This past week, I had the chance to chat with the warm and vivacious Randy Johnson, the creator/director of A Night With Janis Joplin, which is in previews at the 5th Avenue, and opens Thursday night. Randy specializes in these kind of shows, which bring our musical legends and their great songs back to life, in story and song.
How did this project first come about and what has the journey been to this point?
Six and a half years ago I was approached by Jeff Jampol, who manages the Joplin estate. He asked if I wanted to meet Michael and Laura Joplin (Janis’ brother and sister), with the idea that they wanted to do another show. A lot of the stories that you hear in the show they told me that day [such as] the housecleaning story [where the three Joplin kids would clean while performing to West Side Story, with Janis playing all of the supporting roles]. And her sister Laura told me about Janis’s influences. And that was the most intriguing part to me.
I started doing research, and Laura and Michael sent me material on Janis. And they sent me some of her writings. The other thing that intrigued me, which I didn’t know, is that she was an artist, that she painted. And she had designed all of her own stage clothes. She was actually totally in control of her career, which was not my impression of Janis. It was of just this woman who sang her ass off, and just kind of happened. And I realized it didn’t just happen. She became famous at a time when it wasn’t easy to become famous. She simply did her thing and audiences were drawn to her, she was drawn to the audiences. There was no contrivance about her. She simply just told the truth.
The remarkable thing about this production is that it has never felt like work. Through Janis and her story so many of our dreams have come true and it truly has been a joyful experience.
How cooperative was Janis’ family in creating the show and making sure you got all the songs you needed?
From that first meeting Michael and Laura have been extraordinarily giving in their time, sharing their memories, and have had my back creatively and personally every step of the way. We share a close bond inside and outside the production.
What is the biggest misconception about Janis Joplin?
I think sometimes with these extraordinary legends we all forget that there is a real person behind the legend. Janis was a smart, intelligent woman who cared deeply about her friends and especially her family. She was a deep thinker and wise beyond her years. Janis’s legend and music has prevailed all these years because she was the real, she was honest, and she was authentic and cared and loved deeply. People say ahead of her time and I believe that she was right on time.
Talk about the actress playing Janis and what makes her so right for the show.
Kacee Clanton who is playing Janis here in Seattle, and I have worked together since the Austin production 3 years ago. She went on the being the alternate on Broadway. What I ask the actor portraying Janis in the production is to bring their authentic self to the role. I don’t look for an impersonator as that would be mimicry and I’m not looking for anything like that. Kacee brings the best of herself to her best Janis; she understands and portrays the persona of Janis while being true to herself. We trust each other as artists and friends and that’s a remarkable combination.
You have done many of these kinds of shows. Is there a favorite? Or one that was the hardest? And who would you like to do a musical concert of next.
A Night With Janis Joplin is by far my favorite and most personal work to date. Everything I learned from my past productions led to this remarkable time in my life on a personal and professional perspective. My dreams of Broadway as a playwright and director came true with this show and I am forever grateful and never take any of it for granted.
My next musical is Shout Sister Shout – the untold story of rock and blues legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe which premieres in January 2017 at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA.
You have been tirelessly supportive of AIDS support charities working with the top stars in the business. How did that come about and which celebrity has given of themselves most selflessly?
When I produced the West Coast Premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart starring Richard Dreyfus and Kathy Bates in the late 80’s I realized that there was still much work to be done in the community I lived in. I got involved with APLA in Los Angeles where Bernie Taupin asked me to direct Commitment to Live at the Universal Amphitheater. We honored Elizabeth Taylor, David Geffen, Barry Diller, and (hopefully our next President) Hillary Clinton. It was a remarkable time, these artists and individuals all came together and donated their time and talents and we all raised millions of dollars. I believe that we all made a collective difference at a time when it was needed the most. It was all a selfless acts of generosity by every one involved. The real heroes is anyone and everyone ones that continue to volunteer or help in any way they can and in their own through acts of kindness large or small make someone else’s life easier, brighter and a little better.
If you were on a reality show what would your tagline be?
I don’t watch reality shows so I have no idea. I just hope I am thought of as someone who made a difference.
A Night With Janis Joplin is in previews now, and opens Thursday March 31, 2016 running through April 17 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. For tickets and other information please visit 5thavenue.org