Entertainment & Arts

Bob Dylan: Conor McPherson on writing the musical

Arinze Kene in rehearsals Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Rehearsals for Girl from the North Country are currently underway

Imagine you are approached by one of the world's most famous musicians and asked to create a show using their songs.

But there is a problem. You've never written a musical before.

That was the challenge facing the Irish playwright Conor McPherson, when he was contacted by none other than Bob Dylan's management company.

The writer, who is best known for his critically acclaimed play The Weir, says he was "puzzled" and has no idea why he was approached.

"And I don't really want to know," he adds.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Conor McPherson was contacted by Bob Dylan's management

"It's almost too frightening to contemplate," says Conor McPherson. He thinks Dylan "has 650 songs. It's just too vast to please everybody."

He also did not believe that Dylan was "that kind of jukebox musical artist".

Eventually, though, he came up with an idea to set the play during the Depression in America in the early 1930s, before Dylan was born in 1941.

Within days he received a message. "Bob Dylan had read it and wanted me to go ahead and do it," he explains.

"He liked the idea. I knew then that if it was something that he approved of then we were okay.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bob Dylan recently accepted the Nobel Prize for literature

"He was very supportive saying use the songs in whatever way you want. You don't have to use all of a song, you can use part of a song, or you can have one song which becomes another song. So all of those things began to feel very exciting."

Conor McPherson has set the play in a guesthouse in Dylan's birthplace of Duluth in Minnesota.

It is called Girl from the North Country, after a track Dylan wrote in 1963.

The songs in the show span five decades of Dylan's career. Hits such as Like A Rolling Stone, I Want You, Make You Feel My Love and True Love Tends To Forget are included.

The most recent song used is Duquesne Whistle from 2012. McPherson also promises "hidden gems that you've never heard before."

Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Sheila Atim and Sam Reid will appear in the musical

Dylan rarely allows his music to be used in theatrical productions. The last time was in the musical The Times They Are A-Changin', conceived by the choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Most critics hated it and it closed on Broadway after just three weeks in 2006.

Conor McPherson hopes Girl from the North Country, which receives its world premiere at the Old Vic Theatre in London in July, will fare better.

He says he would like Dylan to come to see it, but he has no idea whether he will or not.

"Part of me thinks probably not, but another part of me thinks he's so unpredictable, maybe he'll just show up on a wet Tuesday night, unannounced, and will just be sitting there in the audience."

Follow us on Facebook, on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts, or on Instagram at bbcnewsents. If you have a story suggestion email entertainment.news@bbc.co.uk.

More on this story