News Column

The ballad of Randy and Janis

July 21, 2013

YellowBrix

July 21--The first album Randy Johnson ever heard, when he was 5 or 6 years old, was by Dave Brubeck.

The second was Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills."

"I played 'Ball and Chain' and 'Summertime' over and over again," Johnson said. "Drove my parents nuts."

We are sitting in the upstairs lounge at the Topfer Theatre at the Zach, next to a glass window that looks out on Austin. It is afternoon, and the theater is closed. Downstairs is the set -- drum kit and organ and some amps, a few rugs on the floor -- for "One Night With Janis Joplin," the hit musical-theater-as-concert show that Johnson conceived, wrote and directed about the Port Arthur native and one-time Austin singer who went on to become a 1960s rock legend.

At night (and during the day on Sundays), the stage is packed with musicians, and in the center is singer and actress Kacee Clanton as Janis, talking about her life, singing the blues as she heard it.

After premiering in Portland, Ore., in 2011, mere months after being written, "One Night" hit Cleveland in 2012 and Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage soon after (an encore run at the latter started June 21).

Milwaukee, San Jose, Austin, with various women playing Janis. Now the show (though not the Austin production) is going to Broadway at the Lyceum Theater. Previews start Sept. 20, and it opens for real Oct. 10. It's Johnson's first Broadway show.

Johnson knows how to toe that line between musical theater and concert. He produced the nationally touring show "Always, Patsy Cline" and the virtual interactive concert "Elvis: The Concert" as well as the PBS concert film "Carly Simon -- A Moonlight Serenade Aboard the Queen Mary" and the Lorna Luft show "Songs My Mother Taught Me" at the Savoy Theatre in London.

About two and a half years ago, he was approached by the Joplin estate, specifically Janis' sister and brother, Laura and Michael, about producing a new Janis-based musical. Johnson says what was supposed to be a 20-minute meeting turned into a two-and-a-half-hour chat.

"They told me all of these wonderful stories about Janis from their perspective," Johnson said. He had no idea that Janis' mother, Dorothy (nee East) Joplin, had aspirations of being a Broadway singer.

"One of the myths was that Janis wasn't close to her family," Johnson said. "Her mother basically taught her how to sing. I thought that was extraordinary."

Johnson went home with some of Joplin's journals and writings and spent the next two-and-a-half weeks reading diaries, listening to music, talking to the family. His only instruction was to tell the truth.

"I kept coming back to her influences," Johnson said. "Odetta, Big Mama Thornton. I kept thinking how fun it would be to see her sing with those people, but also emphasize that this was a woman who was raised very well, who was in control of her career, her image, her wardrobe."

Johnson says he woke up one night knowing exactly what to do. "It was three in the morning," Johnson said. "I put on a pot of coffee and just wrote for 18 hours straight. The question I wanted to answer was, 'What would Janis want to say and sing if she had one night to tell us who she was and where she came from?' What you see on stage is what came out of that sitting."

Essentially all libretto, "One Night with Janis Joplin" is Joplin on stage talking about her life, singing her songs, rocking out with her band.

Now and then, a figure called the Blues Singer comes on stage, singing "Summertime" in its original operatic form or "Tell Mama" the way Etta James did it. There are no songs in the show Joplin didn't somehow touch.

As for casting multiple Joplins for various productions, Johnson said he could tell the minute they walk in if they were almost right. "You look for the voice, the ability to sustain multiple shows per week and a blues background," Johnson said, "If they walk into the room with feathers in their hair, I know they're not going to be good. That is an indication of Janis, not her."

The Blues Singer is as important a role, in its own way."You look for that same force of nature coming from a different perspective," Johnson says. "I thought it was important not to break up that role into different women so it doesn't feel like a jukebox musical." The Blues Singer is Janis' inner muse and her self-image.

And Johnson makes it clear it is musical theater in the form of a concert, not exactly a concert. "'Twelve Angry Men' is in a jury room," Johnson said, "but nobody says 'I went to a jury room tonight.'"

Three months after he wrote it, Center Stage in Portland agreed to debut it. After casting out of New York and four weeks of rehearsals, the show went up in 2011. And the train kept a rollin'.

"You work all your life to have an experience like this," Johnson said. "I am going to enjoy every second of it."

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(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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