Catching Up With Tony Nominee Mary Bridget Davies as She Reunites With Janis Joplin
Pasadena Playhouse revives A Night With Janis Joplin — and two years after Broadway, its star is several fans richer and one watermelon poorer.
Looking back on the 2014 Tony nominees for Beast Leading Actress in a Musical, you'll see that one of these things is not like the others. The list is a parade of Broadway mainstays: Tony winner Idina Menzel, two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster, then five time nominee Kelli O'Hara, and previous nominee (and that season's winner) Jessie Mueller. And then there's Mary Bridget Davies — a hard-rocking blues singer from Cleveland, Ohio who celebrated her Broadway debut in the fantasy rock concert A Night With Janis Joplin.
Now with the illustrious stamp of "Tony nominee" attached to her name, Davies is returning to Pasadena Playhouse through August 16 for a summer stint with the Queen of Rock. "They could have said 'on the seventh layer of hell' and I'd have been like, 'Yes!' because I missed the show," joked Davies with the same bluesy grit and unjaded eagerness she brought to the Great White Way nearly two years ago. "And then they said 'at Pasadena Playhouse,' which is where it got on its feet for Broadway… It's been like a Wet Hot American Summer reunion."
After finishing her Broadway run with Janis in February 2014, Davies resumed her life as a singer-songwriter on the rock/blues circuit with new doors opened wide for the freshly christened Broadway star. "It's the same people you wanted to work with eight months before and now they're calling you," she marveled before rehearsal in Pasadena, chatting with TheaterMania about life since (as well as a few bleary memories of) her Tony whirlwind. "I'm different as an independent artist, and I'm OK with that. I'm not trying to be Janis twenty-four-seven," she explained. "But if you keep doing the show and I'm available — it's so much fun."
What was your reaction when you got the call to come back to A Night With Janis Joplin at Pasadena Playhouse?
It was perfect timing because I'm working on a new album. I was in Nashville and I was like, "Jeez, I only have a few festivals this summer. Man, I miss the show. Wouldn't it be great to do it?" And then the phone rang and it was, "Hey are you going to be around for a short run this summer?" The pressure is off — this is just going to be a celebration of the show. We were going to do an off-Broadway [run] and it got yanked at the last minute, so this is filling that void in my soul where I was prepping to do the show again and then didn't. So it's satisfying that part for me.
What is it you miss about the show when you're away from it? Do you ever find it challenging to keep the role fresh for yourself?
It's so real. And being my own Janis Joplin — a woman who fronts her own band and writes her own music — Janis' story is so familiar. To be able to tip your hat to one of the pioneers of your industry — that's an honor. But the show is so much fun. Janis lived and performed on such a grand scale that it's uncomfortable for some people to watch. But when they know it's Janis they're OK with it. So I can go out there and be as explosive and out of my mind and over the top and people are like, "Yes, more, more, more!" Whereas perhaps if I were to do that in a polite club somewhere they'd be like, "This chick is crazy." So it gives you that opportunity to really just drop the hammer and go. It's like a combination of church and therapy, [and] just a lovely giant Janis Snuggie. There was a moment where I thought, "I don't want to be known as the Janis girl." Now I'm proud to be the Janis girl. I got a Tony nomination for being the Janis girl. That's something to be proud of. So as long as I can do it here and there, I'd love to.
Of all of your performances as Janis, are there any particular shows that stand out in your mind?
They had a bunch of teenagers come to the show on a class field trip and I was like, "This is gonna go one of two ways. They're gonna love it or they're gonna hate it." They wound up absolutely loving it. And at the end during "Mercedes Benz," they were up and out of their seats and dancing in the aisles and singing along with me and I was like, "Oh God, thank you." And not thank you for me or us or the show but thank you that people still care about art and music. These kids are gonna go home and they're gonna Google Janis or Nina Simone and maybe they'll write a new song that changes the world. I got emotional. It's like, "Yay, it's not all about Halo!" — which I'm sure they all went home and played too.
How does it feel returning to the show as "Tony Award nominee" Mary Bridget Davies?
I don't even think of myself that way. I was talking to my personal trainer (because of course as soon as we closed the show, I tore my meniscus and couldn't move for six months) and she was, "That's right, you were nominated for a Tony!" And I was showing her pictures and it's literally Clive Davis talking to me backstage, and Neil Diamond, and me and Hugh Jackman and I'm like, "Whoaaa, that is pretty cool!" [I'm not] like Stuart Smally from SNL: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonne it, people like me!" I don't do that to myself everyday, like, "You're a Tony nominee!" No, I'm Mary Bridget Davies, I'm a dork, whatever, it's cool. But when I was looking at those photos I embraced it. Coming back to Pasadena was just me coming back to see my friends and do a show. But I suppose there's more weight to it now. But that doesn't affect me because I approach the show the same.
Did you feel like an outsider when you first came to Broadway?
At the Broadway Flea Market last fall, we had done two previews. So everyone is bringing tons of merch and swag for everyone to sign and looking at me and blinking kind of blindly. [There was] Celia [Keenan-Bolger], [Laura] Benanti, Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell, Bernadette Peters, me, and Cherry Jones. It was the cool after-hours party and I'm Baby [from Dirty Dancing] who just snuck in with the bar-back and carried the watermelon. That's how I felt about Broadway. And then a year later I'm getting to judge the Gypsy Awards and I'm part of the family. But just that first moment I was like, "This is just abstract." It was very cool.
Has your success on Broadway impacted your life as an independent artist?
Yeah, lots of crossover fans and lots of new next-level opportunities that were not readily available for me when I moved to New York City. Post-Tonys it just kind of put me on a playing field that I've looked up to and admired. All of a sudden the calls started coming to me instead of me cold-calling. They're like, "So I wrote this song and I have you in mind and I was wondering if you wanted to collaborate." And you're just like, ten backflips. It's like you're finally being recognized for what you've worked your whole life to do. It's nice not carrying the watermelon anymore.