Debut of the Month: How Does It Feel? GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY's Todd Almond Talks Broadway Debut!
Composer, lyricist, playwright, and actor Todd Almond makes his Broadway debut as Elias Burke in Girl from the North Country. The piercing drama from celebrated playwright Conor McPherson weaves the music of poet-singer-songwriter Bob Dylan into a story about a down-on-its-luck community on the brink of change in 1934 Duluth, Minnesota. Today the actor speaks with BroadwayWorld about making his Broadway debut in a play which explores the universal themes of struggle, loss, forgiveness, and ultimately, hope.
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Jennifer Broski captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Todd Almond throughout the feature!]
Congratulations on the success of the show thus far! I would consider you a true Renaissance Man with theater credits that include acting, playwriting, and composing, among others. Were you initially focused on just one of those creative endeavors or did they all develop concurrently?
They developed concurrently. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to study music but also somehow be involved in theater. I graduated from CCM in Cincinnati, Ohio where I had auditioned for both the Musical Theater Program and the Classical Music Program because I was just so interested in music, yet had also caught the theater bug. I was accepted into both programs and I remember just staying up night after night thinking, 'what do I really want to do?' And when I looked into the crystal ball of my future I knew I wanted to be involved in theater and I wanted to be making music. So while I ended up choosing the Classical Music Program so I could really study music, as soon as I was there I was knocking on the Theater Department's door asking, 'can I be involved?' So I started writing little plays for the Theater Department as well as acting in plays. So there have always been several paths running side by side that often converge. And sometimes they don't converge at all, like in this piece where I am an actor and I'm not involved in the creative side at all. And sometimes it's just the opposite, I am just the book writer, for example. And sometimes it's all the things, I'm the book writer and the composer and I'm in the piece. So sometimes they're very separate, and sometimes they converge, and it's kind of how I like dealing with my career.
Well that certainly keeps it interesting! And in this show, you also get the opportunity to utilize your musical skills by playing the harmonica.
Yes I do. And I had never played it before so they provided lessons for me, which was great. And I'll tell you this - it was very stressful for me one night when we were doing the show at The Public. You know there were a lot of fancy people coming to see the show, and we always wondered, 'is Bob Dylan going to come?' And then one night we were aware that somebody big was in the audience because the show had started a little late and there was just this energy in the air. And during Intermission somebody spotted Bob Dylan in the audience, so the buzz backstage was, 'Bob Dylan's here! Bob Dylan's here!' So the first thing I do at the top of Act Two is play the harmonica and I wish you could have been inside my brain and feel the fiery panic that was happening as I tried to play this very delicate harmonica solo in front of Bob Dylan!
Wow talk about pressure!
Yes, and I was so mad for knowing that he was there. But I survived. [laughing]
Well I have to ask, did he share any feedback with the cast after the performance?
He didn't stick around to say anything to us that night. But he was doing a concert at The Beacon Theatre, which is why he was in New York, and the very next night, Mare Winningham and Jeannette Bayardelle, two of our cast members, were at his concert and he invited them back before the show. So for about an hour before he hit the stage he just sat in a Little Room, just the three of them, and chatted and told them how much he loved the show and moment by moment how much he loved it. And then having them show up at our show the next day and tell us the story of meeting him, we were all just standing around them as if we were all sitting around a campfire, being warmed by their story of how magical it was to visit with Bob Dylan. So I feel like he did get the message to us through Mare and Jeannette, because we were walking on air for weeks after that!
How familiar were you with his music prior to your involvement with the show?
You know I came to Bob Dylan in a kind of sideways way - through covers of his music; often not even knowing that what I was listening to was a Bob Dylan song. I was more into alternative music and singer/songwriters when I was in high school, but there were a couple of tracks on certain albums that I really liked and when I looked at the liner notes I was surprised to discover that they were Bob Dylan songs. And now I find myself in the place where I am enjoying doing deeper dives into his music and really discovering the depths of his brilliance. It's like finding a great novelist and realizing that they have fifteen other novels that you weren't even aware of. And now you get to read all fifteen of them. How great is that?
When you think of Dylan's music, you don't necessarily think musical theater. Yet the songs, and I suppose more specifically the lyrics, do so much to enhance this story.
Yeah, I think that Bob Dylan is one of those writers that makes you feel like he's talking about you in his lyrics. He's able to pierce through the membrane of the difference between yourself and the story that you're watching, or the story that you're listening to, and make it feel like it is about you. And I think that is what makes people lock into him so deeply, because he makes you feel like, 'okay, there is a human being who understands the deepest part of my experience.' And he lays it on in such a way that makes you feel seen and feel forgiven and feel understood. And to me, that is why his music fits so beautifully into this story, which is about forgiveness and connection and disappointment and struggle and imperfection and loss and hope. And all those things are the minerals he's mining. And I think we can all relate to them. Even though these characters and these songs really have nothing to do with us, somehow they achieve that universal recognition.
