– As One Night with Janis Joplin opens its return summer engagement Friday, June 21st at Arena Stage, we were treated to an interview with Janis’ brother and sister —
Forty-three years ago, Janis Joplin was found dead in a hotel room, filled with heroin and alcohol. It made headlines, and if you ask young people today, there’s a good chance this is all they’ll know of the late star. But she also helped change the very fabric of music, a fact often lost in the lore surrounding her death.
Two people have fought to remind the world of her legacy: her siblings, Laura and Michael Joplin. These are the two people who gave Randy Johnson the green light to create the stunning, moving and brilliant One Night with Janis Joplin. Instead of focusing on her life or her death, the musical focuses, with great intent, on her contribution to the musical world.
“It was really about a woman as an artist, and I loved that as a concept,” says Laura Joplin. “With that agreement amongst all of us, he went and began writing.” And Michael agrees, saying he liked this take because it wasn’t the typical Hollywood biopic, the same ones that have been made about everyone from John Lennon to Jim Morrison and always seem to spend a majority of their focus on the drug years.
“A lot of the people want to do a cradle to grave thing,” he says. “But most people, if they know [how she died], they can look it up. Yes, Janice did drugs. Yes, Janice died of a drug overdose. I’m not trying to hide anything at all, I just wanted to remember why we enjoyed the hell out of her.”
Before he could put pen to paper and even begin to explore how Janis transformed music, Johnson had to know why Janis ever cared about it in the first place. This gave the siblings the emotionally sentimental task of simply remembering.
For so many years, their focus had been on who to license what songs to, how to handle her legacy and how much her catalogue was worth. Now, they were able to dive back in and enjoy their sister, their family.
Michael remembers their father sitting and listening to Kol Nidre. He was sitting, doing nothing but listening to the music and weeping. “We learned that type of appreciation of what music can do for you, to touch you in such a personal way,” Michael says. Laura remembers their mother listening to “Gershwin Summertime.”
Meanwhile, Janis spent her time at home painting, listening to rock n’ roll. But none of them took music lightly: when the family listened to music, that’s what the family did. It wasn’t a background distraction or a mood-setter the way lighting might be. It was front and center, the main act.
So neither of them was surprised when the name Janis Joplin started appearing in headlines. Instead, their reactions are exactly what you might expect. Her younger brother, by ten years, simply though, “it was freaking cool! What would you think if your older sister was a rock star on the radio?” Her sister, closer in age, saw the duality of being famous. “You could talk to your sister and know that she’s still her, but at the same time she was on the Ed Sullivan Show. It has surprised me, when I looked back at it, that I wasn’t surprised.”
Janis, meanwhile, was earning headlines and taking part of the greatest counter-culture movement our country has ever seen. Splitting her time between hanging out with The Grateful Dead and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Both siblings have fond remembrances of watching the latter with their family, but the former remained a bit of a mystery.
“It was a revolutionary culture in which she was riding the wave of success, and that was something everyone had to get used to,” Laura says. “We as a family went out to San Francisco in the summer of love, but we went out as a family.”
Of course, this culture eventually consumed Janis, who tragically passed at 27 years old. Her siblings took over her estate, and they’ve been upholding her legacy every since.
“It was a very healing process for me,” Laura says. “I think that that has helped me understand and move through the lingering aspects of grief that everyone goes through when they lose someone, especially at a young age.”
Closes August 11, 2013
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $114
Tuesdays thru Sundays
It wasn’t until the ‘80s that Laura took a close look at her sister’s life, traveling around the country and interviewing friends of Janis for a biography.
One Night with Janis Joplin gave Michael and Laura a second chance to do just that, but when the show was completed, it felt less like closing a door and more like reopening one. They were experiencing their sister once again.
“To me, going to the show is as much about having a good time with Janis, and experiencing her with people who love her,” Laura says, a fact that Michael echoes. “This is music, it comes from your heart, and it should rock. You should let it all out.”
Anna Bridget Davies, Sabrina Elayne Carter and all members of the original cast of One Night with Janis Joplin, first seen here in October, 2012 returns to the Kreeger Theater stage at Arena Stage from June 21 – August 11.