If you could put Bob Dylan’s songs into a musical what would you create?
In 2013 when producer Tristan Baker asked writer and director Conor McPherson that question, here’s how McPherson replied:
“I am thinking of an expensive Eugene O’Neill-type play. With Bob Dylan’s love songs intertwined. Perhaps set in a depression-era boarding house in a US city in the 1930s? With a loose family of thrown together drifters, ne’er-do-wells and poor romantics striving for love and understanding as they forage about their deadbeat lives,” wrote McPherson to Baker in an email on October 24, 2013.
“We could have old lovers, young lovers, betrayers and idealists rubbing along against each other. And at the heart of it all, these songs that emerge out of the folk tradition and lead the way into something more individually expressive and timeless.”
McPherson stayed true to his vision which became the captivating musical Girl From The North Country. Weaving together a powerful story with songs from Bob Dylan’s vast catalogue, the musical takes place at a run-down boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota. Although the story isn’t biographical about Dylan himself, he did spend the first years of his life in Duluth.
It’s 1931, wintertime and the Great Depression is raging. The bitter cold is ever present as an eclectic mix of boarding house residents do all they can to survive. “It’s like we are living among the songs and the lyrics. And all the while we’re trying to hold ourselves above and keep from sinking down,” says Jay O. Sanders who plays boarding house proprietor Nick Laine in the show. “Given Conor’s sensibility and Dylan’s sensibility, these are people who are always fighting against that dramatic gravity that is pulling us all.”
Now playing on Broadway at The Belasco Theatre in New York City the cast includes Todd Almond, Colin Bates, Jeannette Bayardelle, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Matt McGrath, Luba Mason, Tom Nelis, Jay. O. Sanders, Austin Scott, Kimber Elayne Sprawl and Mare Winningham.
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The depth of Girl From The North Country is even more heightened by the breathtaking and illuminating voices singing Dylan’s songs. One of them is Jeannette Bayardelle who plays rooming house resident Mrs. Neilsen. Ever hopeful, she is a widow at the boarding house waiting for her late husband’s will to clear probate.
“I love that Mrs. Neilsen recognizes the power of optimism. It can shift the energy in any room,” says Bayardelle who played Celie in The Color Purple and Dionne in Hair on Broadway and has also starred in Rock of Ages, Sister Act and SHIDA, her critically acclaimed musical that she wrote. “Mrs. Neilsen’s hope and vision brings positive vibration even if it is a bit far-fetched. Her strength and fortitude is very admirable.”
When asked if there was anything she wishes she could say to Mrs. Neilsen Bayardelle added, “Be very careful not to create a false reality with people who don’t want to be involved in your vision,” she says. “Find your tribe and thrive.”
Jeryl Brunner: How has Mrs. Neilsen transformed since you began playing her, especially since all these months have passed since the theater first went dark.
Jeannette Bayardelle: Mrs. Neilsen has always been very optimistic. Post pandemic I recognize her optimism as a super power. I lean into it because I realize she is the light that makes things brighter even if it’s temporary or imaginary. Hope is powerful.
Brunner: What was it like coming back to the show after 18 months and how did you stay creatively nourished during that time?
Bayardelle: It feels so good to be back on stage performing in front of a live audience. Being isolated for so long was very challenging. Fortunately, I was able to maximize my time during the shutdown. I learned to play the guitar, wrote a tv pilot and a book. I also took two online courses in music therapy. One at Harvard and the other at Berkley. Most importantly I continued working on my financial portfolio and started a retail investment company.
My investments allowed me to stay creatively nourished without worrying about an income during the shutdown. So many of my colleagues struggled during this time because they didn’t have enough savings or didn’t have any investments to sustain them during the lockdown. Because of this, I decided to create an introduction to the stock market online course that incorporates music and animation. Understanding the power of music, I knew that it would be a game changer in teaching and introducing new vocabulary and concepts to those who knew nothing about investing. Many want to be a part of the stock market conversation but don’t have the stomach or patience for the presentation. This course makes the stock market palatable, retainable and fun. The songs alone will teach and get people motivated. The launch date is scheduled for February 2, 2022.
Brunner: Can you talk about meeting Bob Dylan?
Bayardelle: I had the privilege of meeting Bob Dylan. He was lovely. We talked for almost 45 minutes. Honestly, I did not want to the conversation to end. He felt like family. I asked him questions about his songs. We also talked about the show and his family. It’s a day I will never forget.
Brunner: When did you know you had to be an artist?
Bayardelle: I have always been an artist. As a child I was always creating and performing. I would make up plays and perform them in the living room in front of my family. In 2010 I wrote a musical called SHIDA that has since opened off-Broadway, toured the United States and the United Kingdom. I did my very first presentation of SHIDA for family and friends in my living room. What I am doing now is who I have always been.
Brunner: What is one of the first times you ever performed?
Bayardelle: remember my first performance being in church singing “Through It All” by Andrae Crouch. I was so nervous but I knew I had to push through. It was my first lesson overcoming stage fright.