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Simon Hale has literally done it all. The British composer, arranger and orchestrator has worked with icons like Björk and Josh Groban, on musical theater hits like Spring Awakening, for the video game soundtrack of L.A. Noire and even orchestrated a Bond theme song.
One of his latest endeavors, though, alongside Irish director Conor McPherson, has earned him his second Grammy nomination — the Broadway play Girl From the North Country.
Up for best musical theater album, it’s the only play to have its album nominated among this year’s crop of honorees, which also includes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, Some Lovers (World Premiere Recording), Les Misérables: The Staged Concert (The Sensational 2020 Live Recording), Stephen Schwartz’s Snapshots – Musical Scrapbook (World Premiere Rec.) and The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical.
Girl From the North Country is a story driven by the music of legend Boy Dylan (right on down to its setting of Duluth, Minnesota), with a book by McPherson, who counts co-writing the film adaptation of Artemis Fowl among his resume of work in the U.S. and across the pond.
Using around 20 of the singer-songwriter’s classics, including “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young,” Girl From the North Country weaves a Depression-era tale set in a rundown guesthouse, where several down-on-their-luck residents’ lives are changed after the arrival of newcomers amid a winter storm.
Like many other shows currently running on Broadway, the play had to pause for nearly two years after opening, just ahead of the theater district’s pandemic shutdown. “I’m very grateful that we are able to record the album with an incredible cast at the top of their game when we did,” Hale told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’d just opened a few days beforehand, very early March 2020. We recorded maybe on Friday night and recorded the album from Sunday to Monday. Then literally the end of that next week, everything closed down because of COVID restrictions.”
But the show’s celebrated return in the fall of 2021 following Broadway’s reopening helped the duo score an esteemed Grammy honor, which the composer says has made him “very, very proud for everybody that’s part of” making the album. Their category will be awarded in a live broadcast on April 3 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, just weeks ahead of the show’s limited engagement return on April 29, following a performance hiatus that began Jan. 23 due to the ongoing pandemic.
“The most important part for me is that I finally have some credibility with my daughter who’s 12 because Olivia Rodrigo is nominated and Billie Eilish is nominated,” McPherson said. “It’s like somehow her dad is nominated, so suddenly she’s looking at me slightly different, which is great.”
Ahead of the Grammys, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Hale and McPherson about their collaboration process, having the freedom to bring a different sound to Dylan and how the music legend’s instincts have continued to help shape the play’s evolving sound.
What was the experience of being able to adapt Bob Dylan’s music for this story?
CONOR MCPHERSON Where do you begin? (Laughs.) I mean, it’s almost like someone gave you a credit card with a million dollars on it and said, “Why don’t you two go to New York and buy things?” It’s the wealth of the material and that we could use any song we wanted in any way that we wanted. Because Simon put the rule on it — we can only use instruments from the 1930s — that was a good discipline. From that point, it was like we could try anything we liked. It was lovely as music fans to get the guitars out and sit at the piano and bash songs out. As we were discovering songs, which we could just pick on a whim, we x-rayed them and realized how clever musically the songs are. How sound they are, the way his songs are built. How old-fashioned the construction is. I don’t mean that in any derogatory way. Just that they have a lovely form of songwriting depth of structure. Bob Dylan as a songwriter, always goes through the right door musically. He makes it seem so simple. As I would always say to Simon, it feels like I could write one of these if I had 10 minutes. Then it’s like, right, just try.
SIMON HALE That standard taste and instinct — that’s just what Bob Dylan is. It’s all about instinct. You talk about choosing the right door, but that’s instinct, isn’t it? This feels good to me. This feels right to me. You don’t know why that is. None of us know why that is. Why does Picasso look like Picasso? Why can you recognize [Igor] Stravinsky from other composers? I don’t know why. You can come up with technical reasons why but that’s down to a voice, an innate voice coming through instinctive choices from those composers or artists.
You worked together on crafting these songs for Girl From the North Country. Can you talk about what you liked most about collaborating?
MCPHERSON It’s been a pure joy for me working with Simon, personally. Simon is so talented. He’d hear things in his mind that were invisible and unheard. Then he very quickly would attribute, say, backing vocal parts to people, and you would hear the thing come alive. The whole thing would sort of burst into technicolor. So every day, you were just having moments that were a thrill. The way that we would do it was we would very quickly teach the song to the cast in a very knife and fork way. We’d bash away, and they’d just basically sing, even all together sometimes, like in church — just learn the song quickly. Then Simon would very quickly give people their arrangement. Some people could read the dots, some couldn’t — it didn’t matter. Very soon, you would hear this enormous potential being unleashed from these songs of atomic power. For me, that was the joy. We would look at each other and laugh. It was a dream.
