Late night talk show host Dick Cavett did some of the most insightful interviews with some of the biggest rock stars in music history. Cavett, whose initial late night show was launched on ABC in 1969, became the go-to interviewer for a who’s who of legendary rock performers.
One of the biggest stars to grace Cavett’s stage was Janis Joplin, a young woman from Port Arthur, Texas. Joplin was a performer with so much passion and fire, when she made a visit to Cavett’s show, it caused him to quip, “We have extra stagehands to hold the roof down.”
The roof at San Jose Repertory Theatre will be thoroughly tested for the rest of September, as the music of the iconic rock star will take up residence downtown, giving audiences a taste of history. “One Night With Janis Joplin,” opening Sept. 5th, kicks off the Rep’s 2013-2014 season.
While there is much fascination with every aspect of Joplin’s life and untimely death from a heroin overdose in 1970 at the age of 27, this show focuses squarely on what Joplin’s legacy is defined by – her music.
Iconic tunes such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Crybaby” and “Me and Bobby McGee” have been placed squarely in the hands of actor/singer Kacee Clanton, who has carved out a stellar vocal career since she began singing at the age of five. Among other projects, she played Joplin in an off-Broadway production of “Love, Janis” and as a backup singer, toured with Joe Cocker and Luis Miguel.
Performing the show in San Jose is a homecoming of sorts for Clanton. She’s a Northern California native who grew up in Placerville, attended University of the Pacific in Stockton and her parents called Morgan Hill home for the better part of ten years.
Clanton knew enough about Joplin over the years, yet didn’t necessarily grow up as a fan. She also didn’t exactly see a future playing the legend until she delved further into Joplin’s musical influences.
“I didn’t see a resemblance at first, I didn’t get that until I realized we studied the same artists,” said Clanton. “ We both studied Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Etta James. That’s what Janis and I share. I think we both learned to sing from the same place.”
That place Clanton refers to is the soul. Joplin’s energy level on a stage was second to none, often finishing a song while gasping for breath. To see Joplin perform is to see a woman at the height of artistic commitment, met with pure, unadulterated love from her adoring fans.
Joplin’s brother Michael has vivid memories of seeing his sister perform. Only 17 when she passed, Michael recalls seeing her play San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom. And while he certainly enjoyed the experience of witnessing big sister on stage, Michael was awestruck by the sublime synergy that existed between Janis and the audience, a key part of this production.
“Sincerity and honesty is 80 percent of it,” said Michael. “When someone is telling you the absolute truth, you know it, and it’s a rare thing in the world.
“Janis was in the right place at the right time, someone who was for women speaking her mind and not wearing girdles and matching outfits. She has resonated throughout the decades.”
When it comes to creating that sincerity and honesty, Clanton has to do a whole lot more than simply show up a few hours before curtain time and warm up her voice. On show days, she will spend 22 hours not saying a word in order to recreate that Janis magic for those other two hours. The show is grueling, featuring approximately 20 songs and 30 monologues.
“I’m obsessed with taking care of my voice,” said Clanton. “I live like a nun so I can go out for those two hours and blast.”
And very early on, she learned that singing is only one piece of a larger puzzle.
“Forty percent of the show I’m panting for air, and I’m going 110 miles an hour from the second I go on stage,” said Clanton. “I told (director Randy Johnson) at one point, I need to catch my breath, and he said no, keep going, this is the way it is.
“A lot of theatre is contrived, and that works in certain circumstances, but it won’t work for her. If you’re out of breath, you just gasp. “
Clanton certainly has put herself through the wringer, immersing herself in the role. She admits that now, when she is gasping for air, it just strengthens her connection to the audience and to her character.
“It’s a lot more real to the audience,” said Clanton. “Now that I trust that, it works so well in the show.
“At the end of the show, I am virtually exhausted. I’ve gone out and given every ounce I had. I’ve cracked my mouth on the microphone, my lips are bleeding, and I’m sweating. It just becomes me, and it is so Janis.”
One thing that makes the performance so authentic is that it is not an impersonation of Joplin. That was something Michael made sure of, and something he sees in Clanton.
“Our goal was never to recreate Janis, we didn’t want to do a mimicry,” said Michael. “We needed someone who can create the honesty and sincerity of the music, and to find that combo with someone who can sing well was difficult. Kacee has been able to bring that honesty and sincerity.”
Clanton is positively giddy about the next place this show will take her. Previews for the Broadway run begin on Sept. 20th with an opening on Oct. 10th. A recent announcement has Clanton making her Broadway debut at the conclusion of the San Jose run, playing Janis twice a week.
For Clanton, the ability to showcase such a groundbreaking artist is very personal.
Janis Joplin being interviewed by Dick Cavett
“She would love this show,” said Clanton. “The show is so much about her music. She was not about her music and about her booze. She was about her music.
“Janis came up earlier when it was more difficult as a white woman singing blues. It’s an amazing progression. We are now in a world where women are all over the recording industry. Freedom is what Janis fought for, and it’s the reason I’m able to do what I do and make a living.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with ZACH Theatre of Austin Texas, presents “One Night With Janis Joplin”
Created, written and directed by Randy Johnson
Starring Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin
Sept. 5th – Oct. 6th
Tickets range from $28 – $79
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA 95113
For tickets, call (408) 367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com