Conor McPherson first encountered Dylan at the age of 10 when he was learning to play guitar—his beginner’s music book had the chords to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Despite his history with Dylan, the playwright and director hadn’t been searching to write a musical based on the Nobel Prize winner’s catalog, Dylan’s team approach him to create a theatrical interpretation from the singer-songwriter’s repertoire. But Dylan is the kind of ubiquitous artist who enters the lives of his listeners at all different moments and in all different ways—it’s not just that one hit single on the radio.
On the Broadway opening night red carpet of Girl From the North Country, the final product of McPherson and team’s years of work, Playbill learned just how varied the exposure and nostalgia for Dylan is within the cast of the musical now playing the Belasco Theatre.
Set in 1934 at a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Girl From the North Country follows several characters as they struggle to survive in the face of the Great Depression. “It’s like watching a beautiful painting with a soundtrack of Dylan playing in the background,” says actor Jeannette Bayardelle, who was introduced to Dylan and his music through the show. Bayardelle plays Mrs. Nielsen, a widow staying at the boarding house. “The colors, the tones, the voices, the acting, the stories. It’s just amazing. If I said, ‘Come with me to this boarding house,’ and I sat you down and said, ‘Don’t say anything. You’re going to hear conversations, but just listen,‘—that’s what the show is.” Through her experience with the show, she’s come to understand the ethos of the “Like a Rolling Stone” singer-songwriter.
As for actor Tom Nelis, who plays Mr. Perry, another boarding house guest, he has a much longer history with Dylan. “When I was 15 years old, my brother brought home Blonde on Blonde. Whenever he was out of the house, I would play that album because I wasn't allowed to touch them.” Nelis still has that copy from his brother who has since passed on, and it’s helped him develop a sense of awe when it comes to Dylan’s breadth of work.
Now that he’s in the show, he’s devouring everything Dylan. “I think we’re approaching 800 songs in his catalog, or something like that, it’s astonishing.”
Then there’s Austin Scott, who plays Joe Scott, a boxer down-on-his-luck with a good heart but a terrible image. Scott discovered Dylan in high school during history class. “He was the soundtrack to the ‘60s in a way, with the revolutions and movements happening in America. I see him as this figure of social change,” Scott says. Whether tied to the 1930s, the age of Aquarius, or today, Dylan’s music inspires people to express themselves and inspire change for good, which is why he thinks Girl From the North resonates as a combination of all of it. “At the root of it all is survival, hope, resilience, and struggle. The show is timeless, the way these characters push forward and the emotions that arise are very universal.”
The range of stories of first encounters continue: Luba Mason first heard Dylan at Madison Square Garden but couldn’t understand a word; three-time Tony nominee Marc Kudisch has fond memories of his protest songs “The Times Are A-Changin’” and “Blowing in the Wind”; Robert Joy didn’t even know he was enjoying Dylan’s work, first hearing songs written by him but performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary and The Birds; and Colton Ryan (Dear Evan Hansen) heard a song on Mad Men and pretended to like Dylan in high school—though he didn’t really listen to him. “How deeply wrong I was for not giving it its due and attention,” Ryan says now.
With McPherson’s musical, the entire cast gives the music their full attention. In fact, many of the songs in Girl From the North Country sing like a soundtrack (a freshly orchestrated and arranged soundtrack), imbuing mood more than driving plot and allowing Dylan’s lyrics to thrive with new meaning. Whether a die-hard fan or a novice, Girl From the North Country will feel like you’re hearing these songs for the first time.