“I must’ve been listening to Janis since I was born,” Andra Mitrovich said recounting her experiences with singer Janis Joplin. When Andra was only 3 years old, Janis died, and Andra’s mom, also a professional singer, started tuning into the “infamous” Pearl album nonstop. “She played it until the grooves wore out,” Andra said. “So, I guess, when I could barely walk, I knew who Janis was.”
“I don’t remember the exact time I first saw her, it must’ve been in pictures, but Janis’ songs were so real to me. You know?” Andra now stars in ZACH Theatre’s production of Love, Janis, and it’s easy to know exactly what she means when attending a performance.
Janis Joplin had a profound effect for many musicians, artists and just plain people throughout the years — but, in Andra’s life, Janis’ energy is more than profound: It’s magnetic. It emanates from Andra in a way that reverberates not only Janis’ voice and music — but also the soul of Texas-born artist Janis Joplin, a singer who refused to compromise freedom or love as she rose from the small town of Port Arthur to international stardom. Janis lived life for freedom. Undoubtedly, she would smile to know that Andra Mitrovich keeps Janis’ music, message, voice and life on the world stage 40 years after her tragic death.
Janis’ rendition of Summertime holds a special place in Andra’s life. “The words ‘Your dad’s rich / And your ma is so good-looking’ strike a real chord for me.” The way Janis sang those words, Andra said, make her “really feel it” as she now relives the music each night on stage. Andra was quick to point out tear-in-eye: “My mom was a really good woman, and daddy made a good life for himself.”
“In my house, we were always singing,” she said. Her mom, one of 14 kids, grew up singing for entertainment, and taught Andra, her sister Jennifer and brother Jeff that there was nothing wrong with singing anywhere they felt like it. “I remember walking down the aisles at the grocery store, singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat when I was a kid and getting weird looks. And when I got to Austin people would look at me strange when I sang all the time,” she said. “I honestly thought everyone did that.”
At four years old, Andra broke down in tears when Neil Sedaka, “a poor man’s Elton John in a fedora hat and pin striped suit,” sang Solitaire. Her mom comforted her by saying, “You were just born with the blues, weren’t you?” … Andra abruptly asked, “I mean, who doesn’t like Bobby McGee?” This was a point in time when folk music crossed over into rock; “Janis was a rock singer after all,” she said.
In 1992, Andra Mitrovich was handed a flier by her band’s rhythm guitar player Efram Armendariz, the then-Chair of University of Texas Mathematics reading, “Janis Joplin Search for Zach Scott Theatre’s Beehive Musical.” When he brought it to her, she said, “Are you out of your mind? I know nothing about theatre.” He told her it was just a tryout and she had nothing to lose, so she decided to audition, but waited until the last audition day to get up her nerves to go.
The night before her audition, Andra had a gig with Efram and her band, “Ax Nealson,” at a bar in east Austin. The audience kept buying her shots of Hennessey (“People don’t know Janis drank as much Hennessey as she did Southern Comfort,” she said), and Andra found herself propped up against the microphone far-too-late as the east-side crowd kept cheering her on to sing more and more songs.
The next day was October 26, 1992 — a day Andra remembers well — and she walked into ZACH barefoot wearing a wife beater, jeans and beads, “my usual getup,” but she didn’t have a resume or headshot like the other people auditioning for the part. Andra waited patiently as all the other singers went in and out of the audition studio. Eventually, it was her turn: “It felt like that scene in Flashdance where nobody’s paying attention during auditions, but I sang anyway.” The piano player started on a “showtune-esque” rendering of Me and Bobby McGee, but Andra wasn’t feeling it so she asked if she could sing Try acapella. She belted out the tune, and Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley told her there would be callbacks and ZACH would be in touch with her.
But Andra left the theatre slightly unsettled in her 1976 Chevy Nova, she called it “Tank,” with her day’s horoscope swirling around in her head. “Say what’s on your mind,” is how it read, and with that she turned around and headed back to the theatre where Dave was in the parking lot on his way home. She stopped him and told him, “I know I don’t know how to read music and that I’ve never been in a play, but I can learn. I’ll work hard,” she insisted. Dave flashed her a smile, and with that Andra had done as her horoscope asked: she said what was on her mind.
