In the Broadway musical A Night With Janis Joplin, Mary Bridget Davies inhabits the full-throated hellcat who tore through blues cosmically, lived riotously and died young. In advance of a North American tour that begins at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre (with stops in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg), The Globe and Mail spoke with the Cleveland-born Davies about the production.
Janis Joplin has a few Canadian connections, namely her participation in the Festival Express train tour in 1970 and her Canadian backing group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band. Does the show touch on that at all?
No. It’s mostly about the women who influenced her sound and her. I narrate the evening. Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Odetta are the influences we touch upon. It’s about her musical pedigree, rather than her personal life.
You were involved in another show, Love, Janis, that did get more into her personal life, right?
That was more introspective. There were two women, the inner Janis and the public persona. I played the public persona, singing. Another woman did a straight play. So it was a play and a musical at the ’same time. Janis had written letters home through her rise to fame. We used all that as her dialogue. It was dark.
To get back to her influences, why are there no men in A Night With Janis Joplin? She was a fan of Otis Redding, for example.
I can’t speak for the director, but maybe it’s an all-women show for the aesthetics, or the empowerment. But, yes, she loved Otis Redding, and Lead Belly. But this isn’t just a carnival of people doing impersonations. It’s about Janis.
It’s ironic that a play about her features all women, given that in an interview she gave four days before she died, she said she didn’t want any women on the road with her because she preferred men and she didn’t want the competition.
Right. But what her estate has said is that when Janis was building her next tour, she was going to bring female backup singers. She was evolving musically, and I think some of that selfishness was beginning to fall away. You get older and you realize it’s not all about you. It’s about the quality of the product and not what the little imp on your shoulder has to say.
It’s been said that Janis lacked the sort of self-protective distancing a performer of her fame and stature would probably need. Do you agree?
Sure. The whole Pearl thing, it was a nickname she gave herself – this grandiose, Mae West-type, over-the-top persona. That was at the end, though. She was the first female rock star. She didn’t know who to look to, or who to take notes from. She was making it up as she went along.
You’ve toured with one of the bands Janis worked with, Big Brother and the Holding Company. You weren’t ‘doing Janis’ though, were you?
I was myself. It was fun to sing the songs how I would like to sing them. We didn’t just do Janis songs, and I never wore feathers, and I never wore a costume. I would dress like myself, and I would sing like myself.
Was that more satisfying?
This show is satisfying. I’m an actor. I understand you put the needle on the record and do it over and over again, and know how to keep it fresh. But I’m also a musician, and I need to grow and evolve too. I’m writing a new album as we speak. I was just in Nashville. So, it’s keeping the two going at the same time. For these next few months I’ll be focused in the play.
I’ll go back to being me.
A Night With Janis Joplin plays Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre Feb. 9 to 21 (mirvish.com).
This interview has been condensed and edited.Report Typo/Error