Thursday, April 10, 2014


The Arena Stage is home again to a Randy Johnson directed rock'n'roll musical. He dazzled DC audiences during two runs of "One Night with Janis Joplin" in recent years before that show moved on to Broadway. This time around it is "Smokey Joe's Cafe" which is a celebration of the songs of Leiber and Stoller, who wrote some of the most memorable rock'n'roll songs in history. I have little doubt that it will be any less enjoyable than the Joplin musical was and this is yet another opportunity for me to explore my twin loves of rock music and theater. It is a crossover that works, especially when a major talent like Randy Johnson is there to stage it. I was fortunate enough to have some time with him this past Thursday April 3rd and here is what we talked about. Oh, and the play runs from April 25th through June 8th. Tickets available through the Arena Stage Box Office.


David Hintz - Thanks for calling in . I have been reading up on your history and I see you cover a lot of ground both in country music and rock music in the plays you write and direct. Did you ever consider a career in music?

Randy Johnson - No, I grew up listening to everything. My parents loved music. The first album I ever heard was a Dave Brubeck album when I was five years old. The second album was a Janis Joplin. They spent a lot of time in Vegas and they would take me as a child to see  Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis… my godparents were Louis Prima and Keely Smith and so I just grew up on music. But I really loved theater really early on, since I can remember. But I as I grew, I found that music really was theater. I grew up in the college of traditional musical form which certainly gave me a base to work from, but as my career developed, I really understood the form of rock'n'roll theater, and whether it is country, blues, rock, or whatever genre you are in, as theater artists you just have to work with what you identify with.

DH - Right.

RJ - And then I moved in to directing concerts, a lot of national concerts. I am looking to do what I love and live a world that I love.

DH - Was it early on when you started directing concerts or did you get your start more in traditional theater?

RJ - After graduating from college, I started as a producer. The first play I produced was 'The Normal Heart' with Richard Drefuss and Kathy Bates and then I got an offer to go to a regional theater to work as a director. The first thing I did was "Leader of the Pack" which was a sixties rock'n'roll musical and I loved everything about it. I loved the music, I loved the rhythm, the costumes, the era, and so for the next two years I developed my directorial skill by doing rockn'roll theater. I did Beehives, Rocky Horror Show… I did three productions of Rocky Horror… A fifties review, I think I've explored most forms of rock'n'roll theater and have formed my base there for a while.

DH - OK.

RJ - And it was during that time that 'Always-Patsy Cline' was born--we were doing a summer season and a classic play was booked in for the summer and nobody was coming. There was a Patsy Cline book on the table and I said to the author why don't we do a show about her and two weeks later we had created it. You know that show went to theater history and the time when I was producing it, it was the most produced play in America.

DH - Great, so you were the early force for that play. It is interesting that you started at a producer. Did you have a specific goal of doing production, direction or writing?

RJ - No, I just went where the universe called--as opportunities called, I took them. I am glad I had the opportunity to start as a producer because you can't do what I do if you don't understand the function of everybody around you. So by being a producer and learning the job as producer--no one teaches you the job of producer, there is no theater school for producing. I learned about the framework that I could develop my own theater for my work as a writer/director, so that I could understand what the parameters are. Some shows you write with the idea that it has to be affordable. So if you had asked me fifteen years ago would I be a writer/director on Broadway, I would have said NO, it has just been where it has led. It's been amazing.

DH - Yes, and do you find… I guess the classic cliche is that in movies, the Director is king while in theater, the Producer is king, which is probably exaggerated. But as a writer, is it important to be involved in two areas to keep some control or has the collaboration been easy over the years.

RJ - Of all the shows I've written, I've also directed. It is all about a complete vision for me. Once an idea bakes in my head, then I can take it to the stage. That's my process.  I write it to direct it and I've been fortunate enough to have very generous and supportive producers along the way. They have supported my vision--with 'Janis' they supported my vision from day one. You know, every producer has a right to offer their opinions and sometimes that third party vision is a help when you can take or leave their ideas, but if you are open to it you might find some magic moment you haven't thought of. So it is good to have a healthy relationship with your producer and actually with every member of your team and especially with your musical director and choreographer, because at the end of the day it is a single vision being effectuated by a a lot of people.

DH - Right. Now with Smokey Joe's Cafe', that came into theaters a little under 20 years ago, so is this a new approach to it or more where the time is right to expose it to another generation?

FJ - You know, I think the time is right to expose it to a whole new generation. I am certainly not doing what others have done. I believe when you get hold of a piece of theater that has been created before that it was created before--I mean to recreate what they did is not fair to me, to them, or to the work.

DH - Good.

FJ - I think all of us directors are visual artists and my interpretation of some of these songs will be different than someone else's interpretation. You live with the music, you find out what it means to you, you figure out what it should look like, you work with your team, and you bring it to life. Yes, it is my vision, but it is a collaborative effort and I love this music.

DH - Now how do you cast this play. Do you get the band first and do auditions go in a structured way with clear parts for each singer with multiple performances?

