Jamming with Jokerman: How Bob Marley and Bob Dylan Songs Powered Hit Musicals | Theater

IIt’s not often you get the green light from Bob Dylan to go wild with his songs. But for the 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 artist’s blessing.

The show that followed, Girl from the North Country, opened that year to rave reviews for its skillful transformation of 19 of Dylan’s travel songs into a story set in 1930s Minnesota. West End and Broadway, the show is now embarking on a UK tour and Hale is back in the rehearsal room.

“It’s an unusual piece. We don’t deliver songs like musicals usually do,” he says. drift away at the whim of something else. I was worried about representing such an iconic songbook in this way, but Dylan followed his instincts so I did the same.

Simon Hale receives his Olivier Award for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical. Photography: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for SOLT

Hale, 58, has spent most of her career crossing genres. Cutting his teeth as a touring keyboardist for Seal in the early 90s, he went on to arrange string sections for early albums by Björk and Jamiroquai. He has since arranged Sam Smith’s 2015 Bond theme, Writing’s on the Wall, and recorded with George Michael and Celine Dion. But it was a call to write orchestrations for an American production of Spring Awakening in 2006 that established a lasting relationship with the theater.

“Collaboration is very visceral in theater and that’s what kept me coming back,” he says. “Everyone is in the same room, whereas to make a record or a film, you come in and out in a few hours and you don’t have the same human connection.”

The role of orchestrator can facilitate human connection, but it can also be a delicate mediation. Typically, you’re working with existing tracks or demos that require additional instrumentation to be added. “You have to create a new character in this story, a character that has to fit in perfectly but also adds to the essence of the song, so that when he’s taken out, he’s missed,” says Hale. “It’s a challenge, but you have to trust yourself or you’ll get bogged down trying to copy other people’s visions.”

Hale, who realized as a child that he had a perfect ear, first composes his music in his head before switching from pencil to paper. “I always think in my rhythm, I visualize the music,” he says. “The first time anyone hears what I did was during the recording session. There is a fear of anticipating the first note played, but the shock of those black and white dots transformed into sound never gets old. The sense of danger is good.

Trusting that connection between his mind’s eye 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 songbook for Get up, get up! The Bob Marley Musical, directed by Clint Dyer. The two projects were significantly different. “Girl from the North Country is set in a time when our show’s composer was not born, so we’re completely reimagining the music, whereas in Get Up, Stand Up! we try to accurately 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 song selections from Marley and perform them with the band. “It’s all about the details – providing that sense of rhythm and melody that means any talented musician can do with it exactly what we’re trying to convey, night after night,” he says.

Sam Smith performing at the Brit Awards 2015 at the O2 Arena in London.
Sam Smith performing at the Brit Awards 2015 at the O2 Arena in London. Photography: Yui Mok/PA

Despite the differences in the music of the two Bobs, with Dylan’s impressionistic imagery transplanted into a new narrative and Marley’s autobiographical lyrics telling the story of his life, Hale kept certain constants, like the centrality of the musicians’ role. “It’s a shame that a lot of theater groups are hidden because the audience needs to see what’s being played,” he says. “Realizing what’s going on in the production of 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 while crowded around a kitchen set, and in Get Up, Stand Up! its players are shown amplified and on risers like in an arena show.

Back in the rehearsal room, Hale adapts her scores to allow new performers to shine. “We’re already changing the tones and phrases of the new Girl from the North Country singers because we want the company to own the show,” he says. “They’re going to produce a unique sound, but it should still leave audiences with the same experience of seeing Dylan’s music through a different lens.”

And what did the big man himself do with the show? “I heard Dylan sneaking in to see it long after it was already open,” Hale said with a smile. “And he loved it.”

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