BWW Interviews: Debut of the Month - A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN's Mary Bridget Davies
Two extraordinary things are going down at Broadway's Lyceum Theater. The first is a trip back in time, to the late 1960's, where the unmistakable, guttural voice of legendary singer Janis Joplin is once again heard echoing throughout the concert hall, combining that distinctive blend of hard core rock 'n roll with the rich, soulful sound of the blues. The second is the pleasure of watching the exceptional talent that is Mary Bridget Davies, the 34-year-old Cleveland-born blues singer who channels the spirit of Joplin as she makes her Broadway debut in A Night With Janis Joplin.
Written and directed by Randy Johnson, the show, which officially opened on October 10th, is a musical journey celebrating Janis and her biggest musical influences - icons like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, who inspired one of rock & roll's greatest legends.
Today, Mary Bridges Davies speaks exclusively to BroadwayWorld about her love of the blues, her Broadway debut and why playing the role of Janis Joplin may have been her destiny.
I have to start by asking you about your admiration for Janis Joplin which really began back in your childhood. I understand you once even dressed up as her for Halloween!
So, what was it about her that resonated so deeply with you at that young age?
Well, when I listened to her, I was astonished at the amount of emotional capacity that she had, because I mean people can sing and can have really nice voices, but just how she threw herself on the gauntlet of her emotions, that just killed me, like how do you do that, where do you tap in to that? And I always felt like, 'I want to do that! That seems like it feels really good.'
And I started singing and you know, my normal singing voice is much more pure but I love turning on that rasp and that wail and that grit, it's a great release. And when I started singing I realized that I kind of had that thing as well. And of course as soon as you're a female with a strong singing voice, singing the blues with your own own blues band, that's when people start to say, 'Do you sing any Janis Joplin?' Because everyone wants to hear it, so I started doing it.
Have I honed it over the years? Absolutely! But I always had that desire to do it in the first place.
It's an amazing story. In fact, during the show, it seemed like some people in the audience almost forgot that they were not watching Janis Joplin. Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility playing such a legendary artist?
Absolutely, and that's exactly what it is, it's a huge responsibility. She was a real life person, so people can go back and look at videos, or maybe they even saw her live in concert. She existed - and as tall as the tale of who she was on stage may be, she was a real person at the end of the day, and that is huge. And to have people say after a show, 'I saw Janis in 1966 at the Alexandria Roller Rink with Big Brother and I forgot what that was like until I saw you,' it's like a validation that you are really doing your job right .
And it just so happens that Janis changed people's lives and I think that's what makes it even more of a responsibility, that for some people who are alive now, that was their childhood and that's what resonates with them and the climate of social change in our country at that time. Janis wasn't a politically motivated woman necessarily but she played a critical role in that whole thing, so yeah it's a huge responsibility for sure.
One of the things that I found fascinating to learn through the show was that Janis was really very lonely, despite being constantly surrounded by adoring fans. Do you think it was that loneliness that ultimately led to her downfall?
Oh sure. When you're a road musician your life is wake up, go to the next town, do a sound check, eat dinner, do some partying, do your show, party till you pass out, repeat. repeat, repeat. It's just that thing with loneliness - yes she was surrounded by fans every night but there's a difference between someone in your personal life that sits you down and goes, 'you know what, you need to knock it off' and a fan that just idolizes you and you can do no wrong. She was always surrounded by people who thought she was supernatural, so there was no way she was going to mess it up. But those people loved her for that one night, because of who she was on the stage. They didn't love her, they loved that version of her. And so it was a very lonely thing.
There was a nice upswing in her personal life right before she passed and I think that it was an honest to goodness accident that she died. She had met a nice, normal guy. They met in Rio at Carnival and he didn't even know who Janis Joplin was. You know I guess he was an American that was out traveling the world and she really had only been famous for like two years at that point so he had no idea who she was and she was just fascinated by that because she did have that loneliness. I think in one of her letters to her mother at the time she wrote, "He said he wanted to come back and marry me and I thought I'd die because I think he meant it!"
And the loneliness was there from the beginning because she was always a little bit different in her ideas and in her soul growing up in basically suburban, middle class southeast Texas. Not that there wasn't room for creativity, but not for the capacity that Janis had, so she was destined to be lonely, like a lot of great people. It's a sacrifice, either it's your art or your happiness. So yeah, loneliness was really a cornerstone of her personality.
I think it's important to note that this is not a tribute show. It's really a show that explains why Janis became who she was.
You know, in this new era of entertainment, and overnight success and with shows like American Idol where someone sings a Janis Joplin song and everyone's like ,'Oh, she sounds just like her' - that's not what it's about. It's not about putting on rose-colored glasses and feathers and going out there and singing karaoke. Recently a journalist told me, "You know I usually get mad when there's a concert masked as theater, but this is real, it pulled it off, there is a pay off as a theater-goer, it's not just, 'Hey there's a chick up there doing a 90-minute Janis set' There's much more to it."
And it isn't an impersonation. With an impersonation I think, you're a mockingbird and this is, personally for me as an actor, my job to embody her and bring her back to life as best that I can and to tell her story. And it's meant a lot more than a 5:30, 7:30 and 9:30 show on a Carnival cruise line!
That is for sure! I know that Janis' brother and sister have been very involved wih the show. What has it been like working with them?
Her brother and sister have been very gracious with me and loving and sweet. There were many, many girls who came out to do the role but they had that tribute-y angle and I was just this goofy, middle class white girl who loves blues music like their sister was and it just so happens that that's who she was off stage too.
So really, it seems like it was almost your destiny to get the role.
Well exactly! And growing up I did competitive dance and I was in stage craft and acting and I was doing improv, I studied at Second City in Cleveland and then I started singing in a band, so it's like all those different parts of my performing self have parlayed themselves into this role. It's like I've accidentally been prepping for it for a long time. And now that I'm here, it's crazy and I hope that I'm here for a long time.
Can you share what it was like to make your Broadway debut?
A blur - it was just an absolute blur. It was like, 'Hey you gotta get a dress this week and you have 3,000 interviews, and then we have another rehearsal and then, 'You know what? We're still in previews, let's change this' just a couple of days before the show.
My family came to town and we were all just totally excited and it was like as soon as the curtain came up it was down and I was in my dressing room getting my hair blown out and putting my dress on all pretty and then I got home by like midnight and I looked at my family and I was like, 'Well that was fun. I'm going to bed!'But the way the show starts, those panels open and it was the perfect, perfect mix of that complete feeling of ecstasy, satisfaction that my hard work had paid off, just a thrill to know that officially from this second of my life on I can say that I debuted a Broadway show, I starred in a Broadway show. And also crippling terror - just like, 'Oh my God, I can't leave the stage now!'
So yeah, when the show opened I just came flying down those stairs, and my family was in the front row of the Mezzanine losing their minds, and I was like, 'We did it." Because ever since I was a kid, my parents let me stay up and watch 'Saturday Night Live' and then 'Showtime at the Apollo' with those girls, with the feathers, it was like the glamour of show business has always been like a brass ring of mine. So having actually achieved it and having my family all being able to be there was really everything!
About Mary Bridget Davies:
After touring the country with One Night With Janis Joplin, Mary Bridges Davies received recognition including Best Actress by the Cleveland Critic's Circle, a 2013 Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Resident Musical at Arena Stage and a BroadwayWorld nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
Other credits include It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Anything Goes (Reno Sweeney), the national tour of Love, Janis, and a member of Something Dada Improvisational Comedy Co. Davies has also received numerous awards for her voice and band. Most recently her new album was nominated for a 2013 Blues Music Award for Best New Artist Debut.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Photo credit: Walter McBride