Mary Bridget Davies may be new to Broadway, but she's no rookie when it comes to Janis Joplin. Davies, a Cleveland-born blues singer, first leant the iconic Joplin rasp to her voice back in 2005 when she was cast in a touring production of the bio-musical Love, Janis. She later went on to travel with Joplin's very own band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and has performed at regional theaters across the country, channeling Janis in A Night With Janis Joplin. After over two years with the production, she prepares to make her Broadway debut as the late blues legend on September 20 at the Lyceum Theatre. Davies sat down with TheaterMania at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill where she told us about her life-long journey with Joplin, from her days as a rambunctious kid singing along to her mother's albums to a tear-filled phone call from a producer with the big Broadway news.
First question: How is your voice still alive after eight years of playing Janis Joplin?
It's a strange thing. I go to the ENT, and they look and they go, "No, you're still there, it's still there." I think it's just in the DNA. I'm very lucky.
Any vocal remedies you swear by?
It's all about prevention really. Stay ahead of it. You don't want to fix it. You always want to stay ahead if you feel a cold coming on. And really, that's the only time that I'm ever really vulnerable vocally. But you can't help it. Everybody gets sick. But the worst thing you can do is try to power through and be that good camper because now, instead of being out for a day or two, you're out for a week.
What was your first introduction to Janis Joplin?
Cheap Thrills…the album Cheap Thrills. I remember my mother playing it in the house all the time when I was little. And I remember screaming along to "Piece of My Heart" and loving it because I was a rambunctious little kid. (laughs) Who'da thought that a five-year-old jumping on a couch would be playing her on Broadway? I'm getting paid to jump on a couch! It's been…it's…I can't wait. It can't come soon enough. The waiting is the hardest part.
Do you have a favorite song to perform?
I do. "Maybe" is a tune that she recorded later in her career — like in the last year of her life — and it's really a soulful number. It really, when Janis sang it…not that she didn't put her all into every song, but that's one that's just all the way down to the soles of your feet. You really need to get all of that out when you sing it, so it's become my favorite. I always had an affinity for it as a fan, but now getting to sing it…it's my favorite one.
How do you recharge after such an exhausting performance?
Well, it's a nice hour, hour-and-a-half arc of adrenaline after the show, and then it's just lights-out. Which is great, because it's: Get home, take the dogs out, eat something, brush your teeth, take a shower, go to bed. (laughs) It's kind of funny because I have to work out in order to get ready to do the show because she's so physically involved. When I'm playing her, it's very athletic, so that's how I do it. It's like athletic training. That's how I keep in shape for it.
How many performances have you gotten used to doing every week?
So now you're adding on two more with the Broadway schedule. Is that intimidating?
Sure, absolutely. But it's worth it. When on my life schedule was I supposed to have this opportunity? So I'm just going to do whatever they need me to do for as long as I can. (laughs)
(laughs) I'm sure as a blues singer you never expected Broadway to be in your future.
It's crazy because growing up I was a dancer and in all the Stagecrafters programs, and I was an actor and I loved it, and I did straight scene study at Second City Conservatory and all that, and I was like, "I'm an actor!" And then I was like, "But I want to sing!" So it was just so strange that the actor in me and the blues singer in me got to parlay that into a show where I could do both. [It was] very lucky….Serendipitous. (laughs)
Do you find yourself continuing to discover things about Janis after all these years?
Yeah, absolutely. And with the Joplins and the estate — they uncover more and more of her letters and her writings and you just get more of an insight into who she was as a person. That always helps me onstage to give that to the people, and it's nice to be able to show them, while playing her, that she was a vulnerable person [and] that she was an intelligent girl. She wasn't just that tableau that everybody thinks of [or] this wild, crazy girl that was just gone in an instant. There was a lot more to her.
How has it been having access to Janis' two siblings throughout this process?
It's great. They treat us like family, they're non-intrusive. You know, they don't come at us like, "Well, she wouldn't move her hand that way!" Nothing like that. And they're nice to me after the show and say, "Good job," and I'm thrilled (laughs) — because it's intimidating to have them there.
What was your first reaction when you found out the show was coming to Broadway?
How did you find out?
Our producers. It was a phone call, and I was like, "Nuh-uh. Come on." I literally had that pause and was like, "No way," and they were like, "Nope, it's real. We're doin' it." And then of course…AHHH!!! Tears and screaming and I'm like, "I gotta call my mom!" That's the first thing, you know, it's always "I gotta call my mom." (laughs) And I did…but we couldn't tell that day. We had to wait a day because they were doing the public announcement the next day and my mom's like, "I'm going crazy! I want to tell your aunts! I want to tell everyone!" and I'm like, "If you blow this…You're going to get me in trouble!" (laughs) As soon as that press release hit she was on the phone with everyone — making the hometown rounds.
Check out a video of Davies in action singing the Joplin classic "Piece of My Heart":