By Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
An actor whose unique voice landed her a recurring role on a long-running, award-winning sitcom — not to mention a comfortable spot in the annals of pop culture — will perform as part of a benefit concert for Duluth Sister Cities.
But rather than her signature nasally New Yorker sound, Maggie Wheeler, who played Janice on “Friends,” will likely stick to alto and tenor.
“One Village, Many Voices” will feature local folk singer-songwriter Sara Thomsen, and Emile Hassan Dyer and Wheeler — who both co-direct the Los Angeles-based Golden Bridge Community Choir. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Fregeau Auditorium at Marshall.
Wheeler appeared on 19 episodes of “Friends” as the big-haired, big-emotioned, on-off girlfriend of Chandler Bing. Her “Oh. My. God.,” which became a catchphrase, was a full-body experience: all animation and annunciation. But before Matthew Perry’s character broke up with her again, again and at least again, and well before she became a go-to for a plot-twist cameo on the show, Wheeler was a singer. She grew up around folk musicians and wrote her first song at 8-years-old, she said in a recent phone interview. She went to Pete Seeger’s brother’s music camp.
“It set me on the path of seeking out music and community,” she said. “I used to say I act for my supper and sing for my soul, and I think that’s probably still true.”
‘A crazy love of getting people singing’
Thomsen, who directs the Echoes of Peace Choir, met both Wheeler and Dyer because they are all alums of the same Canada-based community choir leadership training program — a group that holds a regular reunion.
“When I met (Wheeler) I knew nothing of her whole other life,” Thomsen said. “In terms of acting on ‘Friends,’ I was out of the loop on that. We just connected over song and a crazy love of getting people singing.”
Thomsen described Wheeler’s singing voice as beautiful: low, warm and full of depth. She writes original and arranges original pieces, Thomsen said. And when she records, she sings all the parts. And outside of music: “She’s so authentic,” she said. “There’s just this depth and love of humanity and love of sharing songs as a way of trying to heal people’s hearts and as a way of raising people’s spirits.”
The friendship was fast.
Wheeler learned Thomsen’s song “Holy Angels” at leadership training, then she came to teach the group.
“(Thomsen’s) such an incredible artist and human being,” Wheeler said.
The plan to reconnect in Duluth has been a dream for a while, both said.
Wheeler appeared on an Emmy Award-winning episode of “Seinfeld,” and had a spot on Ellen Degeneres’s sitcom in the mid-1990s. In recent years, she’s done voice work for “Archer” and appeared on “Maron.”
“Friends” wasn’t quite “Friends”-ian yet when Wheeler received information about the role of Janice, a “fast-talking New Yorker,” via fax. The character, who appears early in the first season, was to bring Chandler Bullwinkle socks.
“I went to the audition and decided to have fun,” Wheeler said, and she presented the character. “I remember so vividly: eyes popped open, bodies moved back into the couch. You never want to be distracted during an audition. I saw their bodies move and thought ‘Oh dear.’
They called me back and I did it again.”
Now, more than a decade after the show went off the air, Wheeler is still approached by “Friends”-ophiles. It usually happens at the airport, she said.
Wheeler has an affinity for Janice, who is similar to her in some ways. They are both optimistic and want to see the best in people — though Wheeler is more sensitive to a room.
“One thing I appreciate about her: She really has a great heart,” she said. “She wants to love and be loved. Maybe we share that in common.”
While Thomsen had to double-back to catch up on the Janice years, she’s been able to connect her friend, the singer, the actor.
“(Wheeler) has a way of being able to take in different voices and express them outwardly in the world,” she said. “I think that’s what actors do. Take on voices and characters and imbue them with a piece of themselves as well.”
IF YOU GO
What: “One Village, Many Voices” concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Fregeau Auditorium, Marshall School