Randy Johnson, the director-playwright and three-ring-circus master of theater, knows his way around icons—iconic performers, singers and musicians, iconic music, iconic people, iconic times and events.
With Johnson, who directed and wrote “A Night With Janis Joplin,” which received no less than two successful runs at Arena Stage plus a Broadway run, everything is always different. If there is a trademark for Johnson productions, it’s that they’re going to be nothing that you might expect.
He’s back at Arena, directing “Smokey Joe’s Café, the Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” a 40 hit-song paean to the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who, Johnson says, “all but invented rock and roll.”
“This is a little different for me,” said Johnson, who is not to be confused with Randy Johnson, the famed and tall major league baseball pitcher. “This will be one of the few times that I haven’t also written what I’m directing.”
Johnson staged a flamboyant, nostalgically and emotionally exhausting “Janis” by turning the show about the late 1960s and 1970s rock and blues singer who succumbed to a heroin overdose into a partial rock-ous concert, which also included contributions from female black blues and rhythm-and-blues legends like Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin, the sources of inspiration for Joplin.
“Smokey Joe’s Café” originally opened on Broadway in 1995 and proved to be a hit. “This will be different,” Johnson promised. “For one thing, we’re doing this in the Fichandler, which means theater in the round, which means you have to be acutely aware of the audience in so many different ways.
“For another, I’ve had the good fortune to be friends with Mike Stoller (Leiber died in 2011), which has given me some unique insights into the songs and music they created together,” he added.
Leiber and Stoller were a regular hit factory for any number of early rock and roll legends, including Elvis Presley, the Coasters, Ben E. King and the Drifters.
“You could make a very good argument that Leiber and Stoller created rock-and-roll,” Johnson said. “Certainly, rock-and-roll would not be the same without them.”
The 40 songs in the songs in the show—performed by a cast that included Levi Kreis (Jerry Lee Lewis in Broadway’s “Million Dollar Quartet”), the incomparable E. Faye Butler and Nova Y. Payton and Jay Adriel, Austin Colby, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Michael J. Mainwaring, Stephawn P. Stephens and Kara-Tameika Watkins—are rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues classics.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as one American songbook,” Johnson said. “Yes, of course, we have Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe and Stephen Sondheim from Broadway. It’s generational for certain singers. But the works of Leiber and Stoller constitute a songbook of a different sort, the songbook of rock and roll for another generation.”
Those songs—Carole King and Burt Bachrach would provide later pop samples—are memorable because they had lyrics that stuck in your head just about forever, and, as Dick Clark might have said, “You could dance to them.”
It’s hard to think of Elvis, for instance, without “Jailhouse Rock” or “Hound Dog.”
“It’s great to be back in Washington and to be working with Molly [Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith] again,” Johnson said. “She has done spectacular work here.”
It’s a mutual admiration society. “Randy Johnson is a true theater artist,” Smith said of Johnson. “What sets him apart from others is that he is that rare breed of visionary director writer truly in a league all his own. I have rarely met anyone like him—he has the ability to move between theater, the broad culture, the concert world and everything in between…”
Johnson certainly doesn’t lack for ambition or vision, or social conscience. In the strictest sense of the word, he isn’t a theater director—that might be too much of a constricted space for him, although he’s certainly done well there.
Much of his work is flavored and driven by music—all kinds of music. Think of “Elvis, the Concert,” Michael Bolton’s World Tour with “Bolton Swings Sinatra,” in England “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” a tribute to Judy Garland or shows about Patsy Cline, (“Always Patsy Cline,” which re-opened at the original home of the Grand Ole Opry.) and Conway Twitty.
Johnson directed and co-wrote the world premiere of “Mike Tyson, the Undisputed Truth,” starring Tyson himself at the MGM Grand, and staged and directed Pope Benedict’s appearance in New York—giving us two men not usually mentioned in the same sentence. He also wrote and directed “The Wildest—The Music of Louis Prima and Keely Smith,” Smith being one of the most under-rated American pop singers ever. “Isn’t she though?” Johnson asked. “She’s also my godmother and just a truly remarkable singer. Period.”
“The people, the projects, the music I’m interested in are all a part of my life, a background to it and people of my generation,” he said. “This is what we grew up with, and these songs by Leiber and Stoller, are the songs we grew up with.”