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Broadway Q&A: Jay O. Sanders of ‘Girl From the North Country’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

“When you see this production, you realize it’s nothing you can expect.”

Jay O. Sanders plays Nick Laine in the soulful new Broadway musical Girl From The North Country. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, the show features songs from Bob Dylan’s vast repertoire. Girl From The North Country takes place at a rundown flophouse in Duluth, Minnesota during 1934. The nation is in the midst of the great depression and Laine, the boardinghouse proprietor, is struggling not to lose it to the bank. The musical centers around the Laine’s family and all the flophouse transients. O. Sanders is a beloved theater veteran whose has starred in Uncle VanyaThe Michaels, The Gabriels plays, The Apple plays and Cyrano. On film and television he has been seen in Sneaky Pete, The Sinner, True Detective, DC Noir, The Day After Tomorrow, JFK, Angels in the Outfield and Tumbleweeds.

Jay O. Sanders (back row, second from the right) and the principal cast of ‘Girl From the North Country’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Jay O. Sanders (back row, second from the right) and the principal cast of ‘Girl From the North Country’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

How did you first hear about Girl From The North Country?
Jay O. Sanders:
I’m new to this version of the show. But I had read about it and saw that all these people I knew were going to be in it. I also know Ciarán Hinds. He played the role of Nick Laine, which I'm doing now. He was in the original production, and has a long history with Conor. I had never met Conor before. And I always admired Bob Dylan's music and lyrics.

I was fascinated by the idea of the show. I got to see the production, minus a couple of us who came on later. I was able to take it in as a whole experience first. But I didn't know that I was ever going to have a chance to be a part of it. I was just taken by it. And later, they called to ask about my interest and availability. I thought, “Wow. Where would I fit in? How would I do this wonderful, wonderful piece?”

It’s interesting that the story features an extraordinary repertoire of Bob Dylan songs, but is not an autobiographical story about him.
JOS: The songs are a bit of a swamp, in a good way. The feeling of the songs emanate up through the piece. 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. Given both Conor's sensibility and Dylan's sensibility, these are people who are always fighting against that dramatic gravity that is pulling us all.

What was your connection to Bob Dylan when you were growing up?
JOS: I am a singer and performer from the time I was young. When you write your own music there’s a fascination of who you look to for inspiration? I think of the great writers of our time. And Dylan is up there. I remember all his music coming out the first time in the sixties and seventies. It soaked into me the way the Beatles did. The music is all so evocative and rich. It really embraces what hit Conor, who has a wonderful sensibility and is also a singer/songwriter.

I mean Dylan is not just about his songs. He is a whole epic part of our past. We’re reaching back to our parents' past when the world collapsed around them. How do we relate it to today? The universality of it is gorgeous and inexplicable. I think of the inexplicable-ness of it.  As Conor keeps saying, “Logic is our enemy.”

The songs play such a unique role in the show.
JOS: I don't actually sing in the show. But the love of song and expression through song goes through this whole production. Singing is an expression of what is going on in people. It's not like the music will take us on to the next point in the story. Rather, it’s bursting forth in the midst of all these things. And it's a wonderful, magical, unexplainable and unknowable thing, which is great. When you see this production, you realize it’s nothing you can expect.

What was the first Broadway show you ever saw?
JOS: In high school I lived in Chappaqua, and remember coming into New York City and seeing Arthur Kopit’s play Indians with Stacy Keach. I saw Peter Brooks’ Midsummer Night's Dream. Then I went to SUNY Purchase and was 20 minutes closer, and constantly saw plays and all those incredible classics that were done at Circle in the Square with great actors. A group of us from college saw Al Pacino in American Buffalo at Circle In the Square Downtown. I remember all the magical times I had and what New York was then.

For more of the best of Broadway this season, check out our list of the 15 Most Highly Anticipated Broadway Shows of 2020

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