An Extraordinary Adventure: An Interview with A Night with Janis Joplin Director Randy Johnson

By Simon Hodgson

The music world is a sweet spot for Randy Johnson, the creator and director of A Night with Janis Joplin, which is currently running through July 16 at The Geary Theater. Johnson has created productions about Conway Twitty, Keely Smith and Louis Prima, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Carly Simon, Elvis Presley, and Patsy Cline. But soul singer Janis Joplin holds a special place in Johnson’s heart.

As Johnson prepared to bring A Night with Janis Joplin to The Geary Theater, we caught up with him to talk about discovering the hidden side of Janis.

A Night with Janis Joplin Director Randy Johnson.
Photograph © Eric LaCour. 2010.
You’re known for productions focusing on iconic musicians, but A Night with Janis Joplin has a more personal connection for you. Why?
When I was a kid, one of the first albums I bought was Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills. And the first person I saw in concert was Nina Simone [the soul singer who appears in A Night with Janis Joplin as one of Joplin’s musical inspirations] at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles. So when the Joplin family reached out to me, those connections were the spark that created A Night with Janis Joplin.

You met with Michael and Laura Joplin, Janis’s brother and sister, after which you were given access to their archives about Janis. How did you use that material to create this musical?
I knew that the show couldn’t be an outsider’s opinion of her life, as that would be a disservice to both the woman and the audience. When you read biographies and some cradle-to-grave bio-musicals, they are made up of other people’s opinions of the artist.

I was fortunate enough to live with Janis and her material and get to know her only through her words, her music, and her family’s recollections. For a month I turned off the cable TV and the internet, and through Janis’s writing and music I lived in her world. I let Janis do the talking and I listened. I learned everything about Janis firsthand. I wanted it to be from the source. There’s no revisionist history. Through family recollections and the journals of Janis herself, I came to realize that here was this woman who made her ordinary life an extraordinary adventure.

What aspects of Janis did you find in your research that are less well known?
What surprised me the most was the joy in her life, her sense of humor, and her intellectual spark. At an early age, when she first become successful, she understood that what she said onstage influenced a whole lot of people. I read in her letters that she understood the responsibility.

Janis was not just some drug-fueled hippie chick singer. Her influences ran deep and wide. She was an intellectual, she was an artist, she was deep and thoughtful, she loved Broadway musicals, and she had a great sense of humor. She had such a short amount of time on earth—what she accomplished is astounding. I came not only to like Janis as a singer but to respect the woman that lived a deep, joyful, and complex life.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 16 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to read more of our interview with Randy Johnson? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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