It all started with the voice.
As a child, Randy Johnson listened intently to a recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
Little Randy was not listening to an opera album or a cast recording of Porgy and Bess.
“At age five, I listened to Janis Joplin’s recording of ‘Summertime’ over and over again.”
The voice was raw, powerful, yet fragile. Joplin turned “Summertime’ into a rock and roll lullaby. All those years ago, Johnson could not have realized what a connection Janis Joplin’s voice and legacy had in store for him.
A show business renaissance man – writer, director, producer, visual artist – Randy Johnson is perhaps best known for creating theatre pieces showcasing the life and legacy of such music legends as Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, and the jazzy duo Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Johnson’s Elvis the Concert has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘most successful rock tour performed by a deceased artist.”
“Over the years, I have come to look upon myself as a stage biographer,” said Johnson. “All of these figures lead such fascinating lives. Each time I do one of these shows, I learn so much. I hope the audience walks away learning something, too.”
This time, the soulful voice from his childhood is taking the stage once again. Direct from the Cleveland Playhouse, One Night with Janis Joplin comes to the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, September 28-November 4, 2012.
Working with the full cooperation of Joplin’s family members, Johnson has created a new stage biography where Janis returns with her original band Big Brother and the Holding Company, wailing out signature tunes and songs you might not expect.
Johnson explained, “I included Janis’ roots, creating the character of the Blues Singer, to represent those influences” such as Odetta, and Bessie Smith. “She is her alter ego, the convention of her thoughts on the stage.”
Sabrina Elayne Carten plays the Blues Singer in the Arena Stage production.
Janis Joplin’s voice is front and center most of the nearly 20 songs in the show. Finding the right person to sing those songs was a vital part of the process. During auditions, Johnson said it is usually clear if a performer has “it” or not, when it comes to the emotional connection to the music as well as the ability to evoke the essence of such a unique talent as Janis Joplin. At Arena, following her critically acclaimed run in the Cleveland production, Mary Bridget Davies is the troubled singer.
How close does Davies come to capturing the raw power and emotion of troubled singer? Johnson said the answer came from Janis’ brother Michael.
“He turned to me and said, ‘I feel as if I’m at Monterey Pop again.’ It’s what Janis talked about, being authentic. When these ladies deliver, it’s magic.”
From Port Arthur, to Haight-Asbury and the World
Janis Lyn Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, January 19, 1943. Growing up, she was a chubby girl loved to paint, but music fed her like nothing else. Singing in church was a start, but once she found the blues, Janis Joplin unlocked a voice from deep within. Travelling around Texas on the coffee house circuit, she would pursue her dreams in a most singular place and time: Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco just as the psychedelic music scene was exploding in 1966.
Within a week of arriving in San Francisco that year, she became the singer for the band Big Brother and the Holding Company. The group performed regularly, sharing the stage with the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.
By the next summer, 1967, Janis’ vocals were one of the features of BBHC.
Singer-songwriter Tracy Nelson, remembered those days in an interview with National Public Radio. Nelson said she would wait backstage while Janis performed. “I had to follow Janis Joplin, and I’m standing out there listening to her, and I’m just thinking, ‘Man this is a force of nature.”
A year after joining the band, her singing at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival galvanized the crowd. Her sound channeled legendary, blues singers Lead Belly and Big Mama Thornton. But Joplin transcended imitation and found her own voice for the blues.
Janis struck out on her own, leaving BBHC in December, 1968, debuting the Kosmic Blues Band several weeks later. Within two years, the Kosmic Blues Band was replaced by Full Tilt Boogie.
The Ed Sullivan Show, Woodstock, the Dick Cavett Show – these appearances and more solidified Janis as a queen of rock and roll. Her first solo recording, “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again (Mama),” was released in September of 1969.
Throughout the next year, Janis made live appearances with Full Tilt Boogie and she went into the studio to work on her second solo album.
It would be her last.
A sign of the turbulent times, and like many of her peers, Janis turned to alcohol and drugs. She might perform with a bottle of Southern Comfort nearby. But it was her expensive heroin habit that would be her downfall.
Janis Joplin died of an accidental drug overdose on October 4, 1970. She was 27 years old.
Her last studio album was released four months after her death; by February 27, “Pearl” was number one on the album charts. Among the cuts on Joplin’s last album was a tune written by Kris Kristofferson. “Me and Bobby McGee” became a fitting swan song for the soulful voice and unique talent of Janis Joplin. The song became a number single on March 14, 1971.
Putting Together “One Night”
The Joplin Estate reached out to Randy Johnson to see if there might be a way for them to work together on a project about Janis. He immediately agreed to meet with Janis’ siblings Michael and Laura Joplin.
“I was thrilled. I went to the meeting with Laura and Michael and we just talked.”
To create a new show, Johnson listened to Michael and Laura’s stories and discussed Janis’ influences. Then he went to Janis herself.
Johnson had complete access to the family archives, which included music, unpublished interviews and even Janis’ childhood art. “Most audiences have never seen her art,” said Johnson. He knew he had to incorporate her visual art into the show, along with the music.
“I listened to the songs over and over again, to find songs that move the story forward.” Johnson said the goal is a merging of the spoken word and music, “where music is dialogue and dialogue is the music.”
He wrote the first version of the show in two weeks. Produced in Portland, the first outing of One Night with Janis Joplin had 30 songs. After revising the show for Cleveland and Arena Stage, the show now has 18 songs.
“From the Portland version, I pulled songs where the dialogue said the same thing,” said Johnson.
Johnson said he has been struck by how all generations are connecting to the piece. Older audiences respond, but young people are buying tickets and bringing their friends, too.
Johnson offered, “Audiences are coming for the music, but leaving with the essence of Janis Joplin’s spirit.”
One Night with Janis Joplin has a unique effect on those who attend, according to the writer-director.
“People get lost in it – the illusion that they are at a Janis Joplin concert and they believe they are in her presence.”
Randy Johnson said he could not have created One Night with Janis Joplin without the cooperation of Michael and Laura Joplin. “They were so generous of their time, opening their hearts and the archives.”
But Johnson reserves most of the credit for the late singer.
written and directed by Randy Johnson
Sept. 28 – Nov 4, 2012
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Tickets: $45 – $95
Tuesdays thru Sundays
“I tried to capture the soul of Janis Joplin and incorporate certain truths she said into the show. She was so authentic, so true to herself.”
Johnson hopes the snapshot of this musical legend will be clear to everyone.
“Janis Joplin was bright, articulate, funny, a musical genius and a sensitive soul. In this day and age, the word ‘artist’ can be a bad word. But not when we talk about someone as organic and without artifice as she was.”
Among the musical biographies Johnson has created and directed, he said this one is much more personal.
“I feel we wrote this show together. I wish I had known her. I feel like I do.”
And somewhere down deep, is that little boy of five, listening to Janis Joplin singing “Summertime.”