As “A Night with Janis Joplin” opens at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Laura Joplin reflects on her older sister: “She was on her way. We just didn’t know where she was going.”
The thing to do, once you enter the theater, is forget.
Forget Janis Joplin’s death at just 27. Forget that it was a senseless drug overdose. And that she spent the last night of her life, alone, in a Hollywood hotel room.
“A Night with Janis Joplin,” at the 5th Avenue Theatre, will remind you of everything else that was good about the singer. Her joy at performing, the way she oozed the blues well beyond her years, and the bold legacy she left to other female singers.
‘A Night with Janis Joplin’
March 25-April 17, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., Seattle; $24-$141 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
It’s a legacy that is being maintained by Joplin’s sister, Laura, who was 21 when Janis died, and is happy to see her sister seemingly come alive again for those who once saw her perform, and those who never got the chance.
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“What you want to do is be moved,” Laura, now 67, said of those who come to the show, which runs from March 25 to April 17 and stars Kacee Clanton.
“You don’t want to be sitting straight in your chair,” Joplin continued. “Good singers have that ability. They put something of themselves into the music and it communicates. And Janis was very powerful at being able to turn on 50,000 people and getting them in sync with each other.”
It’s that quality that made her death so heartbreaking.
Joplin was found dead of a heroin overdose on Oct. 4, 1970. She was discovered at the side of the bed in her hotel room after she didn’t show up at Sunset Sound Recorders to work on her second solo studio album, “Pearl.”
“A Night with Janis Joplin” is the second play to recreate the blues/rock singer’s electrifying stage performance. The musical “Love, Janis” — based on Laura Joplin’s 1992 book of the same name — opened in Denver in 1994.
“I think I went to every performance for a month,” Laura Joplin said of that show. “It was so cathartic. It felt like she was there again, and the entire cast and crew becomes family.”
This production, more a bio-concert than a musical, opened on Broadway in 2013 and closed in April 2014, just before starting a second run Off-Broadway. The following week, star Mary Bridget Davies was nominated for a Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a musical.
Audiences, Laura Joplin said, seem happy to get lost in seeing someone match Joplin’s swinging vocals, her screeching, stomping and hair-whipping, and to hear songs like “Cry Baby” and “Piece of My Heart.”
“They quit evaluating whether or not they like it,” Laura said. “They are transfixed by it and are on the train of the show itself.”
Laura Joplin is a retired education consultant who lives in Chico, Calif. She volunteers and tends to her sister’s estate, collecting articles, photographs and memorabilia for use in exhibits.
In a recent phone interview, she spoke of her family’s days in Port Arthur, Texas, where they had no extended family — only each other.
“My parents were not from the area, so they were focused inward,” she said.
There were weekly visits to the library, and discussions about the books that had been checked out. The kids (Janis, Laura and their brother, Michael) were treated as equals at dinner-table conversations and debates.
“We were taught to be expressive at an early age,” Joplin said. “In many ways, Janis’ problems in high school were a result of that.”
When Janis went to school and said she supported racial integration and immigration, classmates retaliated. She was bullied and ostracized.
“She was used to expressing herself,” Laura said. “She wasn’t someone who backed down, and she was upset.”
Not long after, Janis headed to New Orleans with three male friends — all of them only interested in seeing music. The rumor mill went wild, and when they got into an accident and had to return home, boys threw pennies at Janis. The message: She was cheap.
To ease some of the family tension, Janis was sent to live with an aunt in California to finish high school. She returned to attend the University of Texas at Austin, and then went back to California to sing with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
“She was on her way,” Laura said. “She was, in many ways, a full-steam-ahead girl. We just didn’t know where she was going.”
Laura Joplin once saw her sister perform at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, during a family trip. Moby Grape let Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company have their set because Joplin’s parents were there.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Laura Joplin said. “Something that we had no knowledge of.”
Laura Joplin graduated from high school in 1967 and moved to Dallas in 1970, where she did her own “hippie thing.”
“When I moved to Dallas, I became much more part of that world,” she said. “That was when we got to go to shows and it was parties and acid parties and things like that.”
She grew out of it, and wishes that her sister had the chance to do the same so that they could be together now.
“Certainly there is a sadness, and at this point it’s not so much the weight of a heavy heart,” Laura said. “It’s the frustration of not being able to share life, the talks with a sister over a cup of coffee. I’ll never have that.”
Instead, she has something “very special and very wonderful”: her sister’s relationship with her public.
“They share with me the way she moved them. The ability, the gift she has to move people.”
She went quiet for a moment.
“But it’s not the same.”
The show — along with “Love, Janis” before it — has shown Laura Joplin that her sister’s music and sound are “still able to hook them in and move them to stand up and sing along.”
And which song might we find her singing to?
“ ‘Mercedes-Benz’,” Laura said of the a cappella song — the last one her sister recorded before her death.
“I like that song because I feel her sense of humor, and there’s that little laugh at the end.
“It’s just Janis, through and through.”