A piece of her heart
February 9, 2008
Last week, Randal Myler, director and writer of "Love, Janis: The Musical," left New York to visit the childhood home of Janis Joplin in Port Arthur, Texas. Accompanied by Joplin’s sister Laura, and her brother Michael, they helped to dedicate the Joplin family track house with a plaque.
Port Arthur, once the center of the largest oil refinery network in the world, calls itself "Energy City." Today, there is a Buddhist Temple, and a growing Vietnamese population, but in the 1950s and 1960s, Joplin’s formative years, the city’s makeup was strictly football and oil fields. Joplin’s father worked for Texaco as an engineer.
Though Myler describes her upbringing as "comfortable," he could understand why Joplin escaped to San Francisco at the age of 23 to join the band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
"She got along with her father, and her mother was, perhaps, a little more strict, but it’s the town itself, and the high school and the people there who were very stifling for a beatnik hippie girl Janis was not Port Arthur," he explains. "Like a lot of people in this country who feel like outcasts, she ended up in San Francisco and people still do. That’s why San Francisco is a haven for gays. It’s filled with kids coming from small towns and they go to San Francisco to breathe."
"Love, Janis," which will play at Park City’s Eccles Center Saturday, Feb. 16, delves into the contemplative off-stage Joplin as much as it celebrates the feisty on-stage performer.
To effectively convey the singer’s two disparate sides, Myler employs two actresses one to give her all as the flashy rock star singing 20 of her classic rock songs, the other to reveal the calmer, sensitive daughter, who is trying to make sense of her life to her parents. "To tell you the truth, there’s no other way you can do Janis on stage," he says. "The singer can’t do one of (Janis’) songs and then come over and do a letter home. She’d fall over dead if she’s giving her all in the song."
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Instead of a "womb-to-tomb" biography, Myler says his musical focuses on the years 1966 to 1970, beginning with the singer’s move to Haight-Ashbury, following her rapid rise to fame, before her accidental drug overdose at the age of 27. Lending authenticity to the show, Myler worked with Sam Andrew, leader of Big Brother and the Holding Company and Joplin’s best friend, and culled the dialogue for the show from television and radio interviews and Joplin’s letters home to Port Arthur.
Though many people come for the music, Myler insists it’s the unexpected surprise of Joplin’s way with words that gives "Love, Janis" universal appeal.
"People come out to a performance and go, ‘You know, I don’t really necessarily like rock ‘n roll, but that girl writing her mother got to me,’" Myler explains. "It became clear that we weren’t all rock ‘n roll singers in the 60s, but we were all trying to explain ourselves to our parents. When I write shows, I have to think, ‘ if this person is so famous, is there a show here, is there a story here?’ And I think with Janis, it is a young girl in the ’60s, trying to explain herself It’s like a kid at camp and camp is the rock scene of the 60s."
Myler gained access to the Joplin estate early on. In fact, the idea to create a musical based on Joplin’s life came from Laura Joplin, who approached him after seeing his musical, "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," based on the life of Hank Williams. Laura had penned "Love, Janis," a book that was the first to shed light on the human side of the rock icon devoted to her family, and wondered if Myler might be interested in adapting the story for the stage. She sent him Joplin’s letters.
"She really wanted to see if something in the letters appealed to me I think they really wanted to express this other side of Janis," Myler says. "Janis with all her warts is already out there. Michael and Laura know that and love that about her, but there is a side of Janis that is a more intelligent side and I think there was a real interest in showing that side as well."
In an excerpt from "Love, Janis," the book, Laura Joplin says she remembers Janis, six years her senior, as her "interpreter of the world" who took her under her wing as an older sister. Like the public later on, Laura admits she idolized her sister, but in a different way. Whereas the world sees her as a tragic figure, Laura Joplin argues they forget the rest.
"After her death Janis developed a second career," Laura says in an interview for National Public Radio. "The second career is being a social icon and a social icon’s job essentially is to reflect back to people some aspects of that person’s personality which society wants to use collectively at a certain point in time. So she’s not a whole person, that’s not what an icon is; they’re a caricature of just portions of a person’s personality."
Once he read Joplin’s letters, Myler agreed.
"I was surprised at how funny they are and how witty they are and what a deep thinker she is — that is not the Janis that a lot of people think existed," he reflects. "She was a well-read, very witty, intelligent person and through the years she had been distilled to a biker chick."
When Myler agreed to the project, he says did so with the intension of making "Love, Janis" his fan letter to Joplin, and her powerful image as one of the world’s first rock band front women. At the time she became famous, Myler, raised in northern California, can remember following his older siblings to concerts in high school.
"I was a wannabe hippie and I went to all their concerts in San Francisco and up until Joplin, we had never seen a woman fronting a band. Women were relegated to swaying, looking pretty and playing a tambourine," he recalls. "Then along came a stomping, screaming, ball of energy Janis Joplin. We’d never seen anything like that before and it was thrilling and we took to her right away in the Bay Area as our spokeswoman in many ways. She epitomized the Summer of Love and the music we liked. It was an astounding voice. There was no holding back."
But Myler wanted to make sure that his actresses weren’t a poor man’s Joplin. There would be no "impressions" in "Love, Janis."
"Certainly we have all the feathers and the boas and we have the light show, but it was very important to me that the singers give it up, but to also put their own stamp on something as well," he says. "The Janis I’ve grown to know would say, any woman has the right to go up there and sing if they’ll just give it up. So over the years, I’ve had women that are 300 pounds, I’ve had women that are Latina, and all different types of singers and that appeals to me. That seems to honor Janis’ memory more than anything, who was all about ‘If you want it, go for it.’ Anything else would be a Las Vegas look-alike review. I think Janis would approve."
The soundtrack to ‘Love, Janis’
"Piece Of My Heart"
"Down On Me"
"Bye, Bye Baby"
"Women is Losers"
"I Need A Man To Love"
"Ball and Chain"
"A Woman Left Lonely"
"To Love Somebody"
"Me and Bobby McGee"
"Little girl Blue"
"Get It While You Can"
See ‘Love, Janis
*When: The musical theater performance "Love, Janis" runs in Park City for one night only on Saturday, Feb. 16. Show starts at 7:30 p.m.
*Where: At The George S. and Dolores Doré at Eccles Center for the Performing Arts at 1750 Kearns Blvd.
*Price: Tickets range from $18 to $65 (as with all regular season performances, children 12 & under are half price and seniors receive a 20-percent discount). Tickets are $5 in Section C for Summit County students (K-12).
*More information and box office: Tickets and information are available at The Eccles Center box office by calling (435) 655-3114 or by visiting ParkCityTickets.com. For more information on the musical, visit lovejanisthemusical.com.