DIVA TALK: Chatting With A Night with Janis Joplin Star Mary Bridget Davies

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Mary Bridget Davies
Mary Bridget Davies Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Mary Bridget Davies
A Night with Janis Joplin, which stars Mary Bridget Davies as the late rock singer, officially opened at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre in October, following acclaimed runs at Portland Center Stage, Cleveland Play House, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Pasadena Playhouse and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Davies, who received unanimous praise from New York critics for her uncanny embodiment of the Queen of Rock, also earned the Best Actress Award from the Cleveland Critics Circle and a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Musical during the show's out-of-town engagements. Written and directed by Randy Johnson, the new musical also focuses on Joplin's inspirations, including such iconic female singers as Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Etta James and more. A few weeks ago I had the chance to chat with Davies, who previously portrayed Joplin in the national tour of Love, Janis; the singing actress spoke about the demands and joys of playing the late singer, who exploded onto the music scene in 1967 and charted five singles as a solo artist — including "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Down on Me" — before her untimely death at the age of 27 in October 1970.

Question: Since we haven’t spoken before, let’s go back a bit.  Where were you born and raised?
Mary Bridget Davies: Cleveland, Ohio.

Question: When did you start performing – what’s your earliest memory?
Mary Bridget Davies: Well, actually, on tape I was three, and it was a dance recital in the basement of our hometown City Hall.  [Laughs.]  It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. It started with dance, and then singing just came along naturally, with choir, growing up in high school and being in productions and going to summer stock.

Question: Was there ever an age where performing changed from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
Davies: I knew that when I was 11, and I did my first real singing competition. In the dance competitions there was an open vocal category... I swept the whole thing with the highest points and the “Most Entertaining” award. And, all the dance teacher moms were mad – and I remember thinking that was hilarious… And I thought, “I think I like singing." I found [the dance moms' reactions] very strange — that it could be a bad thing. And I can remember, “I think I’m onto something here!”

Question: As you were growing up, were there any actors or singers you admired or who influenced you?
Davies: I absolutely loved Stevie Wonder ever since I was a kid.… I also loved the movie “Clue,” Tim Curry and everybody in it. My best friend and I – we could recite – we knew the whole entire movie... I just loved that so much, and it was so funny because I was like, “Okay, I want to see what else these people have been in.” And my mind was just blown at how talented they were. Question: Was Broadway your goal, or was the pop world your goal?
Davies: Broadway was my goal as a child, but I figured it’d be as a dancer. [About] singing in choir, I thought, “Oh, I’ll do that, so I can round it out, so I can be a triple threat.” I did a little dance tour right out of high school, went to college and was like, “Oh, I don’t like this at all. I want to be performing now.” I was just kind of impatient, and that’s when I had gone to the Jam and just kind of sat in and hoped something would stick, and I was hired to be in my first band that night, and singing took over. But I taught dance until I was 26. I couldn’t give it up. But then one of my shows started touring, and I couldn’t keep my [dance students]. They are all actually coming to see the show Sunday. I’m very excited. The woman that I used to teach with and the students are all coming to see us.  But, no, it wasn’t to be a pop singer either. When I started singing, I just wanted to sing. I just really liked the way it felt, and I liked being in the band and entertaining people on that intimate level. Pop music is just a big anonymous blur.  [I'm not interested] when you can’t see the whites of people’s eyes - have a moment with them that you guys created together.

Mary Bridget Davies in A Night with Janis Joplin.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: When did you first become aware of Janis Joplin?
Davies: I knew about her my whole life. My parents are baby boomers, so that was their music, and in the best way they always had music going on in the house. So I was accidentally being schooled on blues, and rock and roll, and Southern boogie music, and soul music without even really knowing until I got older. Then I’m like, “I know all this stuff!” [Laughs.] So Janis has really been around my whole life. I’ve been her for Halloween a few times; it’s a pretty easy costume for me. I was in high school, and we’re eighties kids, and my friends thought I was Elton John, which I thought was amazing. I had the round glasses and the feathers, and I’m like, “You guys, come on, I’m Janis Joplin,” and they’re like, “Who’s that?” And I’m like, “What do you mean who’s that?” But that’s because, you know, my parents raised me on rock and roll and their parents maybe not so much.  [Laughs.]

Question: Was the first time you really delved into her work for Love, Janis?
Davies: When I first started singing, I realized I could capture some of her essence, and I thought, “Well, that’s weird.  Let’s see if I can do that, let’s see if I can repeat that.” That’s really what that is about - it’s the longevity…. People joke, if Janis was around, what do you think she’d say [about my interpretation of her work], and my dresser says, “She’d probably ask Mary how she does it six nights a week.” [Laughs.]  Janis started as a blues singer fronting a rock-and-roll band, with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and as her career progressed, she became more and more a soul singer, which is what she wanted. And, I’ve always been more of a soul, blues singer. So when I started really sort of dissecting her library, in my late teens and early twenties, that’s when I really got it…Janis Joplin sang that Bee Gees tune “To Love Somebody,” and she killed it, it’s amazing, who’d have thought? Just her interpretations of songs that already existed blew my mind, like Joe Cocker would do.

