joHe doesn’t usually have Bob Dylan’s green light to rebel against his songs. But for songwriter 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 artist’s blessing of the freeway.
The subsequent show, Girl from the North Country, opened that year with rave reviews for her skillfully transforming 19 of Dylan’s traveling songs into a 30-minute Minnesota-set story. 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 present songs like musical theater in general does,” he says. I was concerned about portraying such an iconic songbook in this way, but Dylan followed his instincts and I did the same. “
Hale, 58, has spent most of his career in the genre. As a touring keyboardist for Seal in the early 1990s, he began arranging string sections for Björk and Jamiroquai’s early albums. Since then, she has organized the 2015 Sam Smith Bond track, Writing’s on the Wall, and recorded with George Michael and Céline Dion. But it was a call to write orchestrations for an American Spring Awakening production in 2006 that established a lasting relationship with the theater.
“The collaboration is very visceral in the theater and that’s what got me back,” he says. “Everyone is in the same room, while making a record or a movie, you come in and out in a few hours and you don’t have the same human connection.”
The role of an orchestrator can facilitate human connection, but it can also be a complicated mediation. You usually work with existing songs or demos that need to add additional instrumentation. “You have to create a new character in this story, one that has to fit in perfectly, but that also adds to the essence of the song, so that when it’s taken away it’s missing,” Hale says. “It’s a challenge, but you have to trust yourself, otherwise you’ve swallowed up trying to copy the views of others.”
Hale, who realized as a child that he had a perfect tone, initially composed his music in his head before putting the pencil on the paper. “I’m always thinking about my time, visualizing the music,” he says. “The first time someone listened to what I did was in the recording session. There is fear of anticipating that the first note will be played, but the shock of these black and white dots turning into sound never ages. The feeling of danger is good. “
Relying on this connection between his mind and the performers who bring 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 very different. “Girl from the North Country is set in a period when the composer of our show was not born, so we are completely reimagining the music, while in Get Up, Stand Up! we’re trying to faithfully represent the brilliance of what Bob Marley did in his life, ”he says. “It’s all about details – 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 the music of both Bobs, with the impressionistic images of Dylan transplanted into a new narrative and the autobiographical lyrics of Marley explaining his life, Hale maintained some constants, such as the centrality of the role of the musicians. “It’s a shame that a lot of theater bands are hidden because the audience has to see what’s being performed,” he says. “Realizing what it means to make a sound is like watching magic and that’s why we have bands on stage in both shows.” In Girl from the North Country, the band plays 1930s instruments as they gather around a kitchen plate, and in Get Up, Stand Up! its players appear amplified and in contrasts as in a 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,” she says. “They’ll make a unique sound, but it should still leave the audience with the same experience of watching Dylan’s music from a different lens.”
And what did the same great man in the show do? “I felt Dylan sneak in to see him long after he was already open,” Hale says with a smile. “And he loved it.”