Flashback a dozen years to Best Fest Buddy Tom and I heading to our seats at the Goodman Theatre to see Eugene’s O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane.
Perusing the program before the show, I joked that since Nathan Lane was in it, I was looking forward to the performance being a musical comedy.
I deliberately made my comment loud enough for others to hear. An elderly theater matron took the bait. Lane was a serious actor, not just a comic one, she scolded.
I bring up that story as it turns out there is a musical version of an O’Neill drama that’s touring the country with a current stop in downtown Chicago – sort of.
“As an Irish person my dramatic references went immediately to Eugene O’Neill,” McPherson said from Dublin via Zoom.
Like “Iceman,” McPherson’s musical has a big cast of characters. In O’Neill’s drama the setting is a downtrodden saloon and flophouse in Greenwich Village, circa 1912. McPherson sets his musical in a guesthouse in Duluth around Thanksgiving time, 1934.
Like Nobel laureate O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” McPherson’s musical has a family at the center of it.
“In a sense (“Girl From The North Country”) is an intersection of those two kinds of plays – a family play and a play where people are all looking for a place to live, as they have nowhere else to go,” McPherson said.
“Girl” also has strangers arrive, changing the lives of those staying at the guesthouse.There’s a world on stage where a stranger arrives or someone comes back from the past and shakes everything up, much like in “Iceman” and myriad other works, McPherson said.
“Unspoken resentments, hopes and dreams and thwarted ambitions start to reemerge and come to the surface. That creates a lot of drama. You’ll find that structure in a lot of successful plays,” McPherson said.
As the title tells, what you’ll also find in the musical is Bob Dylan songs, handpicked by McPherson for it. The numbers have been revamped to be of the Great Depression, using only instruments available at that time.
The show’s backstory goes that last decade, Dylan had his people shop around the idea to have someone build a show around his music. Dylan was familiar with McPherson’s work.
After being contacted, McPherson sent Dylan a short description of what he had in mind – the aforementioned Duluth setting, with a touch of O’Neill.
Setting the musical where he did puts it in Dylan’s home state. It also frees the story from having to resonate with Dylan’s lifetime, McPherson said.
“The 30s came to me as a time his music would fit in well,” McPherson said. “Bob’s music provides inner portraits of these characters.”
Beyond that, Dylan had nothing to do with the making of “Girl From The North Country.”
McPherson said Dylan’s manager told him Dylan felt McPherson and those involved with the show should feel free to do what they wanted to do. Any comments from Dylan would only add undue pressure to do what Dylan said.
So McPherson went about researching for the show, including a visit to Duluth in the dead of winter. He also used the internet, where he found clips about the Great Depression, including interviews with people who lived through it.
McPherson noticed “the way they phrase their language, that beautiful formal way they spoke.” Serving as director and writer, his production team worked that sense of formality into the show.
How you looked. How you helped yourself. The distance you gave other people when you stood in a room. What it meant to look your best. The way people moved when dancing. All that was incorporated into the piece, McPherson said.
“Girl” premiered in London in 2017, made its US debut at the Public Theater in New York the following year and wound up having a Broadway run that for a time was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dylan wound up coming to a performance in New York, unannounced. McPherson said that, while he was in Dublin at the time, it was a great moment.
Dylan eventually did send notes, met some of the cast and sent gifts along the way. However, to this day, McPherson has yet to meet with Dylan.
“Spending so much time with his work like that you feel connected, connected to that part of him, the most creative part of him in a profound and sustained way. That’s really special,” McPherson said.
While “Girl” is the first time McPherson set a play of his own outside of Ireland, he noted the bond the Irish have to the United States
“We’ve all got American relatives. We’ve always felt that soul connection with America.” he said.
McPherson also noted his Irish Catholic upbringing informing his work.
“A lot of us grow up being Catholic. The spiritual nature of life has been indoctrinated into us when we’re kids. Whether people stay on that path or not, it’s hard to shift that from your psychic DNA,” he said. “I think in ‘Girl from the North Country,’ as in a lot of Bob Dylan’s music, they share a sense of longing, a wonder about the beyond, to what it all means. I think that’s very much at the heart of a lot of Bob Dylan’s great songs.”
After all, drama and theater evolved from religious services thousands of years ago, he said.
“It still has that same structure, where we all go communally and we gather at the altar where the story takes place, which is in some ways transcendent,” McPherson said. “We suspend our disbelief and go into a communal trance together in this make believe world in which we put our faith. I try to maximize that power. Not that I’m always able to do it, but that’s my goal.”
McPherson’s works for the theater and film also frequently feature ghosts or otherworldly experiences. That’s a natural curiosity he’s had ever since he was a child.
He said that means “wondering about the nature of existence, what it all means when we look up at the sky, where it’s all going, when does it end and where did it all come from. The darkness that surrounds the stage is like an infinite mystery. As a playwright you’re trying to pull some of that onto the stage.”
“Because ultimately that’s what’s important. It’s the mystery that’s most important about human experience,” McPherson said. “Instinctively, that’s what I feel and long to understand. It’s very satisfying to explore those ideas in the theater.”
Given that, and having not met Dylan, would it be fair for McPherson to consider the Nobel laureate a ghost?
“I guess. When you don’t meet people they are perfect. He’s no dummy,” McPherson said with a laugh.