Debra Wanger Gets Out Her teasing comb for San Diego Musical Theatre’s “HAIRSPRAY”

by Pat Launer July 26, 2018


debra-wanger-as-%22female-authority-figure%22Admit it. If you were a female living through the ‘60s, at one time or another, you teased your hair into a beehive (lifting it with a rat-tail comb) and sprayed it to within an inch of its life.

“Hairspray” celebrates those heady times. Writer/director John Waters, he of the oddball, off-the-wall sensibility (he’s been called The King of Schlock and The Sultan of Sleaze –titles he wears proudly), created his cult classic in 1988. It was darker than the 2002 musical it inspired (with a score by Jewish composer Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan).

The musical ran on Broadway for 6½ years, more than 2,600 performances. At the Tony Awards ceremony of 2003, it snagged eight statuettes, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, the story follows the development and social awareness of “pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad, who loves nothing more than music and dancing. Her dream is to do her thang on “The Corny Collins Show,” a local TV dance program based on the real Baltimore “Buddy Deane Show.”

When she tries out, she’s rejected because of her weight. Another auditioner, young African American Little Inez, is excluded because of her race.

When Tracy gets put in detention for her “monumental hair-don’t,” she meets other African American students, who turn her on to some of their dance moves. This new style, coupled with her natural enthusiasm and effervescence, helps her get a spot on Corny’s show, much to the dismay of snooty, snotty Amber van Tassel and her monstrous mother, Velma, the show’s scheming producer.

Tracy becomes a local celeb, and uses her newfound influence to fight for racial integration of the TV show, which only allows blacks on the monthly Negro Day.

Along the way, Tracy finds love, stands up to high school bullies, and fights racism, envy, and all enemies of big girls with big hair.

Though the musical is fluffy and lightweight, it does carry an inspiring message about the power of everyday people to alter the prevailing culture and change people’s minds. It’s all about acceptance, and battling discrimination against those who look, act or seem different.

Sadly, nearly 50 years after the story is set, and 30 years after the story was written, we’re still dealing with fat-shaming, racism and discrimination against anyone non-mainstream.

Becoming an Actor…
and Playing a Host of Characters

Among the show’s many colorful characters are Tracy’s sympathetic parents: her warm-hearted, joke-loving Dad, Wilbur; and her plus-sized Mom, Edna, a role that is always played by a man: Divine in the  original film, John Travolta in the 2007 movie musical and Harvey Feierstein, who starred in the Broadway premiere, in NBC’s 2016 “Hairspray Live.”

As Waters himself put it: “Finally, the fat girl and the drag queen get the parts!”

Several roles are grouped under the heading ‘Female Authority Figure,’ and in the San Diego Musical Theatre production, those will be played by busy local actor Debra Wanger.

In addition to portraying those three characters, Wanger, a single mom, is engaged in planning for the b’nai mitzvah of her boy/girl twins. She also has a 7½ year old daughter.

Debra was born in Chicago (“Cubs territory!”). Her grandparents were German-Jewish on both sides. Her father was a financial analyst and her mother, a social worker interested in genealogy. What she found in her research was that Albert Einstein is a “third cousin five times removed.”

“If I let my moustache grow,” quips Debra, “you can see the resemblance.”

Her physicist boyfriend gets a kick out of that.

When she was growing up, Debra’s family was not observant, though her oldest brother did have a bar mitzvah. But after their parents divorced, when Debra was 9, she dropped out of Hebrew school.

Much later, after attending the Cincinnati Conservatory and Tufts University, she decided the time was right for her bat mitzvah.

“I found a great female rabbi from Yale,” she reports. “It was a much more adult and proactive way to do it, and a much more personal journey.”

She finally had her bat mitzvah at age 26 (“like a double 13!”), just at the time she graduated with her bachelor’s degree (having taken some time off to perform in Florida).

“It was like an ending and a beginning; a very parallel event. And I think it was so much more meaningful than if I’d done it at 13.”

But her twins will do it the traditional way at Congregation Beth Israel next spring. Fortunately, she gets “a twofer: only one party for both!”

As an actor, she’s had her “Fiddler” moment, playing Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, at Dinner Theatre Florida.

“I’d have my wedding at the end of the first act, then go serve coffee. Some honeymoon!”

From the time she was nine years old, Debra knew she wanted to be an actor. She started in children’s theater, community theater and chorus, taking dance classes at school and later obtaining training at the famed Interlochen summer theater program in Michigan.

