by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Director Randy Johnson returns to Arena Stage after his smash hit, A Night with Janis Joplin, played to sold-out houses and an encore engagement. For the past 25 years, he has written, directed and produced some of the most original, ground breaking and landmark events in the business. He took time out of rehearsals for Smokey Joe’s Café to answer some questions about his unique approach as a director, and what rock 'n' roll means to him. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, followed by a video clip of Randy addressing the company at first rehearsal.
What attracted you to Smokey Joe’s Café?
I love great music and am constantly inspired by great songwriters. To me lyrics are simply great writing and great songs are three act plays in and of themselves and two of my cultural heroes have always been Lieber and Stoller. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are musical giants – one of the greatest songwriting teams in history and that's not hype: It's a fact. Together they created and defined a sound that for me is truly the great American Songbook. There would be no Rock ‘n’ Roll as we know it today without the extraordinary and original thought that they brought to the world. Their songs are as potent and current today as they were all those years ago when these two astounding men first brought them to life.
To me Smokey Joe’s Café is a theatrical portrait of the images and feelings we had the first time we heard these songs. Do you remember the first time you heard the first note of music and how it changed you forever? I believe that music makes you feel, gives you hope and serves as expressions of love when there is no other way to express your emotions. Music knows no prejudice or limits and it makes you think everything is possible. Mike and Jerry didn't just define a generation – they created a voice for the ages that continues to breathe deep into our cultural consciousness and the tapestry of our lives.
When Molly asked me if I wanted to come back to Arena Stage and direct this year — I didn’t ask what show — I would come here any time to direct almost anything, as I consider Arena Stage my creative home. When she finished the sentence and said it was Smokey Joe’s Café, I was thrilled and here I am!
You have a gift for envisioning musicals with a cutting-edge vibe. What’s your approach as a director/storyteller?
I let the music and lyrics and words guide me to the truth as I see it. It’s all simply our perspective that we as artists can bring to the stage. Tell the truth, paint the picture, and connect the dots as you see, visualize and hear them. As a director, I would never simply recreate another director's visions or work, they've done it and it's theirs for all time. To me one of the roles of director is one of a "visual artist" — whether you've written the piece yourself or you are interpreting an existing work. We're painting visual images, sounds and pictures on the stage. My biggest theatrical influence was and is Martha Clarke's Garden of Earthly Delights. Martha took the great painting by Hieronymus Bosch and brought it to the stage through dance, music and visual interpretation. Nothing was ever the same for me. Boundaries were broken, realigned and anything and everything was possible. I love the quote "seeing is forgetting the name of the thing that one sees." If I've done my job, the audience will live in the moment and forget the place, time and title of the work, and simply live in the moment.
Mike Stoller and his wife Corky came to see A Night with Janis Joplin in Pasadena. We met that night and Mike and I had lunch the next day. It was the beginning of a great friendship. What I admire and respect about the songwriting of Lieber and Stoller is that (once again) it all came from a personal truth and with that truth they impacted change across America and the World. Without Lieber and Stoller, we would not know ROCK AND ROLL or simply GREAT AND TIMELESS music as we know it today. Their music has inspired countless songwriters and artists to this day and I am certain their songs will continue to inform and inspire generations to come.
You've mentioned these songs are what make up your songbook. Can you talk about that more?
Everyone has their own Great American Songbook, it can be any style of music that makes up the tapestry of your being. For me, it’s the songs I grew up with which is a lot of various styles. For me, it’s Joni Mitchell, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin, Chet Baker, Keely Smith, Dave Brubeck, Taj Mahal, and of course Lieber and Stoller as channeled by so many great artists including Elvis Presley and The Coasters.
What was your first concert?
First BIG concert was Elvis Presley at the International Hotel in Las Vegas when I was 12. Years later it was the concert I recreated for Elvis the Concert at Radio City Music Hall with all the same musicians and singers that I saw all when I was a kid — I saw a lot of nightclub acts starting at five years old. My parents spent a lot of time in Las Vegas and, instead of getting a sitter for me at night, they dragged me to the great hotel showrooms where I saw Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Mitzi Gaynor, Diana Ross and The Supremes, and a lot more. My influences began very early from a firsthand perspective. I've loved show business since I can remember remembering.
What would your theme song be?
“Court and Spark,” by Joni Mitchell.
Who are some of your favorite artists — yesterday and today?
My Godmother, Keely Smith, is my favorite artist, musician and singer.