04 Jun PORTLAND CENTER STAGEâ€™S â€˜ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLINâ€™ SHINES LIGHT ON THE JOYFUL SIDE OF SINGERâ€™S LEGACY
By Marty Hughley
May 26, 2011
“Any great artist, the difference between us and them is the light shines on them,” Randy Johnson says. “That essence, it’s an otherworldly thing.”
The veteran theater artist has spent much of his career reflecting “the light” through the stories of such musicians as Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette. But the artist he’s focused on these days is the late rock legend Janis Joplin.
Johnson is the writer/director of “One Night With Janis Joplin,” which has its world premiere Friday at Portland Center Stage. The show is being created with the involvement of the Joplin estate, which has been developing it over the past two years with an eye toward national touring and a revitalizing of the singer’s brand.
Jeff Jampol, whose Los Angeles firm Jampol Artist Management oversees the Joplin estate, as well as those of Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons and others, says the Joplin legacy has been underexposed.
“The good part is, I don’t have to spin it. I just have to put it out there and kids will respond to it,” he says.
In Jampol’s view, Joplin has a select place in rock history. “The pantheon: Lennon, Dylan, Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin. As far as setting the table for rock becoming a true global culture, these five were the leaders of the revolution.”
But he also says Joplin’s story holds a relevant message, one that’s been obscured by the usual depiction of her as a tragic heroine of the counterculture, a famous casualty to sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and what her former publicist Myra Friedman called Joplin’s “emotional astigmatism.”
“She was vulnerable and needy and very much wanted approval,” Jampol says. “But she never once compromised her vision to get it. … Her message was don’t compromise yourself; it’s all you’ve got. Be yourself, be free and be joyous.
“If you want to learn about the history of the ’60s, that’s not what this show is really about. If you want to celebrate the music and the joy of Janis, then this is the show for you.”
Meaning, the tawdry details of her overdose death at age 27 aren’t on the agenda.
Or, as Johnson puts it, sitting in a Gerding Theater conference room before a recent rehearsal, “Every story has a point of view, and this is mine.”
As its title suggests, “One Night With Janis Joplin” presents the singer (portrayed by New York actress Catherine Lena “Cat” Stephani) in a concert setting, performing hits and rare gems and talking about her life and love of music.
“The more I read about Joplin, the thing that struck me was her influences — Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, these extraordinary women who shaped her life,” Johnson says.
The creative twist to his version of Joplin’s story — which he says came to him in a 3 a.m. epiphany — was to create a character called the Blues Singer. “The illusionary part of the show is that when Janis talks about her influences, the Blues Singer appears and embodies those artists.”
Johnson says he also benefited from the cooperation of Joplin’s surviving siblings. “To me, it’s going back to the source — the extraordinary access that can spark a direction, can spark imagination.”
“One Night With Janis Joplin” represents a shift in direction for PCS. The company originally planned to stage a different show on the same subject, “Love, Janis,” which had been created out of the singer’s letters and reminiscences by her younger sister, Laura. But with the newer show coming into focus, Jampol didn’t want competing Joplins (so to speak) on the market. And in the back and forth over the performance rights to “Love, Janis,” the decision to launch “One Night” at PCS emerged as a winning proposition for both the theater and the estate.
“We wanted to give ‘Love, Janis’ a rest, not just (to have something new) but to really accomplish a different goal. … We wanted to focus on (the) joie de vivre of her music and where it came from; how this magic was created,” Jampol said.
“This is something we wanted to do for Janis.”