As soon as Deborah Harry read about the part, she decided to throw her name into the ring. “I’ve been a wrestling fan for about four years,” explains Debbie, a vocal supporter of such pros as George “The Animal” Steele. Next week Blondie’s sturdy songstress, 37, will rock ‘n’ roll around the mat herself, making her Broadway debut as a pro lady grappler in Claire Luckham’s comedy with music Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap. Staged entirely in a wrestling ring, the British import uses the sport as a metaphor for life’s psychic battles. As Tanzi, Debbie takes on her parents, best friend, shrink and, in the climactic match, her husband. The producers describe the $750,000 presentation as “a play in 10 rounds.”
Debbie wasn’t the only entertainer eager for a workout in the unusual production. Taxi’s eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman, who estimates that he has wrestled more than 400 women in his nightclub act, auditioned for a part after hearing about the play from a friend. “There’s no drama like wrestling,” says Kaufman. He won the role of referee, which he considers particularly appropriate. “As intergender wrestling champion of the world,” says Andy, “I am the person most suited to referee a match between a man and a woman.” Since he and pro wrestler Jerry Lawler tangled in an exhibition match in Memphis last year, Kaufman has a new respect for the men of the mat. Disbelievers, he insists, “should check with the hospital I was in. Let them look at the X-rays.”
Says Debbie, who no longer sports the platinum locks or svelte figure of her Blondie period: “Physically, this is probably the biggest thing I’ll ever do in my life. The first week, I thought, ‘Oh God, am I even going to get through the warmup?’ ” Director Chris Jones imported British middleweight champ Brian Maxine to train the cast six days a week during rehearsals. “The women have to take the bumps the same as the men,” notes Maxine, who coached performers in the successful London production, which has been running since last summer. Under his tutelage, the London cast has accumulated only one broken thumb, three cracked ribs and seven stitches. Because of the show’s physical demands, Harry is alternating her part with veteran stage actress Caitlin Clarke, 28. “It’s the hardest role I have ever seen for a woman,” says Caitlin, though Harry insists, “I’ve gotten more bruises playing rock concerts.”
Harry, who has acted in three films (Videodrome, Union City and Roadie), sees Broadway as a welcome alternative to the now inactive Blondie. “The group was not exactly in its heyday,” she says. While Debbie gets a handle on her holds, her longtime boyfriend and collaborator, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, is writing new material.
Chris is an avid wrestling buff who introduced Debbie to the sport. She says he is now “sort of jealous about the show because we usually work together.” So enthused is Debbie about her role that she sees the possibility of a new career. “If I went on from this, I could probably be a lady wrestler,” she says. In fact, should Teaneck Tanzi not repeat its English success stateside, coach Maxine has already made contingency plans. “I’ve offered to make Deborah my tag-team partner,” he says. “We’re going to tour the world and make a fortune.”