Yot’s not often you get the green light from Bob Dylan to run riot with his songs. But for composer simon hale and playwright Conor McPherson, a call from the Old Vic theater in 2017 was just that: an invitation to rework Dylan’s songbook into a musical, with the blessing of free rein from the artist.
The ensuing show, Girl from the North Country, opened that year to rave reviews for its deft transformation of 19 of Dylan’s journeying songs into a story set in 1930s Minnesota. Following runs in the West End and on Broadway, the show is now embarking on a UK tour and Hale is back in the rehearsal room.
“This is an unusual piece. We don’t deliver songs in the way that musical theater generally does,” he says. “We don’t play for applause, we go from one song to another and sometimes they drift off as something else happens. I worried about representing such an iconic songbook this way but Dylan followed his instinct from him and so I did the same.
Hale, 58, has spent most of his career traversing genres. Cutting his teeth as a touring keyboard player for Seal in the early 90s, he went on to arrange string sections for early Björk and Jamiroquai albums. He has since arranged Sam Smith’s 2015 Bond theme, Writing’s on the Wall, and recorded with George Michael and Céline Dion. But it was a call to write orchestrations for a US production of Spring Awakening in 2006 that established a lasting relationship with the theatre.
“Collaboration is very visceral in theater and that’s what has kept me coming back,” he says. “Everyone’s in the same room, whereas making a record or film, you’re in and out in a few hours and you don’t have the same human connection.”
The role of an orchestrator might facilitate human connection but it can also be a tricky mediation. Typically, you work with existing songs or demos that need the addition of extra instrumentation. “You have to create a new character in that story, one that has to fit seamlessly but that also adds to the essence of the song, so that when it’s taken away it’s missed,” Hale says. “It’s a challenge but you have to trust yourself, otherwise you get swallowed up in trying to copy other people’s visions.”
Hale, who realized as a child that he had perfect pitch, initially composes his music in his head before he commits pencil to paper. “I’m always thinking in my own time, visualizing the music,” he says. “The first time anyone ever hears what I’ve done is in the recording session. There is a fear in anticipating that first note being played but the shock of those black and white dots being turned into sound never gets old. The sense of danger is good.”
Trusting that connection between his mind’s eye and the performers bringing his work to life has paid off. In April, Hale won an Olivier award for his orchestration of another Bob’s songbook for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical, directed by Clint Dyer. The two projects were markedly different. “Girl from the North Country is set in a period where the composer of our show wasn’t born, so we’re entirely reimagining the music, whereas in Get Up, Stand Up! we’re trying to faithfully represent the brilliance of what Bob Marley did in his life, ”he says. Working with arranger Phil Bateman, Hale’s role was to take his selections of Marley’s songs and perform them with the band. “It’s all about detail – providing that sense of rhythm and melody that means any talented musician can turn it into exactly what we’re trying to convey, night after night,” he says.
Despite the differences in both Bobs’ music, with Dylan’s impressionistic imagery being transplanted into a new narrative and Marley’s autobiographical lyrics telling his life story, Hale kept some constants, like the centrality of the musicians’ role. “It’s a shame that a lot of theater bands are hidden away because audiences need to see what is being performed,” he says. “Realizing what goes into making a sound is like watching magic and that’s why we have bands on the stage in both shows.” In Girl from the North Country, the band plays 1930s instruments while crowded around a kitchen set, and in Get Up, Stand Up! its players are featured amplified and on risers like in an arena show.
Back in the rehearsal room, Hale is adapting his scores to allow the new performers to shine. “We’re already altering keys and phrases for the new Girl from the North Country singers because we want the company to own the show,” he says. “They are going to make a unique sound but it should still leave the audience with the same experience of seeing Dylan’s music through a different lens.”
And what did the great man himself make of the show? “I heard Dylan snuck in to see it long after it was already open,” Hale says with a grin. “And I have loved it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism