We've all heard Janis Joplin's inimitable growl, all lamented her 1970 death at the young age of 27. Yet so little is still known about her actual life. This month, audiences will meet the woman behind the legend as Randy Johnson kicks off his touring production of One Night with Janis Joplin at the Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre. The show, which runs July 27 through Aug. 19, was produced in cooperation with Joplin's family, allowing full access to her art, writing and photographs. We talked with Johnson about Joplin's legacy and how his show keeps it alive.
Q. How did this show come about?
A. I got a call from [Janis Joplin's estate manager] Jeff Jampol, and he said, "[Joplin's brother and sister] are coming to town, would you like to meet them to talk about doing a show about Janis?" It was supposed to be 10 minutes; it turned into two hours. I came back to them with a concept within a week.
Q. So is it a concert? A play? A legends show?
A. It's great musical theater. A lot of people just see her in the Woodstock film ... but you will get into the soul of Janis Joplin. I didn't want it to be, "artist is born, artist struggles, artist is successful, artist dies tragic death." That's not the point I'm making with this play.
Q. What kind of help did you get from the Joplins?
A. They gave me access to all of Janis' art, her writings, family photographs. They were available to me 24/7. They kept talking about her influences ... Etta James, Nina Simone, Tina Turner. ... I realized the play should not only be about Janis but about her influences. It's told through Janis' eyes, but it's about how we are all influenced.
Q. Why Cleveland to kick off the national tour?
A. I've always wanted to come to Cleveland, and I've been a fan of the Cleveland Play House for years. The stars lined up. The Play House was the first theater [to book the show], and it's a great place to start. It's the right market for Janis Joplin.
Q. Why did you want to tell Janis' story?
A. Because of the authenticity of her spirit. No one, to this day, has sung like her. She became famous in a time when fame wasn't easily achieved. She actually earned it.