven-part dance program called “Dylan Love Songs,” about “the transitory nature of all life, presenting moments of push-back against the inevitable. Dylan is a survivalist and his many love songs are instances of continuity in the face of all odds characteristically the musician.” That description would not sound out of place in a review for Girl From the North Country.

I am pleased to report the existence of a second Bob Dylan musical titled The Times They Are A-Changin’. The production appears to be the work of a German community theater and was apparently last performed in 2012. In contrast to the American version, the German rendition of The Times They Are A-Changin’ is decidedly less abstract and more explicitly interested in dramatizing Bob Dylan’s life and times through song. The performances were received positively by audiences and critics alike.