Tucsonan's play about sister Janis Broadway-bound

2013-07-14T00:00:00Z 2013-07-14T14:20:13Z Tucsonan's play about sister Janis Broadway-boundKathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Michael Joplin remembers well his sister Janis' concerts.

The singer's unbridled energy, her dig-deep-into-the-soul style, her raspy, bluesy voice and her passion all made the musician's concerts unforgettable. She died in 1970, just a few years after hitting the big time.

His memories and the long memory the public has for her music convinced Michael and his sister Laura that the time was right for a concert-like play. "A Night With Janis Joplin" is headed to Broadway this fall.

The road from idea to reality was a fairly smooth one.

"We were talking about how to make a show that was based on the fun of it, the joy and acceptance of the music," says Michael, a Tucson glass artist who, with Laura, manages Janis' estate.

They considered a movie, but the Joplins had great success with "Love, Janis." The play, based on Laura's book of the same name, showed the more personal side of the rocker. The off-Broadway play was produced in theaters across the country, including at the Arizona Theatre Company in 2001.

"Movies are one thing," he says, "but theater is so real and live, and there is such a different perspective sitting in a theater."

They made a few calls and eventually met up with playwright/director Randy Johnson.

"We sat down for a 10-minute conversation, and after an hour and a half we realized we had something.

"We told him what we wanted, how we hoped the audience would feel, and that the how and why Janis sang was important to us."

Johnson was game, and "A Night With Janis Joplin" took flight.

The Joplins gave Johnson free rein to fashion a play that made sense. "I'm not a theater person," Michael says.

Janis Joplin's letters home were central to the earlier "Love, Janis." That play exposed a gentle, sometimes insecure and often eager-to-please-her-parents artist that most of the world knew as a boozing, hard-living rock star.

"Everything about 'Love, Janis' was great," says Michael. "It was an important piece to us, an emotional one. 'A Night With Janis Joplin' is remembering why she became who she was. A lot of Janis' songs were covers, and a lot of her influences are on stage with her singing duets."

Songs like "Summertime," from the Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess."

"We have a woman in the play we call the Blues Singer singing in operatic fashion," says Michael. "And then Janis takes over with her version."

The play concentrates on the music and doesn't attempt to talk about her life and the times in which she lived.

"It only talks about how the woman Janis developed her style and the choices she made in her music, and how she became a singer as well as a folk hero."

"A Night With Janis Joplin" premiered at the Portland Center Stage in 2011. From there, it made stops in cities including Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Cleveland. At the Pasadena (Calif.) Playhouse, it was the biggest-selling show the theater ever had. In 2012, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., mounted the show and found it so popular that it was brought back less than a year later; the gig at the Arena runs through Aug. 11. Then it heads to Broadway and opens in previews in September.

Audiences love it. So do the critics.

"In a cosmic collusion of persona and perception, this electrifying concert musical resurrects the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll with the sort of seismically sensational results normally encountered at stadiums and pop festivals," crowed the Los Angeles Times.

"This show certainly has the entertainment quotient stacked in its favor, and achieves the exhilarating effect it desires," said the Washington Post. "It's a portrait, more than anything else, of a romance: a singer in love with the cleansing embrace of the crowd."

"I'm pretty excited and really proud of the piece," says Michael, who plans to be in New York for the official Broadway opening in October.

"I've seen it several times and have been so energized. People don't usually scream at the stage at a theater. People come with a theatrical mindset and end up dancing in the aisles."

Sure, Janis lived hard, died young of a heroin over-dose and was deliciously outrageous.

"All that other stuff is immaterial," says Michael. "The music was it; she touched a lot of people that way."

If you go

• What: "A Night With Janis Joplin."

• Director/playwright: Randy Johnson.

• When/where: Through Aug. 11 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; previews for the Broadway show at the Lyceum Theatre begin Sept. 20, and the official opening is Oct. 10.

• Tickets: At the Arena, $45-$99; depending on demand, the price could be increased for some performances. Tickets at arenastage.org online. Broadway tickets are $28-$140 and are available at telecharge.com online.

• More information: janisjoplin.com

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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