HALE Yeah, I agree. We didn’t know each other personally. We’d never worked together. Our paths hadn’t crossed. So what was also interesting is that unknown of the relationship being developed in the room working on a piece. Now you’d obviously made the amazing decision of writing this play than fit Bob’s songs around that — I’m still utterly in bafflement about how you possibly did that, but it’s extraordinary. I’ve got this image of you walking around Dublin with your iPod walkman and just hearing, “Oh, maybe this one, maybe this one,” and just adding a bit at a time. It’s funny, I found it on scripts not so long ago, seeing the songs that are still in the Broadway production and the ones that aren’t. Actually, it’s pretty robust. That first draft is quite extraordinary. We met, we talked about music, we listened to all sorts of things. As I said, we didn’t have a long-standing professional relationship to build on. So it was fascinating how that trust was just there from the very beginning. I think the fact that we were very free and instinctive — created something which has a special, very honest voice as a result — I’m very proud of that.
Girl From the North Country’s story is driven by music, but it’s not a musical. Did you think about how musical music “sounds” or imagine what it would be like on Broadway while doing this?
MCPHERSON Luckily for me, I was ignorant of the whole Broadway genre. I say luckily in a sense that probably had I had the knowledge that you would need to properly construct something and aim it at Broadway, we probably just wouldn’t have done it. When we were rehearsing the show first, we were doing it in London, and then we moved into the theater. It was the Old Vic Theatre in London. As we moved into the theater, I realized, “Oh, I forgot this will be for an audience,” which is so stupid. We were just so intensely doing our thing and enjoying it so much, so I was like, “Oh my God, is anybody going to like this?” That was almost a total blind spot, which was probably helpful because we just didn’t get hung up on it until it was too late.
When the artistic director of the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus, saw the piece — he’s directed successful musicals like Matilda — he said this is more like a church service. He said you’ve got these stories which are almost like parables. Then you’ve got sort of these hymns. That was how he felt it worked. But he did feel it worked. I liked that description of it because that feels very Bob Dylan. We did feel like we had, in a number of the songs, managed to touch into what seemed like Bob’s preoccupations and beliefs spiritually. The choral feeling in our cast brought that out. It was that period in Bob’s career in the late 70s when he became a born-again Christian. There are so many wonderful R&B elements in his work there — beautiful, almost like gospel choirs. When he’s singing at those gigs he was doing in 1979 or 1980, he has six or eight backing singers. That was, for me, part of our inspiration. I remember talking to Simon about that and saying that’s our show.
HALE You saying did we imagine what it would be like, on Broadway — well, I certainly didn’t. (Laughs.) I was working in a rehearsal room in southeast London, and it was a very, very surreal experience. A very creative one, and at no point did I ever think about that. It was just a question about the Old Vic at that point and making it something because, of course, it didn’t exist as a piece then. We hadn’t put it in front of an audience. There are lots and lots of things about the show, which are not musical theater, per se, as you might describe than perhaps Western Broadway, more traditional type things. But you know, theater is theater. What Conor has produced using Bob songs is a story that goes, “Follow me. Follow me.” There are lots of things that we do that are not in the standard form of a musical — for example, avoiding applause. It’ll be the end of the song, next scene, get in there. It’s quite interesting watching how audiences react because that’s a different culture. Some songs have a button on the end, but it’s always just to go into the next thing, more like a play or film. It’s a different sort of spirit.
To answer your question about music, although I’ve worked on a few musicals as an orchestrator, this is the first show I’ve ever done with this kind of collaboration in the room. With somebody like Conor and working on a living composer’s songs, when the composer is not part of the creative process. It’s a very strange setup, actually, in lots of ways. But incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. So it’s not a question of what Broadway would sound like. The instruments were chosen because they needed to sound authentic for the play.
Do you feel like that speaks more to Dylan’s approach to music versus music in general for the stage?
