“Pressing On,” the final song of the Tony-nominated musical Girl From the North Country,has become Tony nominee Jeannette Bayardelle’s favorite moment in the show. As she sings out “I just keep pressing on to the higher calling of my lord” as her character, Mrs. Neilsen, she feels divine energy channeled within herself.
“That song speaks to all of us,” says Bayardelle. “I do feel the power of God when I sing that song, and I feel myself extending the power of God to the audience. If they don’t believe in God, they feel something.”
Bayardelle has had time to harvest that energy and polish her performance in the Great Depression–set musical. All of those years of work have led to Bayardelle earning a Tony nomination for her performance as Mrs. Neilsen.
With a book and direction by Conor McPherson, Girl From the North Country uses the songs of Bob Dylan to tell the story of a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934. Bayardelle’s Mrs. Neilsen is one of the boarders, in search of collecting the money her late husband has left her. Among the characters who are all “running from something, trying to find something, trying to hide from something, and just trying to survive,” she says, Mrs. Neilsen acts as a pillar of strength. Bayardelle acknowledges that she found inspiration from her stage alter ego during the COVID-19–induced Broadway shutdown.
“She’s so optimistic and comforting and encouraging,” Bayardelle shares. “She’s the bright light that everyone can rely on. The walls could be falling around her, but she will find a way to survive.”
Girl From the North Country has quite the story of survival too. After making its North American premiere Off-Broadway at The Public Theater, the musical debuted on Broadway in February 2020. After 31 previews and opening on March 5, 2020, Girl From the North Country only played eight regular performances at the Belasco Theatre before it had to shut its doors due to the pandemic. More than two years later, Girl From the North Country resumed performances, and the company’s resilience was rewarded, earning seven nominations for the 2022 Tony Awards, including Bayardelle’s.
“I had decided not to watch, so I was asleep in bed,” says Bayardelle of the nominations announcement. “When I opened my eyes, it was 8:58 a.m. So I said, ‘Let me stop playing games and just watch.’ The first award we got a nomination for, I started crying. When my name was first for featured actress [in a musical], I thanked God that He didn’t make me sit through the whole category before hearing my name. It just all felt like Christmas.”
Bayardelle is ready to spread that merry and bright feeling. While she is happy and honored with her own nomination, Bayardelle is more interested in how it reflects her connection to the larger collective. She recognizes the tenacity of everyone who pushed through this season, regardless of if they received a nomination or not.
“I just want to hug my colleagues,” says Bayardelle. “So many of my friends and people who I’ve worked with are nominated, and I want to celebrate with them!”
Bayardelle’s gratitude extends to another community she is a part of: native New Yorkers. “To have the opportunity to be representing New York is really special. I was born and raised here. We are survivors of the concrete jungle.”
Bayardelle grew up going to New Covenant Christian Church in the Bronx, which is where she first began singing and engaging in the performing arts. Now, as she sings out in prayer and anointing the audience with her favorite song, “Pressing On,” it feels like a bit of a full-circle moment. The song affirms for her that while this moment is worth celebrating, it is just a milestone in her larger life journey.
“This is a great accomplishment, but there’s so much more than I want to accomplish,” says Bayardelle. “I don’t want to get too comfortable. I want to keep working and keep pushing.”
Sounds like a sentiment Mrs. Neilsen would completely understand.
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