Cathy Richardson, a 30-something Chicago native who stars in the off-Broadway musical Love, Janis, reveals that there is an unexpected irony to playing one of the wildest women in the history of rock and roll. “I have to live like a nun to do it,” she says, laughing. “I can’t go out late or be in smoky bars because I would totally lose my voice.”
As it is, singing Janis Joplin’s greatest hits in her signature raspy howl is so taxing, Richardson shares the eight-shows-a-week role with Andra Mitrovich. Yet another performer, Catherine Curtin, does the speaking part of Joplin (Yes. it takes three women to do Janis justice!) in the unconventionally structured show, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being more dedicated to the role than Richardson. Last year, she and her girlfriend of eight years, Sheri Scaro, even made a pilgrimage to the places Joplin lived, including her hometown of Port Arthur, Tex., which she describes as “a ghost town with a sad little Janis Joplin museum and one old lady running it. No wonder Janis had to get out–eventually, everyone did.”
Richardson, who has been playing Chicago bars with her popular namesake band for almost a decade, first was cast as Joplin in the Chicago production of Love, Janis in 1999. Before that, she says, she was a fan of Joplin’s music but didn’t know much about her life. As she I delved into the role, she found she identified deeply with Joplin’s feelings of being an adolescent outcast.
“When I look back on my teenage years, when I was drunken and suicidal, I realize now that I was struggling with my sexuality,” says Richardson. “But not only did I have my music [like Joplin], I got to go to rehab, which was an option Janis never had. Back then, if you were a junkie, you were institutionalized or sent to jail.” Richardson wonders if Joplin’s issues with her sexuality also were a source of her misery. “Back then, people thought you had mental problems if you were gay. I can’t say whether or not Janis was a lesbian, but I seriously have to wonder.”
The audience will wonder too, because you won’t find any insight to the icon’s well-documented bisexuality in Love, Janis, which is based on the book by Joplin’s little sister, Laura Joplin, who was inspired to write the biography after finding a box of letters the superstar had written their mother. Richardson defends the show: “Well, if most of us were writing home, there wouldn’t be details about orgies and shooting up. Besides, the story about her wild times has been told. In this show, her family wanted to show another side to Janis–that she was also very literate, intelligent, ambitious, funny, and hardworking. She wasn’t all trailer bitch–she was somebody’s daughter.’
Love, Janis, which took almost four years to make it off-Broadway, may only be at the Village Theater through Labor Day, but Richardson, who recently released a four-song EP called Buzzzed with her band, is pleased to have been a part of bringing Joplin’s legacy to theatergoers. “Janis had a very short career–basically, three albums. But 30 years after her death, her influence is still enormous. So I feel like it’s more than a role it’s an honor and a responsibility to resurrect her each night onstage.