FJ - You find the cast first and I always like in everything I do look for the magic in each person, look for their essence and then figure out who is right for what. I would say 2/3 of my cast are local DC artists. Extraordinary talent. Two of them are from Chicago, E. Faye Butler who is a regular of the DC theater scene and Levi Kreis who is a Tony award winner for 'Million Dollar Quartet' , who lives in New York and Chicago. We're having a blast doing this together.

DH - Were there any unusual casting moves that surprised you?

FJ - No, what surprised me was that our audition here in DC at Arena Stage and our casting director did such a good job of picking people that with the twenty people that came, the first nine all got the part that they tried for. We cast it a year ago and in the year since, the surprise for me is how much these people have grown as artists. You know, in every month and year we all grow as people and artists in bringing an extraordinary effort to the stage.

DH - Great, now am I correct that there is no dialogue in between songs of this play? I am curious if you considered adding something like that as in 'One Night with Janis' or even if you are allowed to do that.

FJ - No, it made sense in 'Janis' because what I wanted for 'Janis' was to set the record straight and let the audience what her influences were, what she was about. 'A Night with Janis Joplin' was visualized as Janis's last concert before she went to LA to make the record. This is just pure joy, pure music, and it is a celebration of the catalogue of Leiber-Stoller. I think the first time I saw it was I looking for the meaning and it was what the audience makes of it. The great thing about 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' is that the journey you are taken on is the journey of your choice, as you watch.

DH - OK.

FJ - Interestingly enough when we were doing 'Janis' in Pasadena, Mike Stoller came to the show and he saw in the program that I was directing 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' here and he call me the next day and we had lunch that day and we became very good friends. So I was able to get the back story and the intent of these songs and get to hear first hand of what he and Jerry wanted and how they created the songs. I have been really fortunate to get to hear from Mike Stoller and get to hear from the source himself of what these songs mean to him and where they came from, within their era. That has been one of the best gifts of this project is getting to Mike and his wife.

DH - That's great. Now was he the lyricist or the musical writer, I'm not sure I ever saw that…

FJ - I think they did both.

DH - OK, they did a little of each (ed. note -- especially Mike Stoller who did both, while Jerry Leiber primarily was a lyricist).

FJ - Yeah, and their catalogue…. with their music, it the surface of it first appears, but then you realize that there would be no rock'n'roll as it exists today without the music they created. And some of their songs had impact on civil rights and the counter culture of the sixties. They really were remarkable men who left this enormous legacy. Some of these songs have been covered by over 200 artists. They've sold hundreds of millions of records. It is an extraordinary success.

DH - Yes, to me they helped define the fifties and kind of took you up to the Beatles.

FJ - Right.

DH - Although they worked quite successfully thereafter as well and if anything, is that pretty much the overall theme to pull from this? I mean you won't need the dialogue, as that will come out of it.

FJ - Yeah, I think the lyrics are in many ways dialogue. And each one of these songs is really a three-act play in itself and that is the way we are staging them. It will bring back a lot of the audience to a time in their youth when music was heard through a transistor radio or a jukebox. You know, the way we hear music today is very different than the way people heard it generations ago. Music is the soundtrack of your life and whenever you hear a song, you will go back to the first time you heard it, where it takes you, and how it makes you feel. That stays with you for the rest of your life. I grew up listening to my sister's transistor radio with her listening to "Poison Ivy" or "Yakkety Yak" or "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", so music is a time capsule. Today, if you are hearing Bruno Mars and of this generation, you will always remember where you were when you first heard a Bruno Mars song. The same with the Coasters, or the Drifters, or Elvis Presley… the impact of Leiber and Stoller on Elvis Presley, I don't think he would have had the same career were it not for Mike and Jerry's music. The number of hits they had with Elivs is uncanny.

DH - Yes, and I am looking forward to seeing this play, even if to prove that Wikipedia's statement that there is no unifying theme in the play is wrong. Clearly, there is an overall point to it all.

FJ - I think the theme is the music. It has gone on after Broadway to become one of the most successful music reviews in history and it is the longest running review on Broadway.

DH - I am also curious in relating that when I write up a regular concert review, I sometimes notice how bands construct a set by their placement of their songs.

FJ - Right.

DH - They don't just slap them together. I assume that there was careful work here, but is there any changes that take place?

FJ - No (changes from the original play). But when I construct a musical or a concert, you are creating a roller coaster ride. There are highs and lows, there are times you impact the audience emotionally, times you make them feel good, and it all leads up to the moment of the finale. It's all theater even if you write a set list for a band at a bar, there is still a cause and effect to the way you fit the music together. That is true of 'Joplin', true of 'Always' and everything I've done, there is cause and effect with the placement of the music.

DH - Does this play have a set list of songs or is there some pick and choose method of the catalogue?

FJ  - No, it is set. There are 41 songs altogether.

DH - Do you have a particular favorite or does it vary?

