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.

Watch this video preview of the national company of "The Girl from North Country."

EDGE: What does this music and this story mean to you?

Aidan Wharton: That's a good question. For me, it shows how we push through hard times and how there's so much in life. Connor's writing in this play leaves a lot open for interpretation. Because of this, we have a lot of questions. There are so many little details in our show and so many little pieces that really show what life is like. There aren't a ton of answers and life can be challenging at times, but there's a deep beauty in watching people push through and find the connections that they can, even in places you'd least expect it. So, every night to be able to tell this story across the country reminds me that no matter how dark and dire situations are, you can still find light, love, and joy.

EDGE: What's your favorite moment in "Girl From The North Country," and why?

Aidan Wharton: The incredible Jen Blood, who plays Elizabeth, performs "Like A Rolling Stone." After that, we dance together. It's a surreal moment. It is such a lovely way to connect with her, and it's just so sweet and warm. It's such a great moment and I love that I get to perform it with her every night.

EDGE: Musical theatre is growing with musician-focused shows. Why do you think these types of musicals are becoming so popular?

Aidan Wharton: There's the commercial aspect of having name recognition, which is helpful for success. Some musicians have incredible bodies of work and hearing their music gives them a chance for new fans and for a new way to live on. What I love about our show is that it is not your typical jukebox musical. The music, the plot, and the script are not too horned together. Sometimes in a jukebox musical, they force the plot to work with the songs or they work the songs to work with the plot. What I love about our show is that Connor McPherson, who wrote it, trusts his writing and Dylan's music to work together side-by-side, rather than forcing them to come together to tell a story.

EDGE: While touring you also work with local LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations to raise money. Who will you be working with while in Boston?

Aidan Wharton: I will be partnering with BAGLY and highlighting them. I have been trying to find nonprofits around the country that are hyper-local in each city we stop. I wish that I was raising thousands of dollars, but I'm raising hundreds. I wanted to find organizations that could benefit from these smaller-scale donations. Not that massive nonprofits aren't doing incredible work, but they have corporate sponsorships and I wanted to find ones where a little money would make a little bit of a difference. I love talking to these organizations and highlighting the work that they're doing while out on tour. A lot of nonprofits are thankless jobs, and so it's been incredible just to meet and talk with some of the folks who are on the front lines fighting for our rights.

EDGE: In addition to acting, you also have your website. Tell us about "Gay Buffet."

Aidan Wharton: I started this almost a year ago. I was working for a nonprofit and they loved newsletters, so I asked them for permission to write my own and that is how "Gay Buffet" started. There are so many things that fascinate me about being gay, queer, and the LGBTQIA+ community. I wanted to write a weekly roundup of things that I had learned that week or found out about. It is structured around news, history, art, music, musings, and a little relationship thing at the end. Over time, especially that summer, my fiancé and I were traveling a lot and I started researching the gay history of the places that we traveled to. I have always been fascinated by gay history so when I got offered this role, I thought, "What a great way to learn and disseminate information about gay history all over the country." I have learned some incredible things so far. In addition, I thought about how I can use what I'm writing and this tour opportunity to do something that feels meaningful to me, especially in this election year and that's where this nonprofit highlighting idea came from, as well.

EDGE: What's a must-have item for you while touring?

Aidan Wharton: What a fun question. My white noise machine, my electric skillet so that I can cook in my hotel room, and my Nintendo Switch for long travel days. When I'm feeling a little bored, I use my computer so that I can write about everything that I'm learning on the road. When I accepted this tour, I told my fiancé I wanted to be fully self-sufficient in the most basic of hotel rooms, so I've got a little camping set that I use when I must.

EDGE: Theatre is...

Aidan Wharton: A vitally important way to come together and experience art in a community setting.

"Girl from the North Country" continues through March 24 at the Emerson-Colonial Theatre, 106 Bolyston Street, Boston, MA. For ticket information, follow this link.

by Steve Duffy

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