As the lights in the Vineyard Playhouse dim, onstage there are three acoustic guitars, a stool and a microphone. The scene’s only backdrop, a sign reading Kettle of Fish, is projected on a screen. Then Jared Weiss, portraying Bob Dylan, walks on stage and picks up a guitar.
In narrative time, the year is 1976 and the scene the encore of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Before Mr. Weiss starts to sing, he dedicates the song to Paul Clayton, Dylan’s longtime friend and mentor, who fell from fame just as Dylan rose in celebrity.
The complicated relationship between Mr. Clayton and Mr. Dylan is at the core of playwright Larry Mollin’s new folk musical Search: Paul Clayton, which premiered at the Vineyard Playhouse on Thursday, July 17. The show continues through August 9.
Paul Clayton was a folk icon of the 1950s who helped launch Dylan’s musical career. He also fell madly in love with him. Dylan took advantage of the one-sided feelings — he adapted one of Mr. Clayton’s songs without giving him any credit.
Mr. Mollin became interested in the life of Paul Clayton when his friend, author Dennis McDougal, began working on a biography of Dylan that explored the relationship between the two singers in a way that no one had before. Mr. Mollin spent a year reading biographies, collecting songs and researching Mr. Clayton’s life in order to piece together his story.
“There was a real strong narrative that just started resonating about this man just kind of caught in the grinding wheel of history,” Mr. Mollin said. “He’s a folk guy and it’s all changing before him, even though he’s the best at what he does.”
The narrative is actually divided into sections of Mr. Clayton’s Wikipedia page, a menu that a robotic voice reads to the audience in the beginning and throughout the play. “I made my structure kind of like a Wikipedia page because that’s kind of how we research things these days,” said Mr. Mollin. “That’s how we start anyway, and I thought it was an interesting structure. It gave it a modern framework.”
In structuring his story around Mr. Clayton’s Wikipedia page, Mr. Mollin reveals almost immediately to the audience Mr. Clayton’s tragic fate.
“It’s so tough to tell a story where you know the guy’s going to kill himself, so I like to let people know that early on so that way you see the menu, you know what’s going to happen and then you get into the deeper stuff.”
Although Mr. Clayton’s story is a sad one, much of the musical is upbeat and laced with humor, filled with classical Scottish folk songs, songs written by Mr. Clayton, and signature songs from other characters in the play like Gary Davis and Dave Van Ronk, all selected by Mr. Mollin. Mr. Mollin even wrote a talking blues song for Mr. Dylan and Mr. Clayton’s cross-country road trip.
“I think [Paul] embodied a lot about what was really good and pure about folk music and I think it creates a rousing time,” said Mr. Mollin. “I tried to leave everyone with an upbeat feeling, because that was his love of the music.”
There is one thing that’s notably missing in a play featuring Bob Dylan.
“I don’t use any original Dylan songs,” said Mr. Mollin. “I used some of the music of other artists and some of the early covers that he did as a way to give the flavor to it.”
Mr. Mollin is hoping to take the folk musical off-Island in the future.
“There’s a lot of exhaust coming out of the woodwork,” Mr. Mollin said. “An old girlfriend of Paul Clayton came to the play [last week], and I believe his family, who is on the Cape, has inquired about coming over and seeing it. It’s interesting. I mean he had 11 albums out when Bob arrived in 1961, so he was an important voice [in Greenwich Village].”
Though Mr. Mollin wrote the musical back home in Los Angeles, the Martha’s Vineyard community was essential in getting it off the ground.
“If I didn’t have the Vineyard Playhouse I probably wouldn’t have written this,” Mr. Mollin said. “I knew that they like what I do and so I wrote it and got it done, so it really pushes me.”
Mr. Mollin is no stranger to the Island. Two years ago, he wrote and directed another play that was shown at the Vineyard Playhouse, called the Screenwriter’s Daughter. He is an artistic associate of the playhouse and has been doing summer stock theatre on the Island since 1966. He even met his wife on the Vineyard while hitchhiking.
Search: Paul Clayton continues at the Vineyard Playhouse through Saturday, August 9. For information, visit vineyardplayhouse.org.