FJ - Uh, it varies from day to day… I love "Hound Dog", I love "Jailhouse Rock", really all of them. It depends on the hour. "Spanish Harlem" is a song that for me, when Laura Nyro recorded it in the seventies with Labelle on the 'It's Gonna Take a Miracle' album. That was one of the albums I listened to over and over again, so that particular song takes me back to high school years. I have my own history with Elvis Presley, so those songs are like coming home again. And I think that the repeat business for "Smoky Joe's Cafe" is so strong with people coming back three or four times is that they will go 'oh my god, I have to hear that song again and I want to hear that again', and I think that will happen here in Washington DC where people will see it and want to bring friends back to see it. At the end of the day, it is a real feel good show and we have an amazing choreographer, Parker Esse, who is doing a remarkable job with a whole bunch of styles that are in inherent in this musical. There is everything from rock'n'roll, that pure 50s girl group sound, and he covers the gamut successfully.

DH - Sounds great and I am appreciative with this (theatrical) approach and in thinking about this, it is a major step up from something like what a tribute band would do where they would be a band that exclusively plays Beatles songs or whatever. But I think with your work and others have brought forth the historical importance of eras or artists that is a successful marriage of music and theater. So I hope people gravitate toward it.

FJ - Thank-you, I hope so, too.

DH - I usually ask someone to pick an artist who has influenced them outside their main artistic area, but since you cover so many different areas, is there any writer or other artist that was inspirational to you when you were younger?

FJ - Well, that's hard…

DH - It is.

FJ - Well, Joni Mitchell was a huge influence on me because the way she painted pictures with her lyrics and told stories through her lyrics was profound to me. I was 18 years old and heard the 'Court and Spark' album in Paris and I heard the title song and it stunned me. Of course you bought the vinyl album in those days and we went home and I just listened to the lyrics finding someone who could think the way that I felt. Joni Mitchell was a big influence and Laura Nyro was a huge influence on me. Thinking artists, they knew what they singing about--it wasn't just pretty songs and Lawrence Welk, which has its place, too.

DH - Sure.

FJ - And there was Carly Simon who was later in high school. She sang about feelings I didn't know anyone else felt. Remarkably enough I got to work with all them.

DH - Oh! I had read you worked with Carly Simon, but all of them--that's great.

FJ - And then as far as artists are concerned, I met this artist named Robert Irwin, who is an architectural visual artist. He does installations, designs museums and a very major artist in his world. I knew him in my thirties and he made me rethink the way I look at something, so that was a very big influence on me. There have been so many others… A choreographer named Martha Clarke who took the Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and turned it into a performance piece. I was in New York, acting at the time, and it changed the way that I think of everything to this day. Because to be able to take that painting and bring it to life was pure theater. That's what we all strive to do with original thought. So my influences have been pretty wide as my career has been pretty wide. I have been fortunate enough to work in a lot of mediums and you bring these inspirations and muses with you as you go. We are all a result of who we've seen and who we've read before. But Joni Mitchell and Martha Clarke changed it all for me.

DH - Sure. I ask that for my own benefit as much as anything so I can connect more artists together. A couple of quick questions that you may be tired of answering, but which was more challenging, directing Mike Tyson or directing Pope Benedict?

FJ - (laughs) What was more challenging… Well, they both were unique opportunities. I love Mike Tyson. I loved working with him--he was a joy to work with. I spent time at his home getting to know him and his wife Kiki. The three of us bonded really tight from the beginning, bringing his story to the stage. You know you are dealing with history. Mike Tyson is a piece of history, pop cultural history. Getting somebody to tell the truth about themselves in a theatrical form was very, very interesting and at the end of the day, very gratifying.

Pope Benedict, you know, you got to stage a Papal Mass, and again that is history and whenever you can live in history… I'll never forget the sound of the crowd when he entered the stage for the mass. I've been and done a lot of rock concerts and I've never heard a sound like that.

DH - Ah, I've heard that about Papal appearances. Yeah.

FJ - I found him to be very kind and he listened to you the brief time you were with him. I had Kelly Clarkson sing "Ave Maria" and he broke tradition and had her come to him and he thanked her onstage in front of a million people. I enjoyed that experience tremendously because where else to you get to live history.

DH - I had to ask that question because you are the only person in history I can ask that.

FJ - Exactly, it doesn't come up in a sentence very often.

DH - Although one more combination that I found interesting that maybe a few more people could address is that you have also worked with both Audrey AND Katherine Hepburn?

FJ - Yes. I worked with Audrey and Katherine Hepburn in the same year. I had spent time in regional theater and wanted a break from it. I had the intention that I wanted to work with stars and as fate would have it, you do get what you ask for. I got a call that Audrey Hepburn was looking for someone to help her with this UNICEF piece where she was reading passages from the diary. Six months later the opportunity came to write and direct Katherine Hepburn in a tribute to Jimmy Stewart. I spent three days at her home and that was really amazing. I still have my answering machine tapes where she would call and leave a message for me. She didn't have assistants, she did not have an entourage, she opened her door herself. I don't get nervous with the people I work with, but knocking on that door and waiting for Katherine Hepburn to open the door was a moment in time. And we had a wonderful time together--she was as honest and articulate as ever. So I got to work with both Hepburns in one year.

DH - Wow and you are still going strong and building on your resume still.

FJ - I am having a very good time.

DH - Well, we are happy to see you back at the Arena Stage and hope it is as much fun behind the scenes as it is for us out front.

FJ - I enjoy it as much as the audience does.

No comments: