Michael and Laura Joplin Share Their Sister's Music with Broadway

Playbill.com chats with the creators and star of the new Broadway musical A Night With Janis Joplin.

Mary Bridget Davies
Mary Bridget Davies (Photo by Jim Cox)

At the Joplin house, the kids looked forward to cleaning day. That was the day they got to sing.

"My mom would set it up to do house cleaning and we would do Broadway show tunes," recalled Michael Joplin, brother of the late rock and roll icon Janis Joplin. "It was a little bit weird. We were just singing loud."

"Our mother, in an earlier life, was a Broadway singer," said Laura Joplin, the third Joplin sibling. "We [had] those LPs around the home and listened to them a lot. On cleaning day, we'd put them on high."

"I really didn't understand how much it affected me until I went on a date with my wife to a 'West Side Story' sing-along," added Michael. "I knew every word. I thought, 'Oh my God.'"

To the Joplins' way of thinking, theatre music was just one of many musical influences that formed the distinctive vocal style of their celebrated sister, and each one of those wellsprings will be explored in the new Broadway biographical musical, A Night With Janis Joplin, opening Oct. 10 at the Lyceum Theatre. "We've been talking about doing a theatrical production for a while" about Janis, said Laura. When they met Randy Johnson, A Night with Janis Joplin's director, who conceived of the project, the Joplins knew they had found the right project, one that wouldn't exploit the more lurid aspects of the life of their sister, who famously died of a drug overdose in 1970 at the age of 27.

"He had the idea [of] looking at how she interpreted the artists who influenced her into her own style," explained Laura. "It's appropriate that a woman has her work as the focus. So often stories about women get sidelined in favor of private details. To celebrate the talent and ability of a singer is a great compliment."

"We want people to remember why Janis became well known," echoed Michael.

Janis Joplin's musical upbringing began at home. Her mother provided one avenue of schooling, her father another.

"My father was a serious classical music listener," said Laura. "He'd bring us in to listen to certain passages." Michael recalled his father sitting quietly and intently in a corner, absorbing a piece of Rachmaninoff. "I remember thinking, 'Music can do that to you!' I think Janis got that just as much as I did."

 

Janis Joplin

A third influence came from outside: the blues. That, according to Laura, came from Janis's friends, who were into roots music. "That group was very serious about music," she said. When Janis was a teenager, Laura added, she'd often travel to Louisiana to take in the musical acts. "Between Houston and New Orleans, there were a lot of clubs that gave a home to traveling musicians." Among the mentors she adopted were Nina Simone, Etta James, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin.

When searching for the right interpreter of Joplin's heady vocal mix of blues, soul, rock, and even Broadway (a cover of the Gershwins's "Summertime" was a famous Janis Joplin staple and is performed in the show), the creative team turned to someone who had already been brought up in the School of Joplin.

"I have a good history," explained Mary Bridget Davies, who portrays Janis in the show. "I was in Love, Janis in the touring production." Love, Janis, another stage show about Joplin, played Off-Broadway for a year and a half a decade ago. Davies auditioned for a production of A Night with Janis Joplin at the Cleveland Play House and won the role, beating out 80 others who were asked to attend callbacks.

Michael said Davies possessed "an honesty" in her portrayal of his sister. "Our goal has always been to look for somebody [who isn't] trying to mimic Janis. There was one Janis. We want something who brings that honesty and energy to the role. Mary sings her soul and heart on stage. It's not a Madame Tussauds thing."

"They didn't want it to turn into some sort of impersonation," agreed Davies. "It's about her personality. They didn't set up to find a couple of Janis bobble heads." Davies has already done well by the production, which has played a few regional houses before turning to Broadway. She received the 2013 Cleveland Critics Circle Award for Best Actress in a Musical and was nominated for a 2013 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Musical. Davies has been able to benefit from the close involvement of Laura and Michael, who have shared with her and Johnson tales of their childhood with Janis. Some of those stories are in the play, which takes place during a road gig for Joplin and her band. For instance, at one point each Joplin owned that most simplistic of instruments, the recorder, allowing the family to form a recorder ensemble.

Still, there are some memories of his sister that Michael will keep to himself. "Well, she has been [gone] a long time," he replied when asked if it was ever difficult to separate the public Janis from the private Janis he knew many years ago. "I've got my personal memories, that I personally compartmentalize. I have my personal life with it and the public has their own life with Janis. They can't know what I know and I can't know what they know."