I Watched Twyla Tharp's Bob Dylan Musical So You Don't Have To
But you can…
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A couple times a year, I rewatch one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen. It’s a performance of “Like a Rolling Stone” on The View, promoting the first Bob Dylan Broadway musical: the 2006 flop The Times They Are a-Changin’.
I recently tweeted a clip, and it went viral. I thought everyone already knew about this trainwreck—apparently not. Here’s that video:
Some replies compared this to a 30 Rock plot come to life. Others to something Martin Short’s character would direct on Only Murders in the Building. The most-cited comparison was Springtime for Hitler, the intentionally-terrible stage production in The Producers.
Why does this exist? There’s no satisfying answer to that question, but here is some backstory. In 2006, renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp was coming off a hit musical adaptation of the Billy Joel songbook, and decided to try the same trick with Dylan’s catalog. It did not go as well. Reviews were brutal, and the show closed after 28 days.
Up until recently, that View clip was all I’d ever seen from this show. This famous flop was not filmed or televised. That’s the only YouTube evidence it ever existed.
A couple kind souls helped me track down an audience-captured video recording of the entire show (thanks John and Marcos!). I strapped in and watched it and have survived—barely—to share my thoughts, and, god help me, the full video.
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The show’s official Playbill described the plot thus:
“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.”
Not much of that comes across when you watch it. It’s one of those musicals with no dialog. And since all these assorted lyrics were not written to tell one story, the “plot” (if there is one) becomes extremely hard to follow. Background research tells me the three main characters are Coyote, the young milquetoast protagonist; Lady Cleo, the love interest whose bellydancing job gives the production a convenient excuse to have her wearing little for most of the show; and Captain Ahrab, the aging ringmaster.
I have watched the entire show and cannot tell you the storyline much beyond that. It takes place in a circus, that much is clear from the giant neon sign that says “CIRCUS.” Coyote and Cleo fall in love. I think Captain Ahrab gets beaten to death in a wrestling match during “Gotta Serve Somebody”?
Okay, enough preamble. I’ve pulled out some selected video highlights (or lowlights) below. Not every song, due to some being captured by this brave bootlegger better than others, but many of them.
Bear in mind, these clips cannot be unseen. I can’t promise they won’t ruin Bob Dylan songs forever for you. If your vision of “Dignity” does not involve a floppy-eared dog-boy doing backflips, turn away while you still can. This is your final warning.
The first few songs are not well captured on this video, so we don’t get to see the moment Slate calls out during “Highway 61 Revisited” when “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.”
Instead we enter a minute or so into the song, when the audience member’s hidden camcorder finds the stage. The scene is immediately chaos. Dancing clowns contort (this will be a theme of practically every song), the ringmaster plays an unplugged electric guitar, and God-on-stilts gyrates. Coyote spanks a clown with something that looks like a rolled-up carpet. A dog-boy puts Cleo on a stretcher. We’re only getting started.
We skip ahead a few songs (the opening half hour of the tape has particularly sketchy video quality) to the song that started my journey: “Like a Rolling Stone.” Turns out that insane The View performance with the literal rolling stones was only the first half. In the real show, the chaos continued with a hula-hooping "princess on the steeple," a mime holding lyric placards a la “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” clowns on trampoline, and a whole lot more mugging with cardboard sequined guitar. Here’s that post-View portion:
Unlike Girl From the North Country—the much more recent, much more successful Dylan musical—The Times largely sticks with the greatest hits. The songs you can’t possibly screw up (or so they thought). One of the few deeper cuts is up next: “Everything Is Broken.” Like much of the choreography, it is quite literal. They sing about broken plates, them someone breaks some plates. They sing about things hitting the ground, then things do. The whole song is apparently precipitated by Ahrab breaking Coyote’s goofy guitar, though this tape misses that moment. I guess even the camcorder was broken. Near the end the dog-boy appears. I think he bites Ahrab in the crotch.
You’ll never guess what happens onstage when Ahrab sings about Cinderella sweeping up on “Desolation Row.” Oh wait, you’ll guess immediately: Cinderella pulls out a broom and starts sweeping. And you better believe someone brings out an umbrella in time for “expecting rain.” I do kinda like the riot squad walking around on their hands. And I think the Good Samaritan is a flasher? I won’t even try to describe the contortionist depravity that ensues when they get to “sexless patients”…
I’ll give these literalists credit: There is not a tambourine in sight for “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dog-boy pulls the curtain shut before Coyote descends on a light-up sickle moon. Some people dance below him. It’s honestly one of the most normal songs here. But that’s a low bar.
“Did you enjoy the tiniest touch of restraint we just showed? Sure hope so—because it’s all out the window now!”
The second deeper cut proved irresistible for a show that already features a dog-boy: “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” They parade each animal out in turn, alarming man-beast hybrids that act like inebriated office workers in Spirit Halloween costumes. The whole thing is fairly unpleasant, but this bit may be the most upsetting eight seconds of the entire show:
In addition to the Cow being “milked,” the full thing features the Bear in a tutu, the Sheep doing twirls, and a different dog-boy, who isn’t even mentioned in the song. This show just can’t get enough of having full-grown adults prancing around in dog costumes I guess.
