From the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame to the Bagley Stage: Director and Co-Creator Randy Johnson on the making of Shout Sister Shout!
Randy Johnson, Tony-nominated director of A Night with Janis Joplin, sat down with us to talk about collaborating with Cheryl L. West and the inspiration for Shout Sister Shout!
Seattle Rep: Could you tell us about the origin of this project?
Randy Johnson: A Night with Janis Joplin was in Cleveland where the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of fame is, and I went there to see some of the Janis stuff and walked through the gift shop as I was leaving. I always look for books in those gift shops—you never know what you are going to find. And there was this book on the shelf, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald and I said, “That’s the best title for a musical I have ever seen!” So I bought the book, read it, and was blown away. I was quite busy at the time with A Night with Janis Joplin opening on Broadway but during that time I met with Gayle who loved the idea [of making a musical] and I optioned the rights to the book. Fast forward a year later—I had moved back to L.A. and Arena Stage hired me to direct a workshop of Cheryl L. West’s piece on Etta James. I just loved working with Cheryl, as she is not only a wonderful person but an extraordinary playwright—so I said during dinner one night, “I optioned the rights to this book on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, would you be interested in working with me?” And she said “I’ve been wanting to do something on [Sister Rosetta Tharpe] for a long time!” So (and gratefully) we agreed to work together and two years ago we did the first production at Pasadena Playhouse. From there we went to London for another workshop, and now we are here. It was extraordinary how it all fell into place!
Seattle Rep: How do you think this project will raise awareness of Sister Rosetta’s lasting but largely unrecognized musical influence?
RJ: I think it will raise tremendous awareness, and as we move towards New York it will only get larger. My and Cheryl’s goal is to make her a national treasure—have her become permanently ensconced in the national consciousness. The average theatergoer does not know these songs. I really feel that these artists get discovered at the right time, but I think that that time has come. I mean I went into a men’s store in my neighborhood and they were playing Rosetta Tharpe! When an artist is recognized by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley and now people like John Mayer, if we do our job well, her music and her story will move into the mainstream consciousness.
Seattle Rep: Why do you think this story is important to tell today?
RJ: Rosetta did things that she didn’t know were possible. She was a trailblazer, and not just in music. She left her husband who abused her. She went from Cotton Plant, Arkansas to the Cotton Club stage, which is a long road but it wasn’t for her! She was a gay black woman who became a prominent figure in music. The unique individualism of Rosetta forged a path for cultural icons, musicians, and artists of all genders and identities. At the end of the day you can’t do these shows without telling the truth. The audience knows better. If you stick with the truth and you tell the story with integrity you will always succeed.
Seattle Rep: This musical had its first run at Pasadena Playhouse in 2017, but the show has changed substantially since then. What did you learn about the piece in Pasadena?
RJ: With all of these shows I ask myself, “What window are you looking through?” In Pasadena it was through the eyes of a white boy who worshiped Rosetta and was experiencing a sexual identity crisis. And he felt her music saved his life, so through a magic moment they meet, and he helps her get into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We found we didn’t need that storytelling convention; for the Seattle Rep production, the point of view has now changed. We dove straight out of the window into the story this time and let Tharpe’s life speak for itself. And the show you’re going to see is the show we want you to see.
Seattle Rep: How has the additional new work development done in collaboration with Seattle Rep enriched Shout Sister Shout!?
RJ: Seattle Rep provided the most organized creative process I have ever worked in. It’s extraordinary to be working in a blanket of safety. [Artistic Director] Braden Abraham, who played an active part in the development of this piece, came to London and was with us in the workshop process all the way. I think the beauty of this current production is the result of a lot of open dialogue between me, Cheryl, Braden, and the creative team. I left the last production meeting telling my agent that this is the most supported I have ever been ever walking in to a production, all the pieces fit together and I don’t have to worry. It’s a very comfortable place to be.
Seattle Rep: What does our vision of theater at the heart of public life mean to you?
RJ: Our obligation as theater artists is to always move forward, and our job as artists, producers, and collaborators is to create art that can be seen and hopefully change someone’s perspective. If whatever I do helps one person who walks out that day after seeing a show with a new insight or a new sense of freedom, then I know I’ve done my job.