Building Broadway: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY’s Conor McPherson

Building Broadway: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY’s Conor McPherson

(light guitar music) – With plays like “The
Weir”, “The Seafarer,” and “Shining City,”
Conor McPherson is often called the king of ghost stories. But now he’s trying something different. He wrote and directed “Girl
From the North Country,” a new musical featuring
the songs of Bob Dylan. The Irish playwright conjured
a story that takes place in Duluth, Minnesota during
the Great Depression. We sat down with him in the basement of the Belasco Theatre to find out more. So it’s really wonderful that
we’re at the Belasco Theatre, because your work has been touched by the supernatural here and there, and this is the haunted Broadway
house, did you know that? – I’ve heard it’s haunted, yes, and we got to go up to the apartment at the top of this theater
where Mr. Belasco used to live. It’s really spooky up there. It’s really big and derelict. – All right, let’s talk about
“Girl From the North Country.” Tell me about the origin of this piece. – I just had this idea of a play set in a boarding house
in Minnestoa in the 1930s. I don’t know why, but I kinda thought if you had a Eugene
O’Neill kind of feeling, that perhaps Bob’s music
could sit well into the 1930s. So I just wrote down a couple of pages, and we sent it off, and a few days later we got a message back
to say that Bob Dylan really liked that idea,
and wanted me to proceed. As soon as he said that, he just gave us total freedom to use any of his songs. So they sent all of
his albums to my house, so there was like 50 albums. The way that I did it was
I just, if I liked I song, I thought, well, just, I’ll put that in, and that was it, you know? ♪ Here comes the story of the hurricane ♪ ♪ The man the authorities came to blame ♪ (clapping) – And then how did you get to work on all of these characters? – A lot of the time when
you’re writing a play, it’s kind of unconscious, really. I mean, I think there’s a
sort of a spine or a framework of the play, of a kind of
nativity kind of story, the nativity, you know? And it felt like in some way, that was kind of the
structure of the story. And then, Bob’s songs are like hymns. It’s kind of like a biblical story in a funny way, I suppose. – And in rearranging the music,
there’s a lot of choral work which actually fits in with that. – Yes. That felt really important. When I got together with Simon
Hale, our musical arranger, we were talking about
what was this sound like. Now, he was very strict about, if it’s set in the 1930s,
we should only have instruments from the
1930s, which is great. I’ve always been interested in
music, and I play the guitar. I think what’s happening is it’s like you’re watching a story,
and then the characters, they sing a Bob Dylan song, and his lyrics are always so suggestive, and universal, and kind of coming from the unconscious. In a way, you’re being
drawn into the inner-life of the character, and it’s almost like their inner-life is
dreamlike in a funny way. So it feels like you’re
getting to know the character’s inner soul, so it deepens it
rather than moves it forward. – So when they’re singing,
they’re not necessarily singing to someone, they’re always
kind of solitary in a way? – Yeah, it never really feels like they’re singing to someone
else in the show, no. Yeah, and they’re all singing together, but sometimes they say,
where should we be looking, and I always say, you should
be looking about here. – As the director? – Yeah. I’m like, you should be ’bout here. – Where the microphone is? – Kind of the microphone, or
even more, just kinda here. You know what I mean? So you’re sort of, it’s kinda
inner, but quite concentrated. Also, you can be out
then, too, but it’s like, you’re looking more just
into your own thing, rather than the audience,
you know what I mean? – [Beth] Yeah. – Thousand yard stare. (chuckle) ♪ All you gotta do is wait ♪ ♪ And I’ll tell you when ♪ – Your work is very imagistic,
you’re a storyteller. You’re known for having a lot
of really evocative images in your work, and I think
Bob Dylan’s very similar. Did you feel some camaraderie with him because of that? – Well, I think probably I feel that he’s an unconscious kind of artist. I think that he seems to describe his work as kinda comes through him,
or comes to him in some, like the muse just comes,
and he just goes with it, you know, rather than it
being a conscious thing of sitting down to write
a song about something. I think I’m similar in a sense that I don’t really choose
what I would get an idea for. I don’t think of a subject and then decide to write about it, it’s just something either comes to you or it doesn’t. – When a popular song comes out, you have that recognition in the audience. Were you careful with the
ones that are very well known? – Well, I think the one you
wanted to be careful with is “Like a Rolling
Stone,” which is probably the Bob Dylan song, you know, par excellence that everybody knows. And what we have to do with this show is always we try and suit
the song around the singer. So like in this production, Mare Winningham is singing that song. ♪ You’re like a rolling stone ♪ ♪ You’re like a rolling stone ♪ Mare is in that kinda more
folk, trad, country tradition. She’s not like a rock
kinda thing going on. So, you wanna pull the song
towards where she’s comfortable. So that’s kinda how we would approach it, rather than worry about are we presenting the song as Bob Dylan
or fans would like it. In a way that’s, we
can’t think about that. (light rock music) – How has it changed
your writing moving on? What have you learned? – Well, I suppose before doing this, I think if someone had
said to me the characters suddenly start singing,
I would’ve been like, no, that makes me feel sick. But now it’s like, you go,
oh, anybody can do anything in a show, and actually, the
audience sort of want them to. – It gives the piece some breathing room. It feels like when they sing, everyone sort of exhales
when that happens. Is that on purpose from
your point of view? – Theater performances evolved out of religious ceremonies, right? And I think that probably
singing was part of that from the very get-go,
thousands of years ago. So, it feels very natural and normal. It just feels like, it takes
you both deeper into yourself, and kind of higher, you’re just kind of transcendence all at the same time. It’s like everybody goes into
a kind of communal trance, and music really helps you get there. So then actually it’s almost
like a great shortcut, because normally as a playwright, you’re trying all the time
to reach these moments that feel sort of deep and moving, and stirring, and different and so forth, but then when you suddenly realize, oh, actually we can just have music, that really fast-forwards that feeling, so it feels like you’ve been a mountaineer laboring at very high altitudes, and suddenly someone says,
do you want some oxygen? You know, where’s this been? You have oxygen tanks? So, who knows. I think maybe we’ll have more songs going forward in my plays. (light guitar music)

5 thoughts on “Building Broadway: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY’s Conor McPherson”

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