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From eschewing pop music in her teens to the grit in her voice, Mary Bridget Davies was born for this role

Checking in with Broadway’s Janis Joplin

From eschewing pop music in her teens to the grit in her voice, Mary Bridget Davies was born for this role

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Cleveland, Ohio native Mary Bridget Davies was literally moving into her first New York City apartment when she stopped to take a call from DuJour. The singer was relocating with just weeks to spare before her big September 20th Broadway debut—and she’s no chorus girl. Davies is starring in A Night With Janis Joplin, a musical featuring songs of the late iconic singer including “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime.”

In between unpacking boxes, Davies talked with us about landing the role, sounding like Janis and what happens when a fan expects the real Ms. Joplin.

Left: Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin; right: Janis Joplin in 1970

You’ve got something of a history of doing Janis as it were. How did this come about?

I always liked pop music, like The New Kids On the Block and Paula Abdul, but my parents were like, “You’re going to turn that crap off and listen to real music!” It was real rock ‘n’ roll, like The Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and all of this. I’m the only one [in my family] who does this professionally, but they sing and dance—it must be the Irish in you or something.

Once I was a teenager and actually listening to the words in these songs—and being an angst girl—I was like, Wow, this Janis Joplin, she knows what she’s talking about. I became a super fan, started singing along—and I could do it. I mean, as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at controlling my voice, but I was able to capture that Janis thing. I sent a shot-in-the-dark email to Sam Andrews from Big Brother and the Holding Company—he was playing in town with Big Brother not far away from Cleveland—I said, “I’m coming to your show and I’d love to meet you guys.”

And that worked?

They were so gracious and loved me! I did their production tour in the summer of 2008. I went and auditioned: It was 150 girls at a cattle call, and that’s how I got my equity card. That’s how I started with Janis’ journey on stage. Then I was in It Ain’t Nothing But The Blues.

In the spring of 2011, I was offered the role in A Night With Janis, but I was on a roll with my own band so I passed it up. When it came about that they were going to be auditioning again last summer, I was like, How many times can lightning strike? Rarely twice! I got the alternate understudy role.

But now you’re the lead.

They made it very clear to me, you know, “You’re going to do it once a week and any time the other girl needs you to cover for her, and you’re here to be a backup singer.” So I said, “Absolutely.” Thinking the whole time, one of these days I’ll get it. By the third preview, I went on and the role was mine ever since.

What do you think it is about Janis that’s enduring over the years?

Her career was three and a half years; she was famous for two and a half. It’s crazy, because you think that she was around forever. This woman came to see us at the Pasadena Playhouse. She came out at intermission and she said, “I want my ticket back. I came to see Janis Joplin.” They were like, “Excuse me?” She said, “It says A Night with Janis Joplin and who is this lady? She’s fantastic, but she’s not Janis.”

So, Janis has that thing where you think she was famous forever. She was the Queen of Rock and Roll. She was just so unique and so strong, and as a woman, that was pretty new. She really is kind of like the patron saint of misfits.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin

And she has that Southern-Comfort-and-Cigarettes voice. How do you as a professional singer pull that off?

The tough part is doing eight shows a week! Because when you’re in it and you have her costume on, you’re saying her words, you don’t want to hold back because she wouldn’t’ have—but she did like two or three shows a week for 45 minutes, not two and a half hour shows, eight times a week, a couple times a day. Doing those vocals that she’s famous for is much easier for me, just because I’ve listened to them and they’re engrained in me. I’ve found an ability to turn that grit on in my voice.

Having worked around this character for so long, what are you favorite things about her?

One of the greatest things about her is that she was real. She was a painter, a writer, she had so many talents, and I get a little bit defensive sometimes when people are like, “Oh yeah, Janis, she was just that drunk!” That tableau of her that she was just this drunken asshole that, shot up every day… Did she do those things? Yes! I’m not trying to say she didn’t. But people have really dumbed her down.

Of course, hearing stories from her friends and family, things that haven’t been published, no one would know except the guys that were on the bus with her during that tour. I’ve gotten to meet those guys and hear those stories and a few have come to see the show. They love it and are like, “Oh, she would have gotten a kick out of that!”

 

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