Channeling Janis Joplin
Broadway’s Mary Bridget Davies on the Legend and Her Influences
Following a successful run on Broadway, A Night With Janis Joplin explores the influences of the legendary singer. Best known for classic rock staples “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” and “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder),” the emotive singer has rocked generations of female vocalists. In this production, writer/director Randy Johnson explores Joplin’s female mentors with cameos from the spirits of Aretha Franklin, Odetta and Nina Simone, the iconic singers who inspired rock & roll’s greatest blues diva. Accomplished singer-songwriter and Joplin expert Mary Bridget Davies - star of the Broadway production and the soundtrack album - is currently on the road with the show. Calling from Kansas City, Davis spoke with INsite about channeling the rebel spirit of Janis Joplin.
You’ve been nominated for a Tony Award and the Sean Costello Rising Star Blues Award. As an actress and a music fan, both of those must be equally exciting for you.
Yeah, when I first started performing, [the late, Georgia-based] Sean Costello was it! When he passed away, I was heartbroken. Then when they started the Rising Star in his honor and I was nominated, I was like, “This is just ridiculous!” It was like a blues Tony to me.
A Night with Janis looks like a lot of work and a lot of fun at the same time.
I do it six nights a week I never get tired of it. There’s a different crowd every night and they give you different energy for each show. And this show brings people who don’t usually go to the theater, because it’s definitely a real rock show.
And you encourage the crowd to be a real rock and roll audience.
Definitely. We love it when you clap or sing along or get up and dance, it’s that energy that keeps us going! It takes me a while to unwind and come down after the show, because it’s just an adrenaline rush.
You’ve portrayed her in several productions but when did you first become aware of Janis Joplin?
My parents were baby boomers and they gave me a really good musical foundation at a young age. But by the time I was a teenager was when she really started resonating with me. You know, the awkward years of high school. I would sing along and I went, “Wow, I kinda sound like her, what a funny gift to have but when would I ever use that?” And now here’s the show! I really feel like I’ve been preparing for this role for my entire life.
Your previous show, “Love, Janis” was a very different version of the Joplin story.
Yeah, “Love, Janis” had two women that portrayed Janis, her outer and inner personalities. I was the stage persona and I did all the singing. It was more of a memoir and it was pretty dark. The other actress shot heroin on stage, there was a death scene and the actual audio of the coroner’s report played. We really went there. It was heavy. This show is a whole different vibe, it’s a celebration, a concert of the music and the women who came before her and influenced her. So you’ll see and hear actresses singing as Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Bessie Smith.
You’ve toured with Janis shows, sang with [Joplin’s former band] Big Brother and the Holding Company and were nominated for awards for your portrayal. Do you ever worry about being typecast as Janis?
No, I really believe that being on Broadway and recording my own material has solidified that I am an actor and a musician. There’s a difference there and I’m comfortable in it. I embrace it now. But if that’s how people know me - then great. But then they can check out my own music, too. [Davies excellent album Wanna Feel Somethin’ is available via CD Baby and Amazon.]
Since Janis is such a big part of your persona, do you ever feel like you’re somehow channeling her?
Absolutely! When I was 21, before I started singing in smoky bars, I drove with my sister and mother to Sedona, Arizona. It’s really hippy-dippy out there; power vortexes and psychics and all that. A real X-Files kind of town. They had this place where you could get a picture of your aura. My mom was really into that stuff, but I was like, “What?!” But we did and mine was orange. And that’s my favorite color. And there was this orb in the picture, this off-color kind of circle. And they guy said, “You have a spirit guide.” I was like, “Yeah, what is it, a wolf or something?” Just being a jerk. The guy was like, “No, it’s a woman, and she’s here. She did what you do.” I go, “Oh she went to college?” He was like, “No, will you please let me finish?”
You were just being a total skeptic to this guy.
Totally. Then he goes, “What do you think you’re going to do with your life? I’m getting something about performing or singing and that’s what she, your spirit guide, did. I see a lot of energy, and she’s here so you don’t make the mistakes she made.” But I didn’t really get it. It was a polaroid picture and when I got back home, I stuck it in a cookbook and forgot about it. Later when I was moving, it slipped out of the book. This was right before we were going to Broadway with A Night with Janis Joplin and I was packing to move to New York. I looked at it and just started weeping. I was like, “Oh my God, it’s you. It’s been you all the time!” So when I do the show, I do it for Janis. People come to see her, not me. I’m just the vehicle.
A Night with Janie Joplin will be held on April 17 at the Fox theatre. For morinformation, please visit foxtheatre.org.