The way these songs are incorporated into the story does not necessarily follow the traditional structure of a musical. I wonder if it would be fair to describe it more as a play with music.
Well I would describe it as "collage art." It feels like there are two forces interacting. One of them is this realistic play about people in very hard times who are struggling. And there's a lot of mystery and a lot of unanswered questions, and they are just dealing with the struggle of being alive. And then there is this other force, which is this universal spirit that we all feel and we all tap into, which provides comfort or hope or beauty in a moment of ugliness. So it feels like there are these two forces interacting with each other. I don't know if I'd describe it as a play with music, but it just feels like the show does both of these things, and they just keep trading off. And the cumulative effect is, hopefully, an uplifting, or in some way, moving experience at the theater. I find that some people can really let go of the need for a recognizable structure and just give over to that. And then some people find it difficult, and they struggle with that structure and they resist it, or it may frustrate them. And that's okay too. But yes, I like to think of it as though two forces are interacting with each other throughout the story.
Your character Elias is a person with a mental illness, although it is never made clear what his specific diagnosis is.
Yes, and I have to say part of what I love about [playwright] Conor McPherson is that he doesn't make characters explain themselves, and I think that is a beautiful and generous gift to both the character and the audience. Especially in a day and age when i feel like everyone feels they have to explain themselves all the time and justify their every move. There's something about Conor that's so special in that he doesn't need to know. If you go to him and say, 'I think this is true about my character,' he will respond with, 'great, let's go with that,' or 'let's explore that.' He has never once said, 'Todd, here is Elias' situation, here is his diagnosis.' And part of what I found helpful as an actor is that I really don't want to know more than Elias does. My character spends so much time on stage in really complicated situations between human beings and he is really quite unaware of the situation he is in. He's got his own view of things. And so what's been really helpful to me is trying not to know more than he knows and just trying to see the world the way he sees it. So the truth is, I don't know what his diagnosis is. It doesn't say in the script and Conor doesn't say, but there are little clues. So it's that fun game that actors get to play where you just pick up on the clues and look at the script and ask, 'well what does everybody else say about my character?' And then try to make all those things true. So yeah, I don't know and I'm kind of enjoying not knowing.
And the same could be said of Mare Winningham's character, who appears to have a form of dementia. However as the play progresses you find yourself questioning that assumption and wondering exactly how unaware she truly is.
Yes, exactly. Conor is a master of mystery. There are so many unanswered questions in this play and I think that makes it feel more human. It's a bunch of people who are sharing a boarding house and they don't get to know everything about each other. For example, the character of Marianne doesn't want us to know how she got pregnant. She says that, 'the wind came in my room, and it was deeper than a man.' And of course that brings up all the biblical references, like the fact that her name is Mary and the man who is coming to join her is named Joseph. And the fact that she's pregnant, yet she doesn't know how. So Conor just buries all of these secrets and doesn't feel the need to underline them or answer the questions you have. It seems to me he just wants to provoke you, the listener, to respond the way you chose to respond, because it's your life, it's your experience of this story. So instead he asks the audience, 'well what do you think?'.
You share the stage with a host of talented Broadway veterans. What has that experience been like and what have you learned from them?
Oh my God, watching Tom Nelis deliver a monologue night after night is a Master Class. He has that beautiful monologue in Act Two about getting older and he says those ugly things to Marianne but you know they come from a place of real pain. I watch that every single night. And watching Mare, I mean I learn things on stage every night from all of them. And I love to watch the play from off stage as well, because I have a lot of time to sit off stage and just watch everybody work. I love to see where people are trying new things and deepening the things that they've decided are correct. Nobody is phoning it in! Everyone is working in a beautiful way.
Finally, what was it like to make your Broadway debut in Girl from the North Country?
Well I have been dreaming of being in a Broadway musical since the time I was sixteen years old. And now I'm forty-three and I've been in New York for twenty years, working on various projects, and have had a really fantastic time and I really love what I do. But there's always been a part of me that is like, 'but I want to be in a Broadway musical too!'. When I first moved to New York I thought, 'well I'm going to act in Broadway musicals,' and I just never was able to get there. I auditioned and auditioned, but it just didn't happen then, which, you know, no regrets. it's all good. Things worked out the way they were supposed to. So it feels like a dream; a dream that took a longer time to realize. And that first night I was just so happy and I was trying to share the happiness with others, but also just really enjoy it myself. Everybody else was having their own experience and certainly that night was not just about me. But that being said, inside I was definitely having a little party for myself!
BroadwayWorld congratulates Todd Almond on his Broadway debut in Girl from the North Country. The writer and performer's credits include Public Works' THE TEMPEST, THE WINTER'S TALE, THE ODYSSEY; KANSAS CITY CHOIR BOY (Prototype, A.R.T., CTG); STAGE KSS (Playwrights Horizons). Original music includes Melancholy Play (I3P), Iowa (Playwrights Horizons), and On the Levee (LCT3). TV credits include "Live from Lincoln Center" with Andrew Rannells and "Law & Order: SVU"