When she got home, the phone rang, she picked up and a familiar voice said, “Andra?”
“I knew it was him, I knew his voice even though we had just met,” Andra interjected.
“I just wanted to say thanks for gracing our doorstep,” Dave said. “Congratulations. You got the part.”
ZACH first opened Love, Janis in 1997, with Andra in the starring role. The show opened in June, and in October Andra was in the parking lot at ZACH changing out her car’s fuel pump. A man came up to her and told her, “I came to your show and have something to give you.” He handed her a ticket dated October 17, 1969 to a Janis Joplin show at Gregory Gym on University of Texas campus. “I just want to let you know that this is a ticket from the first time I saw Janis,” he said. “She made me realize I could do anything.”
He went on to explain that seeing Janis Joplin and listening to her music gave him the confidence to come out of the closet as a gay man. Her death had drawn him into a severe depression and back into the closet, but he told Andra, “Seeing you reminded me just how short life is.” He said he felt Andra had the same spirit, the “same projection of life” that Janis had, and he felt he needed to give her the ticket. Andra became good friends with the man, and that year he came back out of the closet and fell in love with a man who, incidentally, took Andra’s first headshot. The couple now lives in Hielo, Hawaii, and extended an open invite to Andra.
“I’ve got all kinds of ports of call … I can’t tell you all their names,” Andra said, “to protect the innocent — or the guilty, I don’t know.”
In 1999, Love Janis opened in Chicago. The night before Andra flew up there, she was in a boating accident that left her purse — filled with jewelry and personal items — on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. She got to the hotel in Chicago and met Love, Janis director Randy Myler in the lobby. He’s an antique aficionado, and when Andra told him what had happened, he mentioned that he saw two necklaces that were Janis’ during one of his antique expeditions in town.
The next morning, Andra woke up and it was raining. She called a cab and had the cabbie drive her around to various antique hotspots in the area, determined to find the necklaces so she had something to wear in the show. After visiting numerous shops, she ended up at an antique mall near her hotel. She went to the guy at the front of the mall and asked if any of the vendors had Janis Joplin paraphernalia. “He had never even heard of Janis Joplin,” Andra said. “I guess, being from Chicago and all, that was understandable. So I explained who Janis was, a Texas singer, and told him I was looking for some of her jewelry.”
The man told her where the jewelry vendors were in the mall, and the first table Andra walked up to had a sign with Janis’ picture on it that read “Once owned by Janis Joplin.” Two necklaces were below it: one with a rainbow pendant and the other a cocaine spoon with psychedelic mushrooms on the top of it. “I opted for the rainbow medallion,” Andra caveated, “I may have danced with the devil, but I’m not following in her footsteps.”
The pendant was one that Janis had given to the drummer’s wife, named Carol, as a thank you gift for doing Janis’ makeup for the Pearl album cover shoot. “Her name was Carol,” Andra flashed a smile. “My mom’s name was Carol, too, and my middle name is Carol … It means ‘to sing.’
“Whenever I hear Carol, it makes me chuckle. Since Andra means ‘womanly,’ I guess it means I’m a womanly singer.”
Asked about her inspirations, she replied: “I think about different things when I sing Janis songs … Since the current production of Love, Janis is happening during summer, I think about my mom and dad a lot.
“They’ve gone now, but I don’t have to cry about it anymore. When it’s my time, I know I have a place to go. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have people waiting for me.”
Delicately splayed atop a faux-leather couch, Andra reminisced, “Get It While You Can conjures up thoughts of whatever’s happening the day I’m singing it. The song starts, ‘Do you read the paper?’ … So sometimes it’s about current news … For me, it’s … ” she stopped for a second exhaling a pregnant laugh, “getting laid … You know, get it while you can.”
“A Woman Left Lonely is one of my favorite songs to sing,” Andra said. She thinks about all the times she was lonely, especially in big crowds. “I didn’t know what to do when I was younger, I was so lonely, but as I got older it was amazing how many people that happens to, when they’re standing in the middle of a crowd of their friends and they just feel so alone.”
Andra took a big breath. “I never want to be acting like I’m having a good time. As Janis says, that’s just shameful.”