‘Girl From the North Country’ Returns to Broadway: Interview
Bob Dylan is famous for rearranging his classics – altering their structures, altering their language, and placing them in new contexts. Twenty Dylan songs were overhauled in 2017 when they were adapted for North country girla Broadway musical written and directed by playwright Conor McPherson.
The show is set in Dylan’s birthplace in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression. A guesthouse run by Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders) sees its share of vagabonds, locals, and just about everything else as it tries to make ends meet. Laine’s wife, Elizabeth, struggles with mental illness, her son Gene struggles with bouts of alcoholism, and her adopted black daughter, Marianne, is five months pregnant. A host of other characters move in and out of the plot, including an unlucky boxer, Joe Scott (Austin Scott), who comes across town in the middle of a storm. Through it all is Dylan’s music, culled from almost every decade in his catalog, ranging from the 60s to found material from the 2012s. Storm.
North country girl opened at the Belasco Theater in New York City on March 5, 2020, exactly one week before Broadway theaters closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They resumed performance in the fall of 2021 but closed again in late January as the number of coronavirus cases rose. The show is now set to reopen for a limited engagement from April 29 to June 11.
Kimber Elayne Sprawl, who portrays Marianne Laine in the production, talks to UCR about her favorite music from the show and her return to the stage.
You’ve been part of this cast since 2018, so you’ve had plenty of time to dig into this production.
Absolutely, yeah. ‘Cause the work is so deep and we’ve got Bob Dylan’s words mixed in with Conor [McPherson], it’s just – I keep growing because there’s so much to explore in the text. I feel like I can always expand each time we see it again, which will now be the fourth time.
What was your relationship with Bob Dylan and his music like before you started performing on this show? Was he on your radar a lot?
He wasn’t directly on my radar, but once I started exploring his work, I realized how ubiquitous his work was. Like the song of Forrest Gump“Blowin’ in the Wind,” was one of my favorite songs growing up, and the song he wrote and Adele covered [“Make You Feel My Love”]. … So before I even knew who he was and what he stood for, yeah, I was a fan without even realizing it.
When you first learned that there was an entire Broadway show using Dylan’s music, what did you think of it?
I was introduced to the show the other way around – I was introduced to the script. And I remember getting the script, reading Conor’s play and being so enthralled by it, and then I read Bob Dylan’s lyrics – they totally and totally intertwine transparent and complement each other. … And it’s not about Bob Dylan, per se, it’s not about his story. It’s Duluth, Minn., 1934, Great Depression – it’s an American survival story. So I logged in instantly. And I knew that if audience members sat in the seats, they could tune into it too, because it’s so universal.
I was thinking about that when I saw the show. There are a lot of themes — family, community, grief, loss — that are so relevant right now given the pandemic and everything else.
Oh, absolutely, yeah. And I think that continues to prove so poignant in our lives and in the generations before and after us.
In terms of music, did you and the rest of the cast spend a lot of time listening to the original recorded versions of those songs before rehearsing them?
Yes, we did. I think we’ve all gone down our Bob Dylan rabbit hole. … I have a vinyl, so I went to the West Village and picked up quite a few, it was like my opening night gift to people. I think we wanted to put our own flavor and heart and influence into his music, but you always have to start at the origin and figure out what that means and then build from there on what Bob Dylan has created. It was just such a good foundation. I mostly studied his lyrics, he’s a philosophical genius, and being able to dive into his poetry and apply it to my life, to apply it to the life of my character Marianne Laine. I was just always trying to discover something new in his text.
Is there a particular lyric that sticks with you?
So much. I’ll just tell you the one that’s on my mind right now, because like I said, over the years I’ve learned something new, at every turn. But I remember when we were closing the show this last time in January, and Marc Kudisch sings a song, “Is Your Love in Vain?”, with Luba Mason. And I always thought whoever sings that song says it to the other person, like “Your love is in vain. “But it really resonated with me, because I was going through something personal with my family, and I realized that if people don’t meet my expectations, I’m very quick to shut them down or take my space and all And in that moment I realized… how conditional my love can be.
Do you have a favorite song in the show to perform?
It varies. I’m so nice to Marianne, I’m so nice to her story, so I always love to sing [“Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)”]. I like “Hurricane” because it’s a big party with the whole cast, and we’re dancing and celebrating life together. … I also like “To push on” when we meet at the end. It is a gospel number that gives us clarity and lightness. All the songs are amazing, they just are. They take you to another space, they take you to another time in your life. I love it because the songs don’t line up directly with the plot, in a sense you can sort of explore it on your own.
Hear Kimber Elayne Sprawl sing “Tight Connection to My Heart”
At certain points in this show, the actors play instruments on stage – tambourines, pianos, drums. Was it something you had done on a show before?
It was my first time and I remember not being assigned the tambourine originally. …Caitlin Houlihan was first assigned to the tambourine, and she just couldn’t figure out the beat…and Conor, he’s so lovely and didn’t mean to offend her, but he was just like, “Uh, let other people play with these instruments.” … That’s kind of how I got good at the tambourine. … And our band is on stage with us, they’re in the back, which is not traditional. Usually you can see the music director, but we sort of direct the music at some point. So, I remember there were times in rehearsal where we just couldn’t get in sync and Conor was just looking at me to pilot that and be the glue to keep some of the tempos together. That’s when he started calling me “Kimbourine”.
Rehearsals have just resumed. How’s it going so far?
I’m excited to see what turns out this time around. … It’s always been a special show. I’ve been in love with this show since it was first introduced to me, and I know most actors can say the same. We never take for granted the opportunity to be back at the Belasco, to be back on Broadway, to be in front of the public again.
Bob Dylan Albums Ranked
Unsurprisingly, Bob Dylan’s recording career has had many ups and downs. It’s inevitable when you stay over 50 and release three dozen albums during that time.