By Stephen Herron, Senior Digital Marketing Manager, Playhouse Square
Broadway has long been a canvas for artistic innovation. From its golden age productions to contemporary shows, the theater continuously evolves. One example is the trend of incorporating popular music into new stage narratives, such as we see (and hear) in the musical Girl from the North Country, which blends Bob Dylan's legendary songs with a poignant Depression-era tale.
The inclusion of popular songs in musical theater isn't a new concept. In fact, in the early 20th century, many Broadway songs became mainstream hits, and vice versa. This permeable boundary allowed songs to freely move between the world of popular music and the theater. However, the way popular music is incorporated today is remarkably different. Instead of original songs written specifically for a musical becoming hits, we now see existing popular music being used as the foundation for entirely new theatrical narratives.
The musical Girl from the North Country is a masterful testament to the power of reimagining popular songs for the stage. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, the musical uses the iconic songs of Bob Dylan, not just as a soundtrack, but as an integral part of the storytelling process.
What makes it particularly interesting is how it reinvents Dylan's music, proving that songs written for a different purpose can still be embedded seamlessly into a new context.
While Girl from the North Country isn't the first Broadway show to use Bob Dylan's music, its presentation and how the narrative intertwines with the songs sets it apart from shows such as The Times They Are a-Changin' (2006).
Girl from the North Country is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past decades, there has been a surge in jukebox musicals, which use popular music catalogues to create or enhance narratives. From the ABBA-infused Mamma Mia! to the Queen-inspired We Will Rock You, the integration of known hits allows audiences to connect instantly with the material
Usually musicals such as Mamma Mia! and Girl from the North Country use songs as inspiration, or re-imagine the songs and lyrics in ways that fit into the play's narrative, rather than the other way around. Girl from the North Country is a more sober and reflective narrative compared to the upbeat Mamma Mia! which illustrates the different directions shows can take while still embodying the music.
MJ: The Musical takes a different approach portraying Michael Jackson's rehersals for an upcoming tour while mixing in dramatized aspects of the singer's life that tie into the songs in unexpected yet appropriate ways.
What's pivotal is the need for balance. For a musical like Girl from the North Country, it's not just about picking popular songs but choosing those that resonate deeply with the narrative. It's a testament to the potential relationship that can exist between a songwriter and a playwright, even if they never met.
The allure of popular music in musical theater lies in its ability to bridge the past with the present, the familiar with the new. It can capture the spirit of a generation while providing a fresh new way of looking at the music, revitalizing old songs for old ears. The coming years will undoubtedly bring more collaborations, more reinterpretations, and hopefully, more masterpieces that resonate with audiences universally.
In the meantime, you can see Girl from the North Country during its run, now through November 19 here at Playhouse Square. For tickets visit playhousesquare.org