Currently in the midst of a 34-city, 70-show tour across the U.S. and Canada, “A Night With Janis Joplin” starring Mary Bridget Davies, hits Nashville’s James K. Polk Theatre at TPAC with shows Friday and Saturday, April 15 and 16. Having known the show’s writer/director/creator, Randy Johnson since his days producing the widely popular “Always, Patsy Cline” starring my good friend Mandy Barnett, when I learned Johnson and company were bringing the show to Music City, I knew I just had to chat with him and star Mary Bridget Davies about the show, the legend and their love of the Pearl of American’s psychedelic soul sounds of the sixties for the latest installment of my recurring celebrity interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q.
Before presenting our conversations, a bit about both the star of “A Night With Janis Joplin and the show’s creator. Davies, a blues singer herself, is no stranger to Joplin, having first appeared a decade ago in “Love, Janis”, a show based on letters from the rocker to her sister. In the years between that stage show and this one, Davies even appeared as lead of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin’s former band. Prior to taking “A Night with Janis Joplin” to Broadway, Davies toured the country with the show. Once it reached the Great White Way, Davies’ performance as the iconic legend garnered a Tony Award nomination. When Davies takes to the stage at TPAC’s Polk Theatre on April 15 & 16, it won’t be the first time she’s been in Nashville recently, just last year she did performed at City Winery, and word has it also been in Music City recently where she’s been busy writing and recording her own original tunes for a new album due to be released soon.
As for Randy Johnson, the show’s creator, he too is no stranger to Music City, as mentioned above, he produced the original run of “Always, Patsy Cline”, at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, no less. Cline and Joplin aren’t his only forays into biographical theatre either. He’s also worked with or done shows about everyone from Conway Twitty to Mike Tyson, yes, that Mike Tyson. In addition to “A Night With Janis Joplin” and “ALways, Patsy Cline”, as a director or producer, his regional theatre credits include productions ranging from “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “Leader of the Pack” to “Rocky Horror Show” and “Psycho Beach Party”, to name a few. In 2014, his directorial were recognized when the NAACP Theatre Awards named him among the nominees in their Best Director category.
Rapid Fire with Mary Bridget Davies, starring as Janis Joplin in “A Night With Janis Joplin”
JP: You’re starring in “A Night With Janis Joplin”, but this isn’t your first time playing the legendary songstress, having previously been cast in “Love, Janis”, the off-Broadway musical based on a book by Joplin’s sister. What do you see as the key difference between that play and “A Night With Janis Joplin”?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: “Love, Janis” is more of a stage play with music based on Janis’ letters she wrote home during her rise to fame. “A Night with Janis Joplin” is a celebration of her music.
JP: Another key differences between the shows is the fact that you were nominated for a Tony award for your portrayal of Joplin when the music debuted on Broadway in 2013. What was that experience like?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: My childhood dream was to one day be on Broadway. Getting to perform in a Broadway show was thrilling enough but to turn around and be nominated for a Tony in the most competitive category for my Broadway debut?! Surreal.
JP: On the subject of Joplin’s music, my personal favorite that’s included in the show is “Cry Baby”. What’s your personal favorite song to perform night after night?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: “Ball and Chain”. Being a blues singer first, as Janis was, this song gives me infinite freedom vocally while still honoring Janis.
JP: The show features massive Joplin hits like “Down on Me”, “Piece of My Heart” and her posthumously released 1971 #1 smash, “Me and Bobby McGee”, as well as a host of others. It also cleverly includes songs made famous by some of Joplin’s musical influences including Bessie Smith, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Odetta and one of my idols, Nina Simone. Coming up as a young girl, who were your musical influences?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Etta James… I’ve always been an old soul.
JP: Do you remember your first introduction to Joplin’s music?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: Jumping up and down on a green corduroy couch in my living room at 5 years old. My Mom was playing “Piece of My Heart” off of the Cheap Thrills album.
JP: Joplin had a very distinctive way she dressed and wore her hair. Heck she was even likely one of the first female rockers to sport tattoos. Can you tell me a little about the creative team behind transforming you in the the physical Joplin?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: Luckily, I resemble her, so the hair and makeup is easy. Amy Clarke our costume designer did extensive research of every stitch Janis wore. From the lace tablecloth outfit Janis and her friend Linda Gravenites created in her kitchen in the early days to her most grandiose stage wear of her most famous performances. Everything is amazingly authentic.
JP: Speaking of her physicality. At what moment prior to going out on stage do you look in your dressing room mirror and ‘feel’ like Janis?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: Once in costume, I slip the bangles and rings on but it’s the beads. Once the beads go over my head and hit my chest, I look up and she is looking back.
