I’ve got a long-standing rule when it comes to theatre: I try not to see jukebox musicals. First of all, I think they’re lazy: it’s like watching musical theatre karaoke, or perhaps more like a concert for people who are too old to go to concerts anymore. (Sorry for the ageist joke, but there’s a reason why, with the exception of Green Day’s American Idiot, most jukebox musicals appeal to the baby boomers.) The other reason is that when you randomly stuff popular songs into a narrative, the result is rarely strong, whether the songs form a biographical tale or, in the case of Mamma Mia!, a nonsensical musical backdrop for the insane goings-on depicted on stage. A new musical, which opened last week, suffers from the same failings, although A Night With Janis Joplin is more than just a bad jukebox musical: it’s an uncomfortably irrelevant celebration of the titular blues singer.
A Night With Janis Joplin has a fairly loose conceit: you’re watching Janis Joplin perform in concert. While that should be a 90-minute affair, tops, with star Mary Bridget Davies proving she has the vocal chops to rip into Joplin’s musical catalog with a ferocious wail, it’s unfortunately stretched into a two-hour-plus musical. In between the familiar songs, book writer and director Randy Johnson supplies us with a few handfuls of monologues which all give us a variation of the same very week theme: “This is the blues, man.” Despite Broadway Janis admitting early in the show that she’s just some white chick singing blues music, this tame, watered-down version of Janis Joplin’s life (as encapsulated in a too-long concert performance) still lacks any self-awareness about the racial implications of Joplin’s very successful repackaging of music first popularized by African-American musicians.
The troubling parts of the show deal with the ensemble cast, made up of four African-American vocalists (one of whom, De’Adre Aziza, has a Tony nomination under her belt, which might give you an idea of the difficulties black women have finding solid roles on Broadway). At times, they play the Joplinaires, or famous blues singers like Odetta, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and members of the girl-group The Chantels. Two of the actresses also play anonymous characters called — I’m not joking — “Blues Woman” and “Blues Singer”; ironically, these performers deliver two of the show’s most electric and enthusiastic numbers. In between Joplin’s monologues are moments wherein the famous performers sing the songs they made popular (and that Joplin later covered); in two scenes, Joplin comes out and performs with a ghostly Nina Simone on “Little Girl Blue,” and invites Aretha Franklin to share the stage for the Act One closing number, which was particularly generous of her, don’t you think?
Never mind that it doesn’t really matter whether Joplin ever performed with either vocalist — this is, despite the title, a very fictionalized portrayal of the singer. Sure, it uses her name — unlike The Rose, a film that earned Bette Midler a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, which famously had to scrap its planned biopic treatment when the producers couldn’t obtain the rights to Joplin’s story. (That fact was parodied on 30 Rock, when Jenna Maroney’s plan to star as Joplin in a biopic turned into her playing a thinly veiled character named Jackie Jormp-Jomp.) But it’s not surprising that A Night With Janis Joplin, which hilariously glosses over the singer’s drug and alcohol abuse — and, naturally, her death at age 27 from a heroin overdose — was “produced in association” with Joplin’s estate and its manager, Jeffrey Jampol. It’s one thing to focus on a performer’s music with the sensibility that the artistry is more important than the personal life, but A Night With Janis Joplin fails so remarkably in its attempt to teach a lesson about the blues — by way of a white female vocalist — while completely avoiding any sense that Joplin suffered at all. It’s not just ridiculous to sweep Joplin’s troubles under the proverbial rug (she does, once, take a quick sip from a bottle of whiskey); it also affirms that a white woman with an amazing voice achieved fame by appropriating the music of African-American women without truly dramatizing the ramifications of such.
But one should probably not expect a musical of this genre to avoid becoming a fawning remembrance of its very popular subject, whose short career and early death have resulted in a personality cult that is, in the end, profitable. Of the four of us who saw the show last week — two critics and their plus-ones — none expected to enjoy it. It’s a jukebox musical about Janis Joplin, starring a woman who does a very good Janis Joplin impression, after all. Leaving the theater, we agreed that the music was good, but the production, as a whole, was a mess — it didn’t seem true or honest, and it lacked the grit and excitement that the real Janis Joplin exuded so often in her performances. That’s what you get when a show, and its star, simply imitates rather than invokes (and why A Night With Janis Joplin pales in comparison to The Rose, and probably wouldn’t be as entertaining as a Jackie Jormp-Jomp musical).
But the crowd enjoyed it, and the audience members in the first few rows were on their feet several times during the show; a few women enthusiastically flashed peace signs and pumped their fists along with Broadway Janis. And perhaps that’s, at its heart, what sets the show apart from the rest of Broadway: it is, like other shows of its ilk, musical theatre for people who don’t like musical theatre, but who want to recapture the nostalgic sense of the performer it celebrates without any of the complications of her real life.