‘One Night With Janis Joplin’
1101 6th Street, SW
Through Nov. 4
Classic rock fans love pondering what might have become of the greats had they lived. If you really know the history and their personalities, informed prognosticating on what might have been likely makes for great barstool conversation.
For Janis Joplin, it’s hard to say. With a woman so known for her give-it-everything — detractors called it histrionic — delivery, what kind of singer and performer would she have become had she not ODed in 1970?
Mary Bridget Davies has a few thoughts and having researched Joplin’s life for two different stage productions and fronted a rock band herself, she’s in a pretty good position to imagine.
“It’s really a shame she died when she did, not just because it’s sad she died of course, but I really do think she was onto something musically just then,” the 34-year-old Cleveland resident says. “When you think about what came along in music just after that with the Allman Brothers and that whole southern rock thing, it’s a shame she missed that whole movement because I really think she could have been the mama of that. You hear some of that on ‘Pearl,’ like with ‘Bobby McGee.’ I definitely think she would have stayed in music as long as she could because it absolutely was her passion.”
Davies reprises her role as Joplin in “One Night With Janis Joplin” which had a successful summer run in Cleveland and is at Arena Stage in Washington through Nov. 4.
During a lengthy phone chat last week, Davies says several scenarios for what might have been Joplin’s fate in a parallel universe are feasible — the legendary singer might have blown out her voice irreparably in time, gone more heavily into the blues she loved, mellowed out some vocally to pace herself or become a southern rock headliner. Part of the mystique, of course, is that we’ll never know.
The “One Night” show — which its creators say is as much a concert as a play — doesn’t pretend to guess. Rather it recreates Joplin’s live concerts — in a way — while including her influences and thoughts.
Playwright Randy Johnson, who’s written successful shows on other late music icons such as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty and Patsy Cline, says the show sidesteps the pratfall of possibly becoming a cheesy tribute band-type production because he had access to Joplin’s art, letters and diaries.
“Most of those types of shows are created more from a fan perspective as opposed to a true biographical perspective,” the gay, Los Angeles-based playwright says. “I’ve never done a show that didn’t have the support of the family. I wouldn’t do it. Because if you read a biography without the family’s input, what you’re really reading is an opinion.”
The two-hour show, which finds Davies and a live band tearing through 22 Joplin classics, is pared down from its original length. Johnson opened the show in Portland and found he could streamline the piece after seeing how audiences absorbed it. Any overlap in what was being said versus sung was cut.
Davies was an understudy for the Cleveland production at first, but eventually took over when actress Cat Stephani, who got good reviews as Janis in the Portland production, bowed out just before the Cleveland opening.
Davies says she thinks her predecessor “seemed really run down.” She understands to a point — reproducing Joplin’s no-holds-barred vocal fire eight shows a week could ruin almost anyone’s voice. Even Joplin herself didn’t do that — shows in the classic rock era weren’t the two-hour-or-more marathons they became later with acts like Bruce Springsteen. Neither was Joplin playing eight shows a week.
Davies says while donning the Joplin stage garb can yield a feeling of invincibility — “You step out in those beads and velvet pants and that little waist band thing might as well have guns in it. It’s like you’re totally the sheriff in these parts.” — she does have to pace herself. Being a singer herself, she travels and records with her own blues/rock eponymous outfit, helps. She also played Joplin in the show “Love Janis” in 2005 and tours sometimes with Joplin’s old band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
“I take very good care of myself from a health standpoint,” she says. “Sure, there’s a part of me that would love to go out after the show and have 10 drinks and smoke a pack of cigarettes, but you just can’t do that when you have to do it six more times that week.”
Johnson says he knew Davies would be great in the part.
“You really can’t approach this from a musical theater background,” he says. “You can’t just kind of wink at the audience and fake your way through it. Mary Bridget has Janice in her DNA. … The ones who came in (to audition) with the boas and so on usually don’t make it past 16 notes. She came in in a nice shirt and jeans, opened her mouth and just blew the whole table away.”
Oddly, Davies remembers Liza Minnelli being at the table during her audition.
“I think a lot of the girls buckled under her presence,” she says. “She and Randy are friends. She was sitting there, leaning in at the stage table, all smiles like the best stage mom you could ever ask for.”
For Johnson, who was approached by Joplin’s two siblings (who manage her estate) in 2009 about the possibility of doing a show, Joplin still has something to say even all these decades later.
While he fully acknowledges she had “demons,” he says the “drugs and craziness were only about 10 percent” of her life. When studying her writings, he discovered a “very gentle spirit with a great sense of humor who was not bullshitting anybody.”
A 1950s conformist hangover made it a lot tougher to do so in that era, he says.
“It wasn’t easy but she simply spoke and sung her own truth and audiences were drawn to that.”
Though the show doesn’t address Joplin’s bisexuality, Johnson says her story has a message for gays today.
“If you listen very carefully to the show, she’s telling you to be yourself,” he says. “Don’t bullshit yourself, don’t bullshit anybody else and live it while you can. You can lie but eventually it comes out, so I think her message is to simply live as you are.”