JP: Joplin had a very unique style of singing. I’d imagine it’s very hard on your voice to recreate her sound night after night. What do you do to protect your voice?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: Sleeeeeeeeeeeep. You have to emotionally and physically repair from the show nightly.
JP: She also had a very energetic and spellbinding stage presence. The tour features choreography by Patricia Wilcox, who also served as choreographer for “Motown the Musical” and musical direction by Mark Berman, taking over duties for the tour after having served as keyboardist during the show’s original run. What’s it like bringing their musical direction and moves to life?
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: I have been given so much freedom in this show. You can’t choreograph Janis so that’s probably a better question for the other girls!
JP: Of course there’d be no “A Night With Janis Joplin” without the show’s creator/playwright/director, Randy Johnson. I first met Randy years ago when my friend Mandy Barnett was cast as yet another music legend, Patsy Cline when he was producing the original run of “Always, Patsy Cline”. Since I’m about to chat with Randy for the second half of this Rapid Fire 20 Q, let’s just gush about him for a minute.
MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: Randy has become family to me. We have been on this roller coaster together for years now and I can’t thank him enough for this opportunity and hope I make him proud!
Rapid Fire with Randy Johnson, creator/writer/director of “A Night With Janis Joplin”
JP: As I mentioned when chatting with Mary, I first met you when you produced the original run of “Always, Patsy Cline” starring our wonderful mutual friend Mandy Barnett. Fast forward some twenty years and that show is still drawing major audiences whenever mounted. What has that show meant to you?
RANDY JOHNSON: “Always, Patsy Cline” is certainly one of the significant milestones in my career. I am very proud of the work that we all did to bring that story to the national stage. That first night at the Ryman Auditorium where 2 legends merged and Mandy Barnett with that enormous talent of hers blew the roof off the place was astounding. I will forever recall with great pride that what was accomplished was far more than ever was imagined.
JP: Even before that you produced the West Coast premiere of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” starring Kathy Bates and Richard Dreyfus. How did you first get into producing?
RANDY JOHNSON: I had graduated from USC in Los Angeles as a musical theatre major, and went off to NYC with the hopes of landing on Broadway and found I had horrifying audition phobia (they didn’t teach audition classes at school) and the casting directors back then for the most part were just plain mean. After a year I returned to LA, still believing in myself but with no intention of ever auditioning again I decided to produce the shows that I wanted to be in. I found myself loving the process that went into creating a production. Well lightning struck and six months after returning to LA I was presented the opportunity to produce the West Coast Premiere of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” with Richard and Kathy. I decided not to be on both sides of the table and chose to also be the assistant director on the show. My life changed with that decision and that production. I got to work with some of the finest actors of our generation in one of the most important plays of our time. I never looked back.
JP: I promise we’ll get to Janis Joplin in a second, but you’ve had such a storied career directing and producing everything from regional productions of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “Psycho Beach Party” to directing and co-writing the World Premiere of “Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth”. Aside from “A Night With Janis Joplin”, of course, what’s a crazy memory that sticks in your mind from some of your other shows?
RANDY JOHNSON: My life has been full of remarkable and memorable experiences. But the most surreal experiences have been working with and along side some greats from outside the realm of show business. Early on in my career I directed President Ronald Reagan’s 80th birthday gala and there I was in the wings chatting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, First Lady Nancy Reagan, Liza Minnelli and President Reagan – my head wanted to explode. Years later I was hired to direct Pope Benedict’s appearance in Yonkers New York. It was a 2 hour multi act concert (before an audience of 50,000 and a TV audience of millions) featuring Kelly Clarkson, A Papal Mass followed culminating with Kelly singing Ave Maria to the Pope. Standing backstage with the Pope as he entered the stadium and then walking Kelly to the stage and watching from the wings the Pope’s joy in hearing her sing to him was definitely one of those life adventures that I will never forget.
JP: There’s so much more to your career, from writing/directing and choreographing “Conway Twitty: The Man, The Music, The Legend” (which coincidentally, was the last time I think I saw you) to working with so many iconic performers like Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli Bette Midler and so many more during the five years you directed and co-produced alongside Bernie Taupin, no less, the momentous Aids Project LA fundraising show “Commitment to Life”. Do you ever stop to pinch yourself while reflecting on the true solar system of stellar talents you’ve worked with?
