If it’s possible to spoil a musical that can’t currently be experienced by anyone, here’s a spoiler: Girl From the North Country, the 2020 Broadway production based on Bob Dylan’s catalog, mostly does not turn out happily. Throughout the play, working-class residents of a 1930s-era Minnesota town fight to survive the Great Depression, and by the end, many of them have lost that struggle, with stories that culminate in suicide, murder, destroyed dreams, and ruined relationships. The show’s reinterpretations of Dylan’s songs trend stately and sad, emphasizing the singer’s fatalism. Hanging in the air is the great, sneering question that “Like a Rolling Stone” posed to a nation of individualists: How does it feel to be on your own?
Girl From the North Country was one of the last live entertainments I experienced before the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of cultural life. Three months later, I often find myself thinking of its dark relevance. We in the U.S. are living through the closest thing to a Great Depression since the Great Depression. For many people, the ambitions shorthanded in the term American dream have run up against sickness, lockdowns, and unemployment. The police violence spotlighted by recent protests has been another cause for disillusionment, at least for those privileged enough to have believed America to be defined by justice or equality. Monuments are coming down, and myths—personal, historical—are being rewritten. Right now, in other words, feels a bit like a Bob Dylan song.