Rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s was thought to be a passing fad, a quick thrill for teeny-boppers, a silly musical form destined for the pop culture graveyard, like the player piano or barbershop quartet.
Then along came a Duluth-born, Hibbing-raised singer and songwriter named Bob Dylan.
Dylan and his early work changed the direction of popular music. He inspired a new generation of performers and helped elevate rock ’n’ roll to an important, enduring late-20th century art form. His career was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.
So if Dylan redeemed the electric guitar and a back beat, is Duluth the rock ’n’ roll Bethlehem?
“Girl from the North Country,” a play inspired by the Dylan music catalog with cast performances of his songs, explores this question when it opens at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in New York on March 5. The drama follows hard-scrabble, Depression-era characters as they look to turn their lives around in a rundown Duluth boarding house.
The play has already completed two big stage runs in London and one in Toronto.
Award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson said he was asked by Dylan management to develop a play using the bard’s music. McPherson, who owned a small collection of Dylan albums, said the idea seemed improbable.
“It didn’t feel like his music was that kind of ‘Broadway musical theater’ thing that came to me initially,” McPherson said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t think it was something I could do.”
But McPherson looked to the 1930s work of celebrated American playwright Eugene O'Neill for inspiration. O’Neill characters lived on the fringe, lacked money and struggled to survive. His plays were bleak but honest depictions of American life. McPherson pitched a short outline. Dylan sent back his blessing and a box of some 40 albums — reference material to finish the script.
“He gave me complete trust, which was great,” McPherson said.
McPherson has never traveled to Duluth, but he compared its character to his hometown of Dublin, a port city on the Irish Sea. Two winter visits to Minneapolis gave him a sense of Minnesota snow and cold. Early Duluth industrial history and its northern climate provided a good foundation for a raw, straightforward drama.
“There’s that sense of it being a gateway to another place,” McPherson said. “The idea that the lake boats are coming in and out and heading on down to bigger cities like Chicago, it feels like it’s on the doorstep to another world in some way. That all felt very natural to me.”
A Duluth setting also showcases the music.
McPherson said Dylan never abandoned his roots. For example, he wrote about “that little Minnesota town” in the song “Went to See The Gypsy” and famously rerecorded part of his 1975 album “Blood on The Tracks” in Minneapolis.
“I just think he keeps reconnecting again and again. It’s part of who he is, there’s no question,” McPherson said. “I feel that kind of Midwestern everyman in Bob. I know there was kind of a hipster sort of feeling about him in the 1960s, but really there’s a deep wisdom under his stuff, which is a folkier feeling, rooted in something much more real. … I always associate that with these Midwestern roots.”
The play, set before the 1941 birth of Bob Dylan, is about the dawning of a new era and its promise of better times. Duluth helps deliver that message.
“The sense of place is really, really important to me. That’s why I wanted to call it ‘Girl from the North Country,’” he said. “The play can be interpreted many ways, you know. In one way, it’s a type of nativity play. The nativity is almost like the arrival of Bob Dylan.”
McPherson called Dylan and his songwriting a mystery: “He always (said) he doesn’t know where these songs come from — they come through him. I always think it’s a little bit like he’s been struck by lightning; he’s struck by something kind of divine.”
“Artists like him are a kind of miracle,” he said. “That’s been proved by his incredible influence on world history in the 20th century. He’s an icon. But he’s just a guy with a guitar that was born in Duluth and grew up in Hibbing. And yet look at the waves he has sent out into culture. It’s incredible. So for me, it’s almost like a holy thing. You can’t explain it.”
McPherson said Duluth is where it all started, and he hopes the city can find a positive message in the play.
“It shows people being very resilient and trying their best,” he said. “We’ve added a song at the end of the show — ‘Pressing On’ — it’s got such a positive message: No matter what you’re going through, you just keep going. I think there’s something about it that I hope (Duluth) will like.”
Has Dylan seen the play? Did he like it?
Yes. Dylan saw an off-Broadway performance last year and told the cast he enjoyed it.
“He said to them: ‘This show is going to put Duluth on the map.’ That’s what he said. Which is so funny,” McPherson said. “I thought: ‘Well, I’m not going to get a better compliment than that.”
Mark Nicklawske reviews music and theater for the News Tribune. Look for his review of "Girl from the North Country" after it opens in New York.