Twyla Tharp knew what she was doing. An award-winning choreographer and a pioneer of crossover ballet – in which traditional dance moves are allied with popular music – she had a string of successful productions under her belt.
In 1973 Tharp choreographed Deuce Coupe, a ballet set to the music of The Beach Boys. 1980's Short Stories used material by Bruce Springsteen and Supertramp. The following year she collaborated with David Byrne on the critically-acclaimed The Catherine Wheel. In 2002 she put together Movin' Out, a jukebox musical based on the songs of Billy Joel. It ran for more than 1000 performances and earned nine Tony Award nominations.
And then Bob Dylan came a-callin', and he wanted one too.
"Bob Dylan is charming, smart, funny-and, like Billy Joel, very busy," Tharp wrote, in her 2009 bestseller The Collaborative Habit. "When he called to suggest that we collaborate on a dance musical, it was clear that I would be filling in most of the dotted lines. And that was a blinking yellow light, for Dylan's catalogue is massive. Before I started looking through it in search of a dramatic thread, I thought to prove to myself – and to reassure us both – that his songs were danceable."
Having established that the songs were indeed danceable, Tharp got to work. A year of research and preparation was followed by 18 months of casting, rehearsing, and workshops, before Dylan himself attended a private performance at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
"He arrived early," wrote Tharp. "He paid close attention. He gave his blessing. And off he went."
The show, titled The Times They Are A-Changin', opened in February 2006 at the Old Globe, before transferring to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York in October. The story was set in a travelling circus inhabited by Captain Arab (a reference to Dylan's 115th Dream) and a ragtag band of clowns and performers (perplexingly regular staples of Dylan songs in the 1960s).
The New York critics hated it. Entertainment Weekly called the production "utterly wrongheaded." Rolling Stone wrote that The Times They Are A-Changin' was hard to describe "without making it sound like a stoned nightmare." The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was "so bad that it makes you forget how good the songs are", while Variety described a scene in which the cast "stride about aimlessly while assorted clowns skip, tumble, flip and bounce."
The reviews took their toll, and the show closed within a month. The New York Times, who called the plot "nearly incomprehensible" called the closure "a mercy killing."
Judging by some truly wince-inducing footage of star Michael Arden performing an extraordinarily clunky routine to Like A Rolling Stone on a 2006 episode of The View, early closure was an artistically appropriate decision, but Tharp was having none of it. Instead, she laid some of the blame on Dylan's fans amongst the press.
"Like Movin’ Out, the Dylan evening enjoyed a lot of success," wrote Tharp. "Unlike Movin’ Out, it generated a lot of controversy. And, from a commercial standpoint, it closed distressingly early.
"On one level, the problem wasn’t me, it was Dylan’s quite possessive fan base. His acolytes don’t just adore him, they feel they own him. So while my interpretation of Dylan’s songs was legitimate, it wasn’t wise. Dylan didn’t mind a new way of looking at his work. His fans did."