THE DAY BEFORE HER JAN. 7 BROADWAY debut in Les Misérables, Debbie Gibson was driving to her Long Island home in her while BMW when she heard an ad for the show on the radio. She burst into tears. "I got very emotional—this was the day I'd waited for," she says. "When I heard my name, I said to myself, 'Don't cry. It will screw up your voice.' " Turns out she needn't have worried. Playing the doomed Eponine, a street-smart gamine smitten with a man in love with someone else, "Debbie brought the house down," says Richard Jay-Alexander, associate director of Les Mis. "I've seen the show more than anyone alive. She was incredible."
Yes, this is the Debbie Gibson—the cheerleader-cute singer whose pure bubble-gum pop made her a sensation when she was only 16. Now, after a few-years' absence from the top of the charts, the 21-year-old is trying her hand at professional theater (joining the ranks of celebs like Sheena Easton, Rob Lowe, Polly Draper and Mr. T). Back in 1986, when Les Mis was first rolling toward Broadway, Gibson auditioned for the same role but didn't get it because she couldn't hit all the high notes. Now she can, and she has never worked harder. "Acting is a challenge," she says. "It's really intense because my character dies every night and goes through lots of stuff."
With her first weeks as Eponine behind her, Gibson is breathing easier these days—just a bit. Relaxing at home, she warns she can't talk long for fear of weakening her voice. "I'm in a heavy concentration mode," she says. "I wake up in the morning and think, 'How much warming up should I do today? How much sleep should I get?' "
Les Mis isn't Gibson's first foray onto the stage. At 5, she played the littlest elf in The Elves and the Shoemaker at a repertory theater near her hometown of Merrick, N.Y. Later she and sisters Denise, Karen and Michele appeared in a number of musicals. "By 11 I was community-theatered out," says Debbie. She began doing TV commercials—including ads for Wendy's and Oxydol detergent—but at 14 put that aside to concentrate on her own music. Her first album, 1987's Out of the Blue, sold 3 million copies; two years later, her second LP, Electric Youth, sold 2 million. Sales of 1990's Anything Is Possible, however, were disappointing. "I'm growing up," she says. "It takes the public time to get used to changes."
That setback may have kept her humble. "I've never seen anyone so well liked," says Jay-Alexander. "There was no star junk, no demands, nothing. She shares a dressing room with another girl. It's not like Debbie Gibson comes to Broadway; it's more like Debbie becoming an actress." Gibson herself says life hasn't changed much. Her parents divorced last year, but Debbie remains close to them both. (Her mother, Diane, is still her manager.) In the spacious, five-bedroom home she shares with her mother and sister Denise, 17, Debbie's bedroom is still filled with stuffed animals; her bedspread is a patchwork of autographed T-shirts from her own pop idols—like George Michael and Billy Joel.
Gibson plans to remain in Les Mis through March and then do a three-month stint with the London cast, where she hopes to dispel her lingering teenybopper image. But she is already looking further into the future. She and sister Karen, 26, just finished a screenplay she calls "a modern fairy tale," and Debbie is working on a new album. She is also writing a Broadway musical about generational conflicts. "I always wanted to do more theater," she says. "A lot of people have said, 'Les Misérables, what a brilliant career move.' I didn't even think about that. I did it because my heart was in it."
TOBY KAHN in New York
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