Attend a performance of Twyla Tharp's new Bob Dylan musical The Times They Are A-Changin', and you'll inevitably find yourself wondering: What on earth would Bob Dylan make of this? What would he make of the "Highway 61 Revisited" production number, during which a circus ringleader bellows, "For the first time anywhere … live on our stage … God!"—at which point a dancer, dressed as the white-bearded and be-dreadlocked deity, lurches onstage atop 10-foot stilts? And what about "Like a Rolling Stone," a spectacle that features a mammoth balloon shaped like a circus sideshow fat lady, clowns bouncing on exercise balls, and an earnest young man belting out "How does it feeeel?" while air-strumming an oversized sequined guitar? Any number of adjectives could be used to describe these tableaux; Dylanesque isn't the first that springs to mind.
According to the show's Web site, "There are many references in Tharp's show … [to] the unique imagery found in Dylan's songs over the course of his entire career." Yet to give Dylan credit for the extravaganza now playing at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre seems unfair in the extreme. Sure, Dylan composed "Mr. Tambourine Man." But to turn that modest folk-rock reverie into a three-dimensional dream-vision, with a singer seated on a neon-lighted sickle moon suspended 20 feet above a stage where dancers dart, Mummenschanz-style, in and out of billowing curtains—to pull that off, you need to be a demented genius of a whole other order.
The Times They Are A-Changin' is just the latest example of the "jukebox musical," a phenomenon that involves baby boomers paying exorbitant prices to hear the pop songs of their younger years mauled, karaoke-style, amid elaborate stage scenery. Tharp had a box-office and critical success with her earlier experiment with this genre, Movin' Out, a revue of Billy Joel songs. But the Dylan show is different—not, according to the Web site, a "dance musical" like Movin' Out, but "an original action-adventure fable conceived by Ms. Tharp."
The fable, as near as I could make out, involves a down-at-heel circus, a pretty girl in a red dress, and a struggle between a father and son. The circus is presided over, in the gentle manner of Joseph Stalin, by a ringmaster named Capt. Ahrab, whose look is a cross between Christopher Lloyd's wild-eyed scientist in Back to the Future, the Joker from Batman, and Dylan's creepy whiteface get-up on his 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The other dramatis personae are Ahrab's son, Coyote, a rosy-cheeked wuss in suspenders; the girl, Cleo; and several clowns, dressed in Mad Max-style rags, who are forever hurtling their bodies through the air—the action-adventure part, I guess.
These characters sing one Dylan song after another (there's no actual dialogue), accompanied by a five-piece rock ensemble. Clowns prance and tumble. "Just Like a Woman," "Simple Twist of Fate," "Gotta Serve Somebody," and a dozen or so other Dylan favorites are dispatched with. Eventually, the tyrannical Ahrab is deposed and love triumphs. I think. The plot particulars are little hard to follow, but the Playbill provides an interpretative gloss: "A tale of fathers and sons, of men and women, of leaders and followers, of immobility and change, The Times They Are A-Changin' uses prophecy, parable, metaphor, accusation and confession—like the Dylan songs which comprise it—to confront us with images and ideas of who we are, and who it is possible to be." It's an interesting take on the Dylan canon—the last time I checked, self-actualization was not one of Bob's major themes.
It's hard to know what to make of Tharp's manic choreography, a festival of contortionism, tightrope walking, unicycle and skateboard riding, and trampoline bounding. But it's clear that she has a penchant for literalism. Throughout the show, Dylan's lyrics are enacted by the dancers. When Capt. Ahrab sings the lines in "Desolation Row" about "Cinderella sweeping up," a female dancer grabs a broom and begins furiously doing housework at stage right. During "Like a Rolling Stone," balls roll in from the wings, and "the jugglers and the clowns" described in the lyrics materialize onstage. Sitting in the orchestra seats, I began to worry that "Buckets of Rain" might be the next song.
In addition to being hokey, Tharp's choreography reflects a too-reverent attitude to Bob the Bard, particularly to the flood of words found on mid-'60s albums like Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. The enduring pleasure of those records is the extraordinary sound of Dylan's band and voice. But not all of his early lyrics have aged well—next to a poetic explosion like 1975's "Idiot Wind," "Desolation Row" from 1965 can come off as cheap surrealism. Sure, Dylan is rock's greatest songwriter. But doesn't Tharp know he's also one the biggest jive-talkers in history?
A "dance musical" based on Billy Joel tunes makes some sense. Joel's songs are rhythmically vivacious enough to propel dance numbers, and their melodic and harmonic sophistication, inspired in large part by the Great American Songbook, makes them a natural fit on Broadway. By contrast, many of Dylan's songs are vamps, based around repetitive chord progressions and guitar strumming in 4/4 time. And while Dylan has written some lovely melodies, he's no Gershwin. Tharp has done her best to mine the Dylan catalog for different flavors—injecting zydeco into "On a Night Like This," reviving the reggae-tinged "Man Gave Names to All the Animals," maybe the single worst song from Dylan's Christian period—and several songs are re-harmonized, sometimes with disastrous results. (A choral singalong version of "Blowin' in the Wind" is particularly painful.)
The truth is, Bob Dylan on Broadway is just as awkward in practice as it sounds on paper—an aesthetic car crash. Dylan is not only a masterful songwriter, he's also one of the best pop singers of all time; his phrasing is right up there with Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. The greatness of his writing is often inseparable from his subtly shaded, ironic, and mysterious performances of those songs. The problem isn't that Dylan's "cool" music doesn't work on "square" Broadway, or even that Dylan's icy-hipster persona makes such a clash with the old-school showbiz aesthetics of the musical stage. There haven't been many great cover versions of Dylan songs, and if other rock stars can't pull them off, it's bound to be a real stretch for Michael Arden, the genial young actor who plays Coyote, crooning Dylan songs with a quaver pitched halfway between an earnest folkie and Ethel Merman.
Jukebox musicals make a mockery not just of rock 'n' roll, but of Broadway: the noble, charming, witty tradition of the American musical comedy, of Rodgers and Hart, Comden and Green, Oklahoma!, and My Fair Lady. In The Times They Are A-Changin', you get to watch two great native art forms get buried in kitsch. Toward the end of the show, Tharp pulls out what may be the most arcane song choice of the night, "Dignity," an outtake from Dylan's 1989 Oh Mercy album that was remixed and included on a 1994 greatest hits collection. The song is delivered in fist-thrusting stentorian fashion by Arden, standing at the lip of the stage. "Searchin' high, searchin' low / Searchin' everywhere I know … / Have you seen dignity? / Have you seen dignity?" he cries. And then a clown in a polka-dotted jumpsuit flies past.