‘Love, Janis’ opens today in Aspen
ASPEN – Randy Myler thought he had a fairly well-rounded perspective on Janis Joplin, one that went beyond the dynamic onstage personality. Myler, a child of the ’60s and of Sebastapol, a small town a few miles north of San Francisco, saw Joplin not only onstage, at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds near his home and in legendary clubs like the Fillmore, but on the streets of San Francisco. Myler obtained further insight from his aunts and uncles, who ran a Sausalito butcher shop that Joplin frequented.”Janis was always so available to the kids,” said Myler, now 53 and a resident of New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. “She loved the kids and the kids loved her. You’d see her parked in her psychedelic Porsche, chatting. That’s her Texas roots. By the time I saw her, she had a real ease about being in the rock scene.”Some decades later, Myler was among the first, outside of Joplin’s circle of family and close friends, to get an even fuller take on the singer. In the early ’90s, Myler was approached by Laura Joplin, Janis’ sister. Laura had seen “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” Myler’s biographical musical on the country legend who, like Janis, had lived fast and died very young. Laura wanted to see Myler give her sister similar treatment. The theater veteran wasn’t all that interested; he had just finished what he calls the “womb-to-tomb” show on Williams, and wasn’t looking to immediately do another. But Myler couldn’t resist at least peeking into what Laura Joplin offered.”Their mother had just died, and she told me, ‘Before you say no, we’ve found a collection of letters Janis had written home to the family,'” said Myler. “I said, I’ve got to see these.”Myler had a good idea of the Janis that would be revealed in the correspondence: the pained lover of the blues songs she sang; the hard-living archetype who had died of a heroin overdose in 1970, at the age of 27. “From the Janis we saw onstage, I’d bet she’d write letters filled with expletives,” said Myler. Instead, he found yet another side of Joplin.”To find the Janis in these letters, so wide and expressive – they’re so thoughtful and open,” said Myler who, with longish white hair, an easy smile and a baseball cap from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, retains the hippie look of his youth. “She wrote things I’d never write to my parents: about her career, what it is and isn’t; or talking to her little brother about what success is, what it is to be a star.”Myler quickly saw a way of wrapping Joplin’s songs and letters into a different kind of show. His “Love, Janis” uses two actresses to play Joplin, one as the singer, one as the letter-writer. The show, developed for the Denver Center Theatre Company in the mid-’90s, went from Colorado to regional theaters, to an extended engagement at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and finally to New York City, where it played at the Village Theater for over two years.
“Love, Janis” has its Aspen debut as part of Theatre Aspen’s 2006 summer season, opening Thursday, June 29 and running at the Theatre Aspen tent through Aug. 5. The show is directed by Myler and stars Mary Bridget Davies and Andra Mitrovich, who alternate performances in the singing role, and Elizabeth Rainer as the letter-reader. Aspenite Scott MacCracken rounds out the cast, playing an interviewer.What changed Myler’s mind about doing a Janis Joplin show was the chance to blow people’s minds – not the minds of straight folks, who might be shocked by the singer’s boozing and cursing, but the perceptions of those who thought they knew Joplin. “I thought, I’d better spin the heads not of the blue-hairs, who don’t know Janis, but the fans, who thought they knew her, but had distilled her to this two-dimensional biker chick,” said Myler. “There’s a fully rounded person there.”The song performances reveal an impressive enough character. Fans who know Joplin only through recordings have only a sliver of the experience; onstage, she was an absolute dynamo.”We didn’t see anything like her,” said Myler. “Women were supposed to sway and dance and shake a tambourine. We’d never seen anyone sweaty and shouting and fronting a band. We thought she was a hippie, but she was a roadhouser from Texas. She’d call herself a juicer.”It is the other facet that Myler delights in revealing. The Janis that emerges from her letters is not only wide open, but tender, complex and introspective. Perhaps the most surprising trait to come through is her vulnerability. The Janis we have come to know took lovers such as Kris Kristofferson and the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. The flip side is a someone craving affection.”There is an achingly powerful thread in the letters that say, ‘Love me. I’m somebody,'” said Myler.An even larger story-line is that Joplin never fully left her Port Arthur, Tex. roots. The persona of the flamboyant rocker was at least in part an effort to escape a painful past. But as the letters reveal, both in their content and the fact of their existence, moving to San Francisco never meant cutting ties to her family, thus dispelling a common myth.”Port Arthur may have been bad. How’d you like to be Janis Joplin in a small town where everyone points at you and thinks you’re weird?” said Myler. “But they were a hip family, very supportive and loving.”
Smaller details from the letters round out the picture. In one, Janis asks for a good cookbook for a Christmas present. In another, she says she has to go; it’s time for her piano lesson. In the final letter, Janis writes about her new puppy, Thurber, named for writer James Thurber, and thanks her daddy for turning her onto the world of literature. And she is constantly begging her family to come see her in San Francisco.”Is she really this biker chick? Or is she the girl playing dress-up in her parent’s closet?” said Myler. ” She was both. I think Janis would have liked that it took two Janises to play her.”Myler is quick to point out how simple it was to create “Love, Janis.” He didn’t have to write a lick; all the text comes from the letters and interviews. For firepower, there are such classic songs as “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain” and “Try.” (Even in the song selection, Myler reveals the various sides of Janis: included is the Rodgers & Hart tune “Little Girl Blue,” which Myler says was Joplin’s favorite.)But Myler brought a wealth of background to the show. Trained as an actor, Myler has found much of his niche in music-related stage show. At the Denver Center, where he worked for 15 years, he wrote “Fire on the Mountain,” a show that tells of coal-mining through old-time music. He co-wrote and directed “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” which traced the evolution of blues music. The show, presented at New York’s Lincoln Center, earned a Tony nomination for best musical, and Myler earned his own nomination for best book of a musical.Myler also wrote “Touch the Names,” about the letters left at the Vietnam Memorial War in Washington, D.C., and has dierected everything from “Waiting for Godot” to “Arsenic and Old Lace.” “But I do tend to hear America singing,”‘ he said. One of Myler’s biggest contributions to “Love, Janis” had to do with the music: several years ago, he persuaded Sam Andrew, guitarist from Big Brother & the Holding Company, Joplin’s best-known band, to be musical director. Andrew took in the role for the Aspen production.”He’s added an authenticity not just in his name,” said Myler. “He’s played the music for 30 years. And there’s a reason Big Brother was Janis’ best band. There was a vitality to that music that we loved in Sn Francisco.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com.Vail, Colorado
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