RANDY JOHNSON: I look at my career as a series of lighting strikes. My first “star” job lightning strike was working with Audrey Hepburn; I was so nervous that I almost called in sick to back out. A voice inside my head said “you can’t call in sick to your life”. It turned out to be an amazing experience as she was warm, kind, funny, regal and still very real. 6 months later lighting struck again and there I was directing Katherine Hepburn in a documentary based on the life of Jimmy Stewart. What I learned from these 2 women is that they were simply ordinary people living extraordinary lives and that truth set the bar for the rest of my life. I have been blessed to work with so many of my heroes, learn from them and carry those lessons forward in my career and every day life. And YES I pinch myself every time I find myself in the room working with someone who has worked hard, over come obstacles and achieved great success.
JP: Ok, lavish enthusiasm for your celeb-filled career aside, let’s talk Janis Joplin. Can you speak about the creative process that brought telling this story about Janis to your stream of consciousness?
RANDY JOHNSON: I met with Michael and Laura Joplin at the office of the manager of the Estate in October 2010. We had an extraordinary 4 hour conversation about Janis, growing up with Janis, her influences and what proved to be an insight into the private world of Janis Joplin. When I learned that at an early age she read, she painted, listened to Broadway cast albums and that her choices in her own music came from a personal truth influenced by some of the greatest blues singers of our time I was astonished. I left that meeting, went home, shut off cable TV and I immersed myself in the words, music and writings of Janis Joplin. What struck me was that Janis the artist and woman had been (like all of us) shaped by those great musical influences of hers as well as the everyday heroes who came before her. 3 weeks later I woke up at 3 in the morning knowing exactly what the show should be. It would be set in the context of a Joplin concert one week before the recording of the Pearl Album. I wanted the audiences to know and experience Janis Joplin the artist, the person, where she came from, the influences that shaped her and how she got there. Six months later 20,000 people had already seen the show and 3 years to the day I began writing it “A Night With Janis Joplin” opened on Broadway.
JP: When I spoke with Mary, I mentioned the big Joplin hits that are included in the show. How did you decide what songs to include and which to omit?
RANDY JOHNSON: In constructing the show I had to create an arc that served a musical and dramatic forum for Janis to tell her story. The show is constructed as a blues – rock opera where story and song merge as one to paint a complete picture. The songs were chosen carefully to further the story I was telling.
JP: Some initial critics of the Broadway run touched on the whitewashing of Janis Joplin’s oft-troubled life. What’s your take on those detractors?
RANDY JOHNSON: Some of the reviewers and bloggers not only in New York but also in other cities pre Broadway came expecting a lurid, booze filled expose of the life and times of Janis Joplin. They reviewed their personal expectations of a show that simply didn’t exist. The details of Janis’s private life and her perceived demons was not the artistic intent for this production, We all know that she was excessive and died way too soon but that is not the point here. I wanted the audiences to come to know Janis the way that I had come to know her and celebrate her spirit, music and legacy. Most critics across the country got the point and 5 years later we’re still going strong breaking box office records across North America gaining continuous momentum and a following that I know Janis herself would be proud of. The audiences will tell you everything you need to know.
JP: For the most part, American audiences’, with the exception of actual concert-goers, were limited to just over a dozen TV appearances and of course the “Woodstock” documentary prior to her death in 1970. Why do you think Janis Joplin’s music and captivating stage persona have endured?
RANDY JOHNSON: Janis Joplin was and is an authentic voice not only for just the 60’s Generation but also for the generations that followed. Her music and her musings are timeless. I find that she appeals to cross-generational audiences on a soul level. There was nothing contrived or artificial about her or her music. She will continue to endure the test of time long after we have all gone on to that great Woodstock in the sky.
JP: I asked Mary about working with you, so it’s only fair….When you watch Mary take the stage as Janis night after night in the musical your created, how does that make you feel?
RANDY JOHNSON: Mary and I share a remarkable and rare bond of trust, friendship, accomplishment that that only the 2 of us will ever truly understand. Together we made our dreams come true. I continue to be astonished at her artistry and humanity on and off the stage.
JP: Wow, I could truly chat with you forever, but alas our time comes to a close. What do you hope audiences come away from the theatre feeling and remembering about “A Night With Janis Joplin”?
RANDY JOHNSON: That they will want to come back again and spend one more Night with Janis Joplin.
With that simple, but honest hope for a show that’s proved to be a critical and audience favorite since it’s debut, my conversations with Davies and Johnson came to an end. Tickets to the Nashville leg of the tour are currently on sale. Click Here to purchase tickets. Not in Nashville, but wanting to experience “A Night With Janis Joplin”? Click Here to purchase tickets for the remaining shows including dates in Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Cincinnati, Durham, Atlanta, New Orleans, Daytona, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg, West Palm Beach and Charleston now through the end of April.
You can also keep up with the latest from the show by following their official Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. For a full list of upcoming shows at TPAC’s Polk Theatre, as well as their other stages, Click Here.
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