Capturing Janis Joplin’s intensity onstage takes teamwork — and strong tea
When Janis Joplin sang “take it, take another little piece of my heart now, baby,” it was just a metaphor.
But the rasping, screaming contortions she put her larynx through to unleash her raw intensity made one wonder: How could she sing like that without tearing another little piece of her throat?
So it was that Randy Johnson, writer and director of “A Night With Janis Joplin,” the stage musical that centers on Joplin as an artist rather than a victim of self-destruction, showed up at a recent rehearsal at the Pasadena Playhouse with twin silvery packets of a special Canadian tea that’s advertised as a “secret of the opera,” capable of soothing throats and restoring taxed singing voices.
Mary Bridget Davies and Kacee Clanton were delighted to get them. Over the last decade or more, each has sung Joplin on far more intensive schedules than Joplin ever did, so every little bit of fortification helps.
“It’s like a miracle tea,” Johnson said after the rehearsal. “I was in Canada, and the best thing I could bring them was something practical.”
A day-by-day career chronology at janisjoplin.net suggests that Joplin knew the risk she faced from singing. After seizing instant stardom at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, she appears to have paced her shows so that she seldom sang more than two or three days in a row.
But economics dictates that regional and Broadway theaters cram eight shows into a six-day workweek. In the 21 years since Joplin’s estate authorized the first of the two musicals that interpret her saga, only Davies has flown solo for an entire theatrical run — monopolizing the part for a 31/2 -week stand in 2012 in her hometown, Cleveland.
Davies and Clanton first played Joplin in “Love, Janis,” in which writer-director Randal Myler had specified that two singers each should do four shows a week. In “A Night With Janis Joplin,” a top-billed actress sings six shows a week and another rides shotgun, taking the other two.
“A Night With” premiered in 2011; this is its first revival since Davies earned a Tony Award nomination with a four-month run on Broadway in 2013-14. There, as she will in Pasadena, Clanton stepped in for two shows each weekend. With an otherwise different cast, the new staging runs through Aug. 16.
“I know if I’d kept it up longer I would eventually burn out,” said the hearty, talkative Davies, looking back on the run in Cleveland, where she did seven and eight performances a week. “I’d rather do six kickass shows” than press her luck with more.
Whereas Davies’ moon face and pug nose recall Joplin’s features, Clanton, who has been a first-chair Janis in 2013 runs of “A Night With” in Austin, Texas, and San Jose, does not particularly resemble her character. Not that it matters. Playgoers regularly tell her after shows that she was the star’s spitting image.
“If you tell the truth, there’s a suspension of reality,” Clanton said.
The musical is not all Joplin all the time. The spotlight veers to singers who influenced her, including Etta James, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone, played by other actresses. Aretha Franklin turns up for a torrid soul-gospel duet with Joplin that’s imagined rather than historic.
Writer-director Johnson says that none of the Joplins in “A Night With” has failed to complete a run or missed a performance because of voice trouble. But Davies says the show won’t work unless the lead actress leaps into the music without a net.
“You want a Tasmanian devil onstage,” she said. “You’re jumping and screaming, and there’s no two ways about it. You cross your fingers” that the voice doesn’t suffer.
She thinks the wardrobe — the boas, bangles and bell bottoms that Joplin favored — makes things only harder. “You’re in crushed velvet and embroidered jeans. It looks amazing under the lights, but it’s a sweatshop.” Davies says she’s pretty sure that Joplin’s signature flip-your-hair move wasn’t just for show. It just comes naturally when a singer’s sweat-soaked tresses threaten to get in her mouth.
Davies guards her throat with cough drops, even though she knows some voice experts frown on them. Giving voice lessons is one of Clanton’s gigs when not in the Joplin show or on the road as a backup singer — including tours with Luis Miguel and the late Joe Cocker. She protects herself during Joplin performances by sucking steam through a mask when she’s offstage.
Davies was a veteran blues-band singer in the Midwest when she first sang the role of Joplin onstage in 2005; Clanton had a four-year head start. They met in 2007 when they were splitting the lead singing role in a Kansas City, Mo., production of “Love, Janis.” Having become friends on an equal footing, the singers say there’s no drama over Davies having risen to top billing.
“Janis would be pissed if we were just catty bitches tearing each other down,” Davies said.
Clanton, who grew up in Placerville in Northern California but has long been based in L.A., was just as extroverted and earthily easygoing as her colleague during an interview in which she sat on a red antique-looking couch recalling the love seat Joplin occupies on the cover of her last album, “Pearl.”
“I don’t mind at all being an alternate” in a play or going on tour as a backing singer, Clanton said. “I don’t have that drive to be famous. I’m a bohemian girl who goes with the flow. I want to be happy and sing until I die.”
She said her friend, Los Angeles recording artist Beth Hart, was cast in San Diego Repertory’s 2001 staging of “Love, Janis” and insisted that she try out, too. “I didn’t know downstage from upstage,” Clanton recalled. “I’m a rock person who was drug kicking and screaming into theater.”
Clanton and Davies have parlayed playing Joplin into gigs touring her songbook through Europe, fronting a revived version of Joplin’s first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Sam Andrew, an original Big Brother guitarist who died in February at 73, was in charge of the music for “Love, Janis,” using the perch to scout talent for the band.
Johnson, known for producing, writing or directing theatrical tributes to pop stars — others include “Always … Patsy Cline” and “Elvis: the Concert” — said the last thing he wants from Davies and Clanton is mimicry. “I tell them I’m not looking for a Madame Tussauds’ version of Janis Joplin. I’m looking for the essence.”
He makes no apology for having left out the dismal strands in Joplin’s story, except for a recurring note of profound loneliness. In going through private materials provided by the star’s siblings, Johnson was struck by the creative drive Joplin had shown as a teenager in Port Arthur, Texas, where she painted as well as sang.
He decided to emphasize those beginnings, and how her creativity and personality were fed by the great blues women who inspired her. Near the end, Johnson has Joplin observe, “People come up to me and say, ‘Do you think you’ll die a young, unhappy death?’ Well, I hope not, man. I plan on being around for a long time.”
When “A Night With” first came to the Pasadena Playhouse in 2013, Davies said, someone drove her past the Highland Gardens Hotel in Hollywood, which was called the Landmark when Joplin died there in 1970 of a heroin overdose. Offered a chance to see the room where the singer had checked out, she firmly declined.
“As Janis would say, ‘That’s a bummer, man.’ ”
‘A Night With Janis Joplin’
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 16.
Tickets: $55 to $150
Info: (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
Get the Envelope newsletter for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes stories from the Envelope podcast and columnist Glenn Whipp’s must-read analysis.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.