Interview: Actor from Massachusetts David Benoit talks GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

Broadway in Boston presents musical at Emerson Colonial Theatre through March 24

By: Mar. 12, 2024
Interview: Actor from Massachusetts David Benoit talks GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
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Interview: Actor from Massachusetts David Benoit talks GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

When you’re considered to be one of the greatest songwriters ever, with a catalogue stretching back 60 years, it’s not surprising that you would want to put your music in proven hands when it’s time for Broadway.

Iconic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan did just that, for the first time, when he authorized Twyla Tharp (“Movin’ Out”) to use his songs with her choreography and direction to create 2006’s “The Times They Are a’Changin’,” a musical that ultimately had only a short run at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre (now the Lena Horne Theatre).

About a decade later, Dylan, apparently deciding it had come time to have another musical created out of his long list of songs, had his representatives reach out to Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson (“Shining City”), who wrote and directed the Dylan-fueled “Girl From The North Country,” which premiered at the Old Vic in London in 2017 before transferring off-Broadway to The Public Theater in 2018, and to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre in 2020 for a two-year run. Now through March 24, Broadway in Boston is presenting the musical’s North American tour at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.

In McPherson’s story, a group of wayward travelers cross paths in a rundown rooming house on the shores of Lake Superior in a Duluth, Minnesota where they find hope in music. Indeed, the show’s score features more than two dozen Dylan songs – including the show’s title tune, from his second studio album, 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” – along with some of his biggest hits as well as lesser-known ones.

With dramatic new arrangements, played on the fiddle and other instruments of the time, and many performed in vocal harmonies, the songs range from “Forever Young” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” to tracks from the albums, “Infidels” and “Empire Burlesque.”

In a story about the Great Depression constructed from Dylan songs, the characters’ emotions run deep, including in Mr. Burke, being played on tour by Massachusetts native David Benoit, whose Broadway credits include “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Avenue Q,” “Dance of the Vampires,” and Les Misérables.”

Born in Fall River and brought up in Somerset, Massachusetts, Benoit graduated from Somerset High School and then attended the Boston Conservatory. He did numerous shows at Boston-area theaters and was also in sit-down productions of “Forbidden Broadway” and “Forever Plaid” at the Terrace Room at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

By telephone recently, Benoit spoke about “Girl from the North Country,” his newfound appreciation for Bob Dylan, and more.

Tell me about your character?

Mr. Burke is a businessman who’s fallen on hard times after the stock market crash of 1929. On Broadway, where he was played by Marc Kudisch, the Burkes were Southerners. One of the many wonderful things about Conor, though, is that he relies on the artistry and integrity of each performer. That means that there are no wrong answers and his work is completely open to interpretation. Conor does not spoon-feed his actors or his audience.

When I was cast in the role on the tour, Conor asked me, through our associate director Barbara Rubin, if I would consider relocating the character to the Northeast. Having grown up in Somerset, Massachusetts, I didn’t have to think too long before I agreed to that. And since I was born in Fall River, where the textile industry was a major employer in the early 1900s, I said, “The Burkes are now from Fall River and worked in textiles.” So here I am speaking with a dialect that I’ve spent many thousands of dollars trying to get rid of over the years, and I’m loving every minute of it.

Did you use the dialect during the audition process?

No, I didn’t. When I submitted for this role, they called me to do a three-to-four-minute monologue, which is huge. I was about to leave New York for a vacation in Provincetown, so time was tight. I didn’t put on any dialects. I just did a blue-collar, gruff sound like I’d heard growing up. I felt it went well, but then I didn’t hear anything until about nine days later. I was back in New York when I got the call from my agent.

Before you were cast as Mr. Burke, had you been interested in any of the other roles?

Initially, I was interested in playing another character. I’d rather not say which one, but I’m very glad to be playing Mr. Burke. This character is a gift. He’s such a beautifully flawed human being – a big blowhard, really, always trying to compensate for his own flaws. Humanizing him is a treat.

In what ways do you relate to Mr. Burke?

When I saw the show on Broadway, I remember being almost immediately drawn to the character. He’s a father who is trying his best and failing miserably, and so it’s hard not to feel for him. In the backstory I’ve created, he and his family lost everything when his job in the textile industry was eliminated. Now, the family is on the road because of that financial downturn and perhaps for other reasons, too. And, while I don’t want to say too much because I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about this before, the character of Elias (played on Broadway and now on tour by Aidan Wharton), the Burkes’ grown-up son who requires adult supervision from his family, resonates personally for me.

Were you a Bob Dylan fan when you landed this tour?

I wasn’t really familiar with his music before I started doing this show so I’d have to say no. I’ve become a fan, though, and I realize now that his music is gorgeous, and his lyrics are like poetry and very profound.

Have the songs been adapted for this show?

Simon Hale – who won a Tony Award for Best Orchestrations – re-orchestrated the songs to best suit the storyline. Here, “I Want You” is a beautiful ballad and “Like a Rolling Stone” is a great showstopper. Through Dylan’s music, everyone gets to meet the inhabitants of the boarding house and learn about all of them.

Is there a secret to performing this music?

It’s a lyric-forward show that explores each character through the music so you sing the lyrics and you sing them perfectly. They’re not just a comment on the script. It’s more honestly and simply beautiful than that.

How long has it been since you did a show in Boston?

I’ve been based in New York for many years, but I played the Colonial Theatre on the national tour of “Avenue Q” in 2009, and the following year I was back in Boston to do “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” for Paul Daigneault at SpeakEasy Stage Company.

Are you looking forward to performing once again for a hometown audience?

Absolutely. A lot of my friends and family are coming to see the show, some on opening night. It’s going to be great to see all of them.

Photo caption: (L-R) Aidan Wharton, David Benoit, Jennifer Blood, and Jeremy Webb in the North American tour of “Girl from the North Country.” Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade. Head shot of David Benoit courtesy of Broadway in Boston.


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