Question: When did you do Love, Janis?
Davies: I auditioned in 2005 November, and my first performance was the first of 2006, and I did that for a couple runs. We were in Cleveland, Aspen and San Francisco, then Kansas City. We were at The Alley, and then there was a tour, and it was over. By the summer of 2008 I was done with the show.

Davies in A Night with Janis Joplin.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How do you think your portrayal of Janis differs now from when you were in that show?
Davies: I am far more informed as a human being in the world. I think it’s just really seasoned myself, but it helps Janis. There’s that fine line where you can become a caricature when you’re playing her because she was kooky and she was batty. She was a batty broad - we love her for it. But she was really serious at the same time and very sultry at the same time. She was a very Earth Mother-type, but then in two seconds she’d blow it off with a Mae West delivery of one line… And, in the beginning I didn’t really have the dexterity as an actor to do that…Everybody wants to talk to Janis. There’s always someone in the show that’s screaming at you from the crowd. So, even back then in the Love, Janis times, I’d be able to acknowledge them, wrap it up and shut it down, and keep going without hurting anyone’s feelings or yelling or getting frustrated. So I was always able to do that, which is very Janis, so that always helped. But, yeah, the farther you go in life the more you see and the more you go through, the better it helps inform her because she was so intellectual, emotional, lonely, hilarious. Like we all are. We’re all insane by the time we’re 25 I think anyway! [Laughs.]

Question: Since you said that Broadway was your goal, what was your first night on Broadway like? How did it live up to what you thought it would be or how was it different?
Davies: …I’m always nervous to an extent, but this was like show-stopping nerves. And, I was… talking to myself, and then I started working myself up, like, “Oh God, I’m going to have an anxiety attack as soon as the panels open, and it’ll be me and no sound, and I’ll just be standing there, and there goes my Broadway career.” And, in my head as Janis, I go, “Oh shut up, and just sing the damn show…” And then the panels open… boom. And, it was great. We were in the dressing room with my dresser and my stylist, and my whole family was there. We did a champagne toast in the dressing room while I’m getting ready. The press line is just a blur. All that stuff is just a blur, and I was home before one in the morning with my family, and I was like, “Mom, did that just really happen?” It was amazing to me. I couldn’t have imagined it any better. Really, it was amazing.

Mary Bridget Davies in A Night with Janis Joplin.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: In addition to the vocal demands, what are the challenges of the role for you?
Davies: The emotional and physical demands because you can’t just put her on, and you can’t just turn her off. You kind of have to let it seep in. There have been times where whatever you take as your ammunition from your life, what’s going on and things like that, if you’re having a bad day and you’re out there wailing into some theatre, and then all of a sudden I feel a tear in my eye, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, what are you doing, you can’t do that.” Crying is the king of knocking out my voice, hands down. It’s such a physical performance, from ducking and weaving and bobbing up and down, and squatting, and the way she’s throwing her head. It's become second nature to me, but it’s still totally ripping my body apart. [Laughs.] At the end of the night when I go to put on my snow boots to go home, I bend over and hold that stretch and I’m like, “Oh, that’s great.” [Laughs.]

Question:  Do you have a favorite moment in the show? Is there a song or something you look forward to?
Davies: There are a few. The one that doesn’t have to do with me is when our Bessie Smith comes out. She has her period costume on, and people just lose their mind, and she hasn’t even started singing! That I just love because Janis did love those women so much. We took that angle of who she was as an artist and not “Oh, you know, she died of an overdose, and it was really sad, and she was a big partier.” That story’s been written a hundred times. When the girls sing “I Shall Be Released” and I come on to sing “Bobby McGee,” I’m just moved to no end. Because I come out, lights come up on me, and the crowd is different. It’s not just the party, it’s not just the “Now, Janis is going to say something funny.” There’s more of an emotional connection with the crowd for the rest of the show, which makes “Ball and Chain” amazing. There’ve been independent moments, in shows, that have been amazing, but you can’t duplicate them night after night. It has to do with people in the audience.

Question: When you go to sing, not in the show but as yourself, is it ever difficult to find your own voice?
Davies: No, actually, it’s refreshing. She hasn’t changed me. She influenced me, and I’m always grateful for that. But I haven’t started morphing into some Janis Jr., which is nice, and when I am up on stage doing my own stuff, I surprise myself because there are things I do vocally that Janis wouldn’t do, and then it comes out naturally, and I’m like, “Woah, that’s so cool.” I’m still learning, and moving, and shaping everything and surprising myself. It’s few and far between that I get to do it anymore, but when I do, it feels really good.

Question: What would you like to do following this? Where do you see your career going from here?
Davies: Oh, well, anyone that watches “30 Rock” knows, all of our plan in the show is we’re going to "EGOT," which is an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. You know, keep it small! [Laughs]. We were joking, “Could you imagine?” We just finished our cast album two weeks ago, so that’s what we were joking about. So that’s the foremost thing right now: “What if we get a Tony for the show and a Grammy for the album, and they run it on TV and we get some default Emmys, and then they turn it into a movie and we get Oscars?” We were just going in, and I was like, “Why not have lofty goals like that?” Because this is the type of business where you can do anything. You can achieve everything. It is actually possible. We work in a magic factory - in entertainment anything is possible, so why limit yourself? So that’s kind of how I feel.

[Tickets are available through Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200. The Lyceum Theatre is located at 149 West 45th Street.] Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.


Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.

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