Aspiring show biz kids dream of that Big Break, when they’re plucked from small-town obscurity and set down under a spotlight on a big, important stage.
Michelle Dowdy is one of the fistful of Pinellas County Center for the Arts graduates who’ve gone on to significant careers in the entertainment industry. Her Big Break, however, broke before the ink was dry on her PCCA diploma.
Dowdy, who’ll bring her cabaret act to thestudio@620 Saturday, has lived in New York City since 2005. On the very day of her graduation that spring, she was notified that she’d been cast as Tracy Turnblad, the teen heroine of the musical Hairspray. On Broadway.
She had auditioned, on a whim, over holiday break. She was 18. “I didn’t have a headshot,” Dowdy remembers with a giggle. “I used my senior picture. Wallet-sized.”
Tracy, who uses the persuasive power of pop tunes to help desegregate early 1960s Baltimore, was Dowdy’s “dream role.” She already knew all the songs by heart.
In the 16 years since that pivotal moment, Dowdy has carved out a niche on the Manhattan cabaret scene, and continued to work as an actress. She did 400 performances in Hairspray on the Great White Way, and to this day continues to play Tracy in productions around the country.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, she was three months into a national tour of Les Miserables, as Madame Thénardier.
In 2017, the Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Nightlife named her Piano Bar Entertainer of the Year. Her show of torch songs and cabaret touchstones, A Brass Act, premiered Off Broadway at 54 Below; the CD version was named Album of the Decade at the Broadway World Awards.
None of this, of course, came without a lot of post-Hairspray hard work and dues-paying. “You have to make your own work,” Dowdy says. “It’s so important to do that, especially when offers aren’t coming in. And obviously not everything is going to be for you. You have to create your own outlet.”
She hustled in piano bars, in gay clubs and drag shows, in hotel cabarets and small theaters. She went – as one has to do to keep the lights on – where the work was.
Texas-born, Dowdy grew up on Treasure Island, living in a small apartment with her single mother. Her family, she says, deduced early on that she was destined for the stage. “I was definitely a ham,” she reveals.
The PCCA, established in 1984 at Gibbs High School, seemed to be tailor-made for her.
“I had been doing lots of community theater, from a very young age, and I really wanted to go to PCCA. I remember auditioning and thinking ‘I have to be here. This place is for me.’ Every time I watched Fame I was like ‘I want to go to that high school.’ Then ‘Oh wait, we have one in Florida? Oh cool, I’m going to go there.’
“It wasn’t like ‘I’ll never get in.’ I always knew I was going to. I had a lot of confidence as a kid.”
Like so many of the program’s successful graduates, Dowdy sings its praises. “I had unbelievable teachers, and I was so fortunate to go there. And a lot of my life-long best friends are from that high school, who I still work and collaborate with, in New York.”
When the Big Apple called her number, she explains, she was more than ready. “When I went to New York when I was 8, with my family, I was hailing cabs like I had been there in another life,” she laughs.
Dowdy and her partner, Jordan Wolfe (creator of Night of the Living Dead -The Musical!) often sing together; during the pandemic, they produced 10 weeks of performance videos for streaming. They’re hoping to take their show on the road soon.
This weekend, she’s in town to visit family and friends. And to reflect on the long and winding road that’s led to this moment in time.
“Everyone has a type,” she reflects. “Obviously, we’re trying to break molds and break stereotypes. But as a plus-sized character actress, Tracy was not supposed to happen to me. I was supposed to go to college, I was supposed to do a couple of national tours until I started to age out. That was supposed to be my path. But I got very lucky in the beginning, and that opened a lot of doors for me.”
Aspiring show biz kids might want to take note – Michelle Dowdy’s story is the exception, rather than the rule.
“When I teach kids,” she says, “I definitely tell them ‘If you love anything else more than this, do it.’ It’s too hard of a business, and the rejection is constant. So if you don’t know how to take any of those things, it’s going to be hard for you.”
Those interested in pursuing a “real job,” she always says, can always minor in stagecraft, to get their “theater fix” in college.
Nothing wrong with that. “Honestly, theater makes people better people. It makes them more empathetic and have more humanity.
“If people think oh, I have to go to a BFA program, and I have to showcase, and I have to move to New York, that’s not the path for everyone.
“And also, Broadway is not the end-all, be-all for theater. Just look at the scene in Florida, look at St. Pete and Tampa alone, how many theater companies we have there. It’s astounding and it’s amazing. You don’t have to be on Broadway to be a working actor.”
Tickets and info here.