Dallas — Michelle Dowdy was born to play Tracy Turnblad. On the day she graduated from the performing arts high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, she was cast in the Broadway production as a standby for Shannon Durig, who was one of the replacements for role originator, Tony-winner Marisa Jaret Winokur.
Dowdy eventually played the role on Broadway, and has performed it in many regional productions, and on a Royal Caribbean ship. Up next is the production by the Dallas Theater Center, where the show runs July 7-15 as the first show in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s 2018-2018 Broadway Series.
Dowdy was born in Fort Worth, but at age 3 her parents moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. She returned to North Texas for a few summers, staying with her grandmother, and performed at Richardson Theatre Centre.
She loved Hairspray so much that she wrote her senior thesis on the show. In her winter break in senior year, she visited friends in New York to audition for Juilliard and other colleges, and it just so happened that there were auditions to cast standbys for Tracy on Broadway. She showed up on a snowy day, and was about 40th in line, she says.
She auditioned but didn’t expect much. A few months later, the producers called. Even though she was finishing her senior year, callbacks happened in the last few weeks of school. The list of potentials was whittled from 100 to 30 to 13 to seven. On graduation day, she was told she got the part, and her new career path was set.
Hairspray, based on the 1988 film by John Waters that starred Rikki Lake as Tracy and Divine as her mother, Edna—a character played in drag—the musical premiered on Broadway in 2002 (delayed by 9/11), with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. A movie of the musical came out in 2007, and it was also produced as a live TV musical in 2015.
Dallas Theater Center’s production is directed by Joel Ferrell with choreography by Rickey Tripp and music direction by Vonda K. Bowling. The cast also features David Coffee as Edna Turnblad, Liz Mikel as Motormouth Mabel, Cara Serber as Velma von Tussle, Deanna Ott as Amber von Tussle, Taylor O'Toole as Penny Pingleton, Julie Johnson as Prudy Pingleton, Bob Reed as Wilbur Turnblad and Roman Banks as Seaweed J. Stubbs.
Ferrell says that this unique collaboration—of a locally produced DTC show in the ATTPAC Broadway Series—is planned to continue in subsequent seasons, with family-friendly musicals.
TheaterJones chatted with Michelle Dowdy about the show and being Tracy Turnblad.
TheaterJones: When did you first see the original John Waters movie?
Michelle Dowdy: I saw that original movie at way too young an age. My grandmother let me watch it. Because of his movies, I think I found the confidence I didn’t think I had, until I saw Rikki Lake say “I’m big…I’m beautiful.” I loved the inclusiveness of it all.
You’ve done the show so many times. How does the dynamic of the actors in the major roles affect the show?
It’s a show that can hold up to different takes on the characters. I’ve done this show with so many different types of people. My mother says I’m a good equalizer; I can plop that into a room and talk to anyone and adapt. I’ve seen so many people do these roles, and I love it when I see something that I haven’t seen before.
Broadway has made strides to represent race and ethnicity, LGBTQ+ people and, more slowly, differently abled people. For young actresses especially, how’s the Great White Way doing in terms of body type—casting actresses who are not a size two in leading roles?
There’s a lot of things that need to be talked about, and [casting without regard to size] needs to happen. I’ve always been body positive, because of my mom. I just did my 12th Broadway Bares, and have no problem with showing my body.
I like to think that when you walk into an audition room, no matter what you’re going in for, you’re selling yourself. I used to hate auditioning, but in the past five years if I go in and sell my best self, then I’m doing my job. I’m not just the sidekick. I love myself and you’re going to love me, too.
There have reportedly been productions of Hairspray in community theaters where the black characters were played by white actors. I’ve read that creators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wanted to stipulate that these characters must be played by black actors, because it is about segregation on a 1960s TV dance show—but were told to leave it open in case the show was done in, say, rural Iowa by a theater without the resources to bring the right actors in from out of town.
You can’t do it if you don’t have the black people for the production. Do Grease. Do The Music Man. Representation on stage is important.
The show has won awards and acclaim, but I feel like it is underrated in terms of this century’s best musicals.
I agree. The show is fun and entertaining, but there’s a hard-hitting message, and not just about the segregation. It has a lot to say about mothers and daughters and strong women. If you think about it, aside from Tracy, the other main girls [Penny and Amber] don’t have fathers that we see [in the musical; in the original movie we see Amber’s father, played by Sonny Bono]. Tracy’s parents are larger-than-life, but she is the only one that doesn’t come from a broken home. You don’t think about these constructs until you break down the show. I love it.
» Industry Night, which has discounted tickets and an after-party with the cast, is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 10. You'll get a VIP lanyard and raffle tickets for signed swag, tickets to future shows, and more. Learn more on the Facebook page for Industry Night here; or buy tickets via the ATTPAC website here.