For some reason after it concludes, Ahrab rips the clothes (wool?) off the Sheep. This leads into—why not—“Masters of War.” The dancers do a lot of punching and kicking, to make sure you know the song is about violence. A human-size rag doll gets tossed around, as do the rolling stones from before. Maybe they’re cannonballs now? Some of the dance moves are kinda cool. And the band sounds badass. It features former Dylan guitarist John Jackson, who played a similarly tough “Masters of War” arrangement at the 1991 Grammys. Thankfully Bob himself didn’t give the final line such a Broadway flourish. “Till I’m sure that you’re [dramatic pause] deeeaaaaaddddd”
After “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the production gets to the deepest cut of all: “Please Mrs. Henry.” I think that a goofy performance actually works with a fairly goofy song like this. Just look at the Basement Tapes cover, which the cast’s pose here evokes. This musical might have worked way better if they dropped all the “serious” songs and just did their nutty circus-dog-boy dances to Basement Tapes tunes like “Million Dollar Bash” and “Tiny Montgomery.”
I was gonna skip “On a Night Like This.” Here I am ripping on this thing, and two songs in a row I think are actually pretty good? Blasphemy! But again, light-hearted numbers that don’t take themselves seriously seem to work better than most. It’s a big country-dance number that reminds me of the barn dance scene in Oklahoma. (Uh oh, did I just out myself as a former theater nerd?)
“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” gets at a totally different problem with this show. It’s not just the goofball circus stuff; there are no clowns or dog-boys in sight. It’s just a simple love duet between Coyote and Cleo. But it has real “theater kid” energy, the actors emoting and singing to reach the very back rows. It’s cringe-inducing in a whole different way. Also what’s with that herky-jerky little dance he does after the first verse?
Skipping two more, “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Summer Days” (the only 21st century song on the bill) due to extra-shaky camerawork, leads us into “Gotta Serve Somebody.” It’s some sort of wrestling match. They bodyslam Cinderella into Captain Ahrab, and I think kill him? They steal his shoes, then his ghost(?) rises to sing “Not Dark Yet” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (which I’m also skipping; you can see ‘em in the full tape if you want).
After a somewhat sedate-by-this-show’s-standards few songs, the full circus insanity returns in abundance with “Maggie’s Farm.” The company rips the walls off a ramshackle house (is that the farm?) before Cinderella climbs the rigging and one clown starts playing golf. Sure. Eventually Cleo comes out and they all throw stuffed animals at her. The single silliest moment though might be after Cinderella sings “He hands you a dime” and someone hollers, “ten cents!” Yep, that’s what a dime is. Good job buddy. It closes with a zipline.
Back to that “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” subtlety, Cleo absolutely belts “I Believe in You,” which apparently is now a romantic duet, two inches from this guy’s face. I’m impressed he doesn’t flinch. Doing it surrounded by discarded stuffed animals makes it even stranger. Those final few notes are brutal. Does every song need a big Broadway finish?
In my opinion, these eight seconds perfectly capture The Times They Are a-Changin’. There are wilder moments on offer, but this bit just sums it up. No more explanation. Just hit play:
That says it all: A dog-boy and clowns doing backflips while asking “Have you seen dignity?” Not in this show, that’s for sure! And there’s a whole lot more in the “Dignity,” one of the wildest of the bunch. A clown on stilts whips a hula-hoop around his neck while a mime plays air guitar. That’s what I always pictured in my head when I heard “Dignity.” Here’s the full thing:
And now, at long last, we reach the big showstopper finale. It’s one of the few greatest hits they haven’t yet desecrated: “Forever Young.” Maybe this one will be subtle and tasteful? Just kidding.
They all have red jackets now, even the dog-boy. Are they all the circus ringmasters? The new sign now says “Coyote’s Circus.” I guess the kid took it over after Ahrab’s death? Like I said, I can’t figure out the plot of this thing at all.
The infuriating peppiness of the glittery music is almost as irritating as the clowns line-dancing like they’re the Radio City Rockettes. By the end, all the ensemble’s favorite moves return: the flipping, the trampolining, the barn-dancing. Then the final big reveal: The Circus sign lifts and the two main characters are now standing aboard the Pequod. Huh? I know that’s the name of Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick. It has not been seen or mentioned before in this play. Oh, and Ahrab comes back from the dead. Now he’s riding the light-up moon. Of course he is.
Wow, we made it. If for some reason after all that you still have not gotten enough The Times They Are a-Changin’—and I’m honestly impressed if anyone even made it this far—find the full thing below.
Warning: You can’t really see anything for the first five minutes. That makes them the best five minutes of the entire show.
One more time, all together now, the watchword of this show: 🎉 Dig-ni-ty! 🤡
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