“At the Back of the North Wind” is a new musical based on the 19th-Century family classic by George MacDonald. The story centers around a boy named Diamond who is befriended by the North Wind, a beautiful woman with flowing black hair who flies through the night and can change into any shape she likes. She can be playful, benevolent, and horribly destructive, and Diamond gets to experience all these sides of the North Wind’s nature in his adventures with her.
The story takes place in and around New York City during the Great Depression. At the start of the tale, Diamond, a poor stable boy, is living with his mother on a horse farm on Long Island. The owner of the estate is in deep financial trouble and a greedy tycoon named Tobias Blunt is hovering around the property like a hungry vulture. Diamond’s mother is worried they will lose their home, but Diamond comforts her (Everything is Gonna be All Right). That night, the North Wind comes to Diamond, floating majestically before him and beckoning him to come to her. She tells Diamond she is interested in him because he is not like other mortals: He does not think only of himself. Over the protests of Gusty, her little Viking assistant, the North Wind takes Diamond on the first of several flying adventures that teach the boy valuable life lessons (Sweeping the Cobwebs from the Sky). On this first trip, he meets a street urchin named Tess, who gives him a firsthand look at what it takes to survive the mean streets of the city (Hell’s Kitchen). Another trip takes Diamond to an otherworldly realm beyond the Northern Lights (At the Back of the North Wind), where Diamond learns how to talk to animals and listen to “the mind behind the mind, the voice behind the door (Intuition).”
The owner of the horse farm is finally forced to sell the estate to Tobias Blunt, and Diamond and his mother move to New York City, taking up lodging in the City Livery Stable. The carriage trade is struggling, and the manager of the stables, Mac McNally, tries to get his horse cabbies to take a sense of pride in their increasingly unique profession (Take a Ride!). But the stables are being attacked not only by changing times, but also by the machinations of the villainous Tobias Blunt (Too Much is Never Enough). Blunt craves the livery property to house his fleet of motor taxis, and he sets an impossible deadline for the cabbies to raise the cash for a bond that would save the stables. Diamond uses his intuition, and figures out that the key to making money in the carriage trade lies in targeting tourists (A Nickel in my Pocket). The holiday season is coming, and Diamond convinces the other cabbies to follow his lead (It’s What You Do for Christmas), and the strategy works. The cabbies start to make really good money, and Mac arranges for Diamond’s street urchin friend Tess to come live with them. Everything seems to be looking up until Blunt gets the city to condemn the stables and begins buying up horses all over town. The North Wind comes and flies Diamond and Tess out to the site of the old horse farm, which Blunt has converted into a giant glue factory. Tess knows how to make an animal-free glue from an old Hell’s Kitchen recipe, and, armed with Tess’s glue, Diamond and Mac rally the cabbies to organize a parade of hansom cabs down Fifth Avemue to drum up public support (Save the Horses!). But just as the parade is reaching the park, the cabbies find their path blocked by bulldozers driven by Blunt’s henchmen. Diamond makes a fervent summons to the North Wind for help (Just This Once), and, after an agonizing silence, she roars onto the scene and clears the way for a happy ending.
“At the Back of the North Wind” works on several levels simultaneously. It is a rousing adventure tale, but it is also the story of the relationship of a mortal human and the eternal and how each can affect the other. On its surface, the story focuses on a particular real-world dilemma with heroes, villains, and conflict a-plenty, but the underlying issues it explores are profound and universal.