HALE Yes, it’s just different. There’s Act One, where we end on this big chord — where are we going? We’re not sure, but the whole point is that we’re not sure what’s happening. It’s questioning. People going, “What’s just happened there? What am I thinking? How am I feeling? What are these people doing?” So it’s always trying to follow the instinct of the lyrics and the storytelling in the songs. Think about Dylan as a folk music artist. He’d get up on the stage and tell a story. If you didn’t tell the story convincingly, you’d be lost, wouldn’t you? So, we had the same attitude with this the whole way through. Although the lyrics are not written for the play — Conor’s chosen things incredibly cleverly — sometimes it’s specific or more related. Sometimes it’s more abstract. It’s a fascinating device. I couldn’t see it written down on paper. I still don’t quite know how it happened.
How did you select which songs would ultimately make it into the show? What was that journey?
MCPHERSON The only way I felt we could do it was to have songs that just felt right. Bob’s lyrics, I suppose, are very, very abstract in many cases. You don’t know what many of his songs are literally about. That was a great help because they have that kind of universal power where everybody’s just reading their feeling into it. Everybody in the audience hearing a Bob Dylan song probably sees a slightly different movie in their head. That gives us great freedom. I remember saying at one point you could have any of these songs sung by any character and move them around, and it could work in some way. But usually, you just needed enough. In the beginning, you’ve got “Sign in the Window.” Maybe it’s a bit like we’re about to go into a guest house, and there’s a sign in the window. Then the next song is “I Went to See the Gypsy,” which is on the same album. When Mrs. Nielsen comes into the guest house, and you haven’t even met her, yet she sings this song. It’s just, “I went to see the Gypsy. He was staying in this big hotel.” That’s enough.
What we would also do was, and it wasn’t a trick, but it was definitely something we realized, which was that we had to just lean into the way the actor sounded. Whatever their sound was, we would try and lean into that so that that was their style. We weren’t trying to say, “Hey! You need to make it more gospel,” or “You need to make it more folk,” or “Hey, you need to make more rock and roll.” We never did that. It was always, “OK, she’s got a country sound, and we lean in that direction. It was always a kind of give and take. You never needed it to be on the nose, but you just needed enough. We also found that when you were doing a song, we have music now. So we could just go into another song. We didn’t need an excuse to find our way into another song. Having a song — any song — going was enough to just cut into another song and do a sudden abrupt turn. The sound that we shoved into the middle of “Slow Train Coming” was “License to Kill.”
Were there any songs that were added in later on because you could just string music together?
MCPHERSON [The songs] did change. For instance, in the original show we did in London, Shirley Henderson sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” which was very rocky, very Patti Smith. Katie Brayben, who also did it in London, was even punkier. It was kind of unhinged. But then Mare Winningham on Broadway is way more in the folk, bluegrass, country tradition. That is the way we would go. We wouldn’t try and get anyone to repeat anything on us. In the future, were someone else to do it again, I think it would change. We also tended to add songs as we went along until finally, we added “Pressing On” at the end of the show. We knew that Jeannette Bayardelle should probably sing that one. We thought it was a great one for her. Having her in mind, even, and knowing people that well at that point with that kind of depth of feeling coming back to do it on Broadway, we were being inspired by the performers. So in a sense, their spirit is imbued in the piece. Which perhaps allows it to feel very unmediated and quite truthful because they are giving you their best performance. They’re not trying to be like something else. This is what you would get if you were in their house and they put on a record, and they sang.
HALE I read a quote where [Dylan] said some of the recorded versions of the songs he didn’t feel were definitive versions. They might have done one version in the back end of Idaho one week where he felt that that was what the song was all about. So, in a way, that’s great because you don’t need to worry about the enormity of this huge recorded catalog. We can just think about the songs coming from a songwriter-composer and think, “OK, how are we going to treat this material? Rather than, “How are we going to deal with this artist’s work?” Those are two different things.
“License to Kill” and “Joker Man” are two songs that came in through the rehearsal process. They weren’t in the script originally. You turned up one morning and popped those in, and we put them in as part of things, so they’d been swimming around in your mind. Then we found a way just to put them in. They weren’t conceived originally, I don’t think, from the beginning. They were sort of, “Oh, why don’t we do this?” It’s quite interesting how that’s happened. It’s not a biopic, and, of course, this play is not about Bob Dylan. It’s set before he was born, albeit in the same area where he was born. But it’s not about him, and, I don’t know about you, Conor, but that’s always been very liberating for me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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