A.C.T. Musical Captures a Complex Janis Joplin

by Jean Schiffman

Randy Johnson’s musical offers an intimate look at the rock icon on the eve of the Summer of Love’s 50th Anniversary.

“Janis Joplin was a very complex woman, and that’s what comes across in the show,” says Randy Johnson, who created, wrote and directed the musical “A Night with Janis Joplin.” After several years on the regional theater circuit and a Broadway run, the Tony-nominated show arrives at American Conservatory Theater to coincide with the city’s celebration of the Summer of Love. Fifty years ago this month, approximately 100,000 young people from around country converged in the Haight and Golden Gate Park, ready for sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff notes that the timing is right to recall a generation that “was asking all the huge questions and refusing to take no for an answer.”

“A Night” stars Kacee Clanton, who was an alternate in the Broadway production and was seen here in 2006 as Joplin in Randal Myler’s musical “Love, Janis.“ Also in “A Night” are four singers portraying five women who influenced Joplin—Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone, Odetta and Aretha Franklin. They sing these performers’ songs and serve as Joplin’s backup singers.

In San Francisco, the “queen of rock’n’roll” needs no introduction. Whether they were here or elsewhere (or even alive) back then, fans of Joplin know that she started out with local band Big Brother and the Holding Company and shot to fame at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967; that she thrilled audiences with her raw, emotional voice and her bold, deeply personal interpretations of such classics as George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” Kris Kristofferson’s plaintive “Me and Bobby McGee” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” (which, for Johnson, is “a moment of transformation, the ultimate Janis Joplin experience”) and that she sang new songs, too (such as her last recorded song, the a cappella “Mercedes Benz”). Joplin lived hard and died at 27, of a heroin overdose, in 1970.

What audiences might not know, suggests Johnson, on the phone from Los Angeles, is that Joplin was an intellectually inquisitive person who painted and who had loved Broadway musicals, listening to cast albums as a girl. In his show, he reveals both sides of Joplin: the impassioned and gifted hippie singer who swigged Southern Comfort, and the more contemplative young woman.

Johnson first heard Joplin when he was a kid. Her recording of “Summertime,” he says, “struck my soul.” After studying drama at the University of Southern California, he went on to a theatrical career as a director, producer and/or playwright (on and off-Broadway) with such shows as “Always, Patsy Cline” and “Elvis, the Concert,” among many others. To create “A Night” he met with Joplin’s siblings, Laura and Michael, in 2010; they were interested in a “different take” on Janis, he says. They gave him copies of her journals and other writings and everything she’d ever recorded, and he spent a month without cable or internet, immersing himself in the material, then wrote the first draft in 18 hours. He did not want to write a cradle-to-grave piece, and he wanted to focus not on her tragic end but on her joy of life—although, he points out, the show does not revise history; it mentions her addictions without emphasizing them.

“I like to come from the source, from intimate truths, when I do these [types of] stories,” he continues. Along the way, he talked to many who knew Joplin. He visited Port Arthur, Texas, where he saw her family home, the record store she went to, the high school where she was a misfit. In its first staging, at Portland Center Stage in Oregon, the show was three hours long. He trimmed it to two hours with intermission, because, as he says, if you sing it you don’t have to say it, and vice versa. An eight-piece band accompanies the singers.

In Johnson’s mind, the action of the play takes place “the week before she”—he pauses—“left.” Janis Joplin takes center stage in a concert setting (“That’s where she lived, that was her home, the concert stage,” he says) and, along with singing a dozen or so of her famous songs, sets the record straight about her life, he explains, adding,
“I believe I told the story Janis wanted told.”

She also shares the stage with and gives focus to the African-American blues and soul singers she emulated, offering “thoughtful reflections about her musical idols,” wrote The New York Times. So a classical “Summertime” is paired with Joplin’s own version, and Odetta’s “Down on Me” is followed by Joplin’s rendition. In all, the show features 26 songs, including “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby” and “Ball and Chain.”

In casting Kacee Clanton, a Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and actor, in the title role (one of six women who have played the role in the show over the years), Johnson says he looked not for an imitator but rather someone who can “bring her inner Janis to the table.” Clanton was such a person, a seasoned rock’n’roll performer who imbues the character with her own “truth and sincerity and sense of humor.” Of course, Johnson adds, casting the right person always begins and ends with the voice.

“When you put together a concert or piece of theater,” he muses, “and to me, they’re the same thing, it’s a roller coaster ride; it starts slow, there are peaks and valleys, there’s a giant climb to the top, a crash to the bottom, a coast to the end.” In creating “A Night” he found himself searching for a finale, wanting to end on a positive and powerful note. Then, out of the blue, he got a call from Jerry Ragovoy, who co-wrote several of Joplin’s songs, such as “Cry Baby” and “A Piece of My Heart.” He’d written a song for her that she had been scheduled to record the day after she died: “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.” Lyrically and musically, it fit the finale. “All these years later,” says Johnson, “she actually gets to perform it every night in this show.”

June 14 → July 2

A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre

415 Geary St., San Francisco 749-2228