Aidan Wharton and the cast of the "Girl From The North Country" North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Actor Aiden Wharton on Finding the Light and Joy in Dylan Musical 'Girl from the North Country'

Steve Duffy READ TIME: 9 MIN.

On the surface "Girl from the North Country" may appear to be jukebox musical, in this case dropping 20 songs by Nobel-winning Bob Dylan into a narrative created by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. But don't expect a biographical portrait of Dylan (a typical jukebox format), or a dance homage, as Twyla Tharp attempted to do with her dance musical "The Times They Are a-Changin,'" that briefly played Broadway in 2006.

Instead what McPherson – the multi-award winning playwright behind such titles as "The Weir," "Shining City" and "The Seafarer" – offers is a rich, multi-character narrative whose connection to Dylan is that it is set in the town he was born (Duluth, Minnesota) a few years prior to his birth (Dylan was born in 1941, the musical takes place in 1934). Into his story, that resonates with such period titles as "Our Town" and "Of Mice and Men," McPherson takes Dylan's deeply poetic songs and fits them into his narrative to illuminate the emotions and psychological dimensions of his many characters. And in doing so, McPherson transforms them with the help of musical director Simon Hale, who won a Tony Award for his orchestrations, into musical entities that will likely shock Dylan purists with their original, evocative takes on the songs.

In creating the show, McPherson submitted a two-page idea for a musical when Dylan's team reached out to him about developing a musical. To his surprise, he was given "carte-blanche" on Dylan's extensive catalogue. He created the show, which opened in London in 2017, without ever speaking to Dylan. They didn't connect until after the show moved to New York in 2018 where it played off-Broadway at the Public Theater. When Dylan eventually did see it, he did so without letting anyone know. Later he sent a note to McPherson saying how much the show moved him, which McPherson thought the ultimate praise.

Already something of a hard sell, the show landed on Broadway in March 2020, where the reviews were largely raves; but Covid interrupted its run a week after it opened. It reopened 18 months later, only to close three months later. It subsequently reopened a third time at the Belasco Theatre in April 2022 where it ran for three months and was filmed for a future broadcast. The current national tour opened in Minneapolis last September and is currently at Boston's Emerson-Colonial Theatre, where it plays through March 24. For the additional dates on the tour, which continues through October, follow this link.

McPherson's concept is to tell a multi-character, multi-generational story set in a rooming house run by the show's narrator, Nick Laine, who lives there with his emotionally challenged wife, his alcoholic son, and his adopted (and pregnant) daughter. Amongst his tenants are the Burkes, a squabbling couple with a grown-up son, named Elias, with the mind of a child.

For the tour, Elias is played by Aiden Wharton, who made his Broadway debut with the musical last year before heading out on tour – and a spectacular one at that with his resounding performance of "Duquesne Whistle" – about as sure a show-stopper as you can find in a musical. Except it doesn't for a calculated reason: Throughout the show, McPherson (who directed) moves the show forward without allowing the audience to intrude with applause. If there was a moment in the show that deserved it, it was this one.

(Editor's note: Introduction by Robert Nesti)

The out actor sat down with EDGE to talk about his role in this challenging musical.

(L-R) Aidan Wharton, David Benoit, Jennifer Blood and Jeremy Webb in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

EDGE: Can you describe the show's plot?

Aidan Wharton: The show is set in Duluth, Minnesota during the Great Depression in 1934. It follows the lives of the proprietor, his wife, and their two children, as well as all the people who are staying in their boarding house. The show explores how they are coping with the economic hardships of the time and the trials they face in their daily lives.

EDGE: What do you enjoy most about playing Elias Burke?

Aidan Wharton: Elias is the son of two of the guests. Their family has been traveling a bit, because of the loss of their jobs and their home. The show is an unflinching look at how people had to survive during the Depression. There's a lot of sorrow and a lot of perseverance. Elias is the innocence and light of the show. He has so much innocence and curiosity, and I think it is such a gift to be able to play him. I can't say what I enjoy most because that would give away too much information about him.

EDGE: Were you familiar with the music of Bob Dylan?

Aidan Wharton: I came to know Bob Dylan's music through other art forms. His music was used in the 2009 "Watchmen" movie, but I was taken with it when I heard it in my favorite TV show, "Battlestar Galactica." Because I experienced his music through these forms, I find it a fitting way for me to come to his music. Simon Hale, who orchestrates the music, won a Tony for the show. He does a beautiful job creating a new way for the audience to experience Dylan's music in an original way while still staying true to the poetry and the music itself.

by Steve Duffy

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