Thirty years after her death at the age of 27, rock singer Janis Joplin will be remembered at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in Love, Janis: the Songs, The Soul of Janis Joplin, a new musical conceived, adapted and directed by Randal Myler. The production, the third in the Bay Street season, runs July 19 to Aug. 6.
Joplin rose to prominence in 1967 as the gritty, bluesy vocalist of the band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, wailing the lyrics of the hit "Piece of My Heart." She went on to solo success and scored a number one single with "Me and Bobby McGee" -- although the song didn't hit until after Joplin had succumbed to a heroin overdose in 1970.
Myler told Playbill On-Line (July 11) that the idea to do the show did not originate with him. Some years ago, Laura Joplin, Janis' sister, saw a show of Myler's about Hank Williams, Sr. Joplin approached him afterwards and asked whether he'd consider creating a show about Janis. "I said that I needed more of a hook than simply liking the artist," said Myler. "Then she said, `Well, before you say no, we have this batch of letters.'" Laura Joplin then gave Myler a series of correspondences written by Janis from 1967 to 1970. "The letters were deep and intelligent and funny and sad," said Myler, who had only known the singer's hard-living public persona, having seen her perform several times when he was a teenager in San Francisco.
Myler decided to build the show around the letters. The missives start at the very beginning of Joplin's career. The first one, said Myler, reads "Dear Mom, I've hitchhiked to San Francisco. Don't be mad." Joplin had traveled to Bay area to audition for a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. She got the job.
A figure from Joplin history will be on hand to make certain the singer's material is justly represented: Sam Andrew, the lead guitarist and founder of Big Brother. Myler met Andrew when Love, Janis was presented in Austin, TX; the company had invited several of Joplin's friends to see the production. Andrew so enjoyed the show, he offered his services and Myler appointed him music director. Myler hopes to bring Love, Janis to New York eventually. Due to the musical's intimacy, it would require an Off-Broadway house, he said, added that a opening this coming fall would be ideal.
As befitting a larger-than-life figure like Joplin, the title role will be filled by three actresses. Catherine Curtin will play the "talking Janis," reading the singer's private letters home, while two performers -- Cathy Richardson and Andra C. Mitrovich -- will alternate as the "singing Janis." The double casting is presumably due to the rigors of Joplin's searing vocal style.
Love, Janis was previously seen at the Cleveland Playhouse, Denver Center Theatre Company and Chicago's Royal George Theatre.
Myler directed and co-authored Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, which won Tony nominations for best musical and best book a couple seasons back.
* In other Bay Street news, Kaufman and Hart are getting the royal treatment this summer. Already underway is a Broadway production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, beginning June 30. Nathan Lane and Jean Smart will head the cast, which is deep with theatre pros such as Lewis J. Stadlen, Byron Jennings and Terry Beaver.
A few hours east of Gotham, meanwhile, the Bay Street Theatre Company is offering You Can't Take It with You and a cast nearly as packed with theatre stalwarts as Dinner. Mason Adams, of television's "Lou Grant" and the stage's Lake Hollywood, will play Martin Vanderhoff, the patriarch of the comedy's different drummer family. Backing him up with by Tony-winner Roger Bart (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) as Ed, Joan Copeland (The Torch Bearers) as Mrs. Kirby, Jennifer Dundas Lowe (Arcadia, Good as New) as Alice, Penny Fuller (A New Brain) as Penelope Sycamore and Mary Testa (On the Town, Marie Christine) as Olga.
Completing the cast are Shelley Dulaney, John Fiedler, Jonathan Freeman, Bryan Hicks, Tom Gustin, Larry Keith, Talmadge Lowe and Roz Ryan. Jack Hofsiss directs. The show runs through Sept. 3.
The Ibsen and Kaufman and Hart revivals mark a new direction for the Bay Street, which has, until now, focuses primarily on new plays and American premieres. A Bay Street spokesman said the theatre had made a conscious choice to stage more classics, in part was responding to the desires of its audience.
Bay Street will also introduce a "Tuesday Talkback Series" in 2000. The program will allow subscribers to meet and chat with actors, directors, playwrights and designers involved in the theatre's productions.
The Bay Street Theatre in located in Sag Harbor, Long Island. For information call (631) 725-9500, or consult the website at www.baystreet.com.
--By Robert Simonson