At Tufts, she majored in sociology, “to become a more balanced human being.” That knowledge has come in handy in her acting career.

“The more you bring to the table as an actor, the more you know about humans and human behavior, the better you are.”

After graduation, Debra went to Los Angeles to learn the business side of the business, working at one of the largest agencies, Creative Artists. She met movie stars and worked crazy hours.

“It was exciting and horrible and very demanding and very high stress,” she says. “And it wasn’t half as creative as I’d expected.”

So, she moved to San Diego, where her mother and brother were living, and enrolled in the MFA program in musical theater at San Diego State University, graduating in 2000.

Since that time, aside from “taking time off here and there for babies,” she’s been working pretty consistently, performing at theaters all over San Diego, including New Village Arts, Intrepid Theatre, Moonlight Stage Productions, North Coast Rep and the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre. “Hairspray” will be her fifth show at San Diego Musical Theatre.

“I’ve played Mother to every actor in town,” she says. “Many still call me Mama.”

Her current day job is at The Children’s School in La Jolla, a private, progressive school that brought her in to start a drama program for the middle school students.

She also has developed a coaching sideline.

“Actors are notoriously unhealthy,” she says. “But there were no books about staying healthy as an actor. So I wrote one: “The Resilient Actor.” I even made it to #1 in two categories on Amazon. So I guess you could call me an Amazon best-selling author.”

As an offshoot of her self-published book, she developed a website and a podcast. She’s currently working on a companion workbook and audiobook. She also recorded a CD, “Driving My Own Heart,” which features “an eclectic mix of lesser-known songs.”

Stage Preferences and Proclivities

In terms of theater work, Debra likes “silly or thought-provoking or gut-wrenching plays. I like to mix it up, not focus on one specific genre.”

She also likes playing multiple roles, which she has done in several shows, and is really relishing in “Hairspray.”

“The show is so joyous,” she says. “It’s silly and toe-tapping, but it does have a message about race. The score reminds me of great oldies songs – ‘60s dance music and R&B. It’s a blast. And all my characters are so quirky.”

One character is Prudy Pringleton, the over-anxious, over-protective, prejudiced mother of Tracy’s best friend, Penny, who “loses her mind when she finds out that her daughter is dating a black student. She melts down completely.”

Then there’s the Prison Matron, “a tough broad who aspires to become a prison guard or a biker.” And the Gym Teacher, “a stereotypical nightmare.”

“They’re all over-the-top. I want to bring a little twist of darkness to them. It’s an opportunity to bring the original John Waters sensibility to the piece. I have to be fearless, and not afraid to look goofy or unladylike.

“I’m just gonna go for it. There’s no halfway with these characters. I’m ready to sing off-pitch, not look good, and go wherever these ladies take me.

“I’ll be doing a lot of clothes-changing. I think I have four costume changes. I actually have a fourth role, a kind of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ See if you can find me!

“It’s fun to figure out how each character is different, changing voice, gait, posture. It’s fun to discover what makes them tick and how they see the world. There isn’t a lot of time to show who they are, so I have to just dive in.  It’s a different challenge from playing one fully fleshed-out character. Here, I’m going for speed instead of depth.”

All her theater work hasn’t been lost on her family. Her two daughters “seem to have gotten the bug.”

So Debra now finds herself being a “Theater Mom, schlepping to rehearsals, getting headshots. It’s karma, and my mother’s getting a kick out of it. Me, too. I see these two little Mini Me’s – one played the Plate and one played a Sugar Cube in the J*Company production of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

When she was in “A Little Night Music” at Cygnet last spring, her 12 year-old daughter sat through that challenging Stephen Sondheim musical three times – “two in one day! It was fun for her to get to know the actors offstage, then see them perform. I didn’t know any professional actors when I was a kid. I would’ve loved going backstage, and then having the actors over for brunch. That would’ve been so cool. It is for my kids.”

Clearly, her life is full and hectic. But she’s happy and appreciative.

“I’m grateful to be working steadily,” Debra concludes. “I’m a busy Jewish mom who’s also teaching, coaching, writing and acting. I love the combination. The gestalt of it is very rewarding.”

The San Diego Musical Theatre production of “HAIRSPRAY” runs at the Horton Grand Theatre, downtown, August 3-September 2.

Tickets and information: 877-778-1258;


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