Donny Osmond may forever be remembered as that wholesome, fresh-scrubbed teen dream, part of the legendary Osmond clan, who had screaming young girls swooning over his hip-hugging bell-bottoms and saccharine sweet pop ditties such as "Puppy Love," "One Bad Apple" and "Go Away Little Girl." But over the ensuing decades, Osmond has relished subverting the gee-whiz, cookies-and-milk persona that seems to stick to him like so much bubblegum pop.
His latest effort to turn his virtuous image on its head comes in the form of a nine-week stint playing the villainous Gaston in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, now the sixth-longest-running show in Broadway history. At first blush, Gaston seems tailor-made for a guy best known as a hunky former teen idol. Gaston is Belle's betrothed - a tall, dark and handsome Adonis with bulging biceps, a confident swagger and a TV anchorman's baritone. But as the show progresses, the character is quickly revealed to be a brutish, lantern-jawed lunkhead whose towering pompadour matches his sweeping self-regard. He's a guy who will stop at nothing - including much nefarious scheming - to win the heart of the musical's heroine, Belle, over the romantic overtures of his rival, the Beast.
"One of the reasons why I love this role is because of the journey that I take the audience on. The character goes from being this narcissistic, fun-loving idiot to this monster. . . . He's just one of those characters that you love to hate," says Osmond during an interview in a midtown Manhattan publicity office. "In the beginning [the part] is probably something that people will say, 'Well, that's perfect for Donny Osmond.' But the cool thing about the whole arc of the character is that at the end people will hopefully say, 'Wow, that was so atypical of Donny Osmond.' And I think that's the appealing aspect [of this role] to me."
Osmond may be 48 years old now and already a grandfather, but he still retains the boyish good looks and toothy white smile that endeared him to hordes of lovestruck teenage girls. Dressed stylishly in a black shirt and jeans, the singer is the picture of easygoing charm and affability, even while recalling his disastrous first (and only) stab at Broadway stardom - the 1982 adaptation of an old George M. Cohan chestnut, Little Johnny Jones, in which Osmond crashed and burned. The show shut down after opening night. "I was going to make my mark on Broadway. And I didn't. I got hit real hard with that show. But I kept forging ahead. And I said, 'I will return to the theatrical stage some day and do it right.'" That failure was part of a prolonged downturn in the entertainer's career, which began its rapid descent not long after his and his sister's variety series, the "Donny & Marie" show, ended in 1979. He had become a critics' whipping boy, enduring endless punch lines about his G-rated, goody-two-shoes persona.
"Ben Scotti, my promotions guy who went out on the road and got the radio stations to play my songs and got me all my hit records, said to me one day, 'Donny, I've known you a long time. You've had a great career, but now it's time to find something else. Because you will always be the guy who sang "Puppy Love."'"
Osmond says that advice was exactly what he needed to hear because it served as the match that lit the tinder of passion inside of him. He wanted to prove the naysayers wrong. Despite that drive, much of the 1980's was a struggle. After releasing a string of records that failed to catch fire with the public, he was all but ready to give up on show business. That's when the 1989 single "Soldier of Love" raced to the top of the charts, refashioning Osmond as an MTV-style rocker complete with jeans, stubble and a leather jacket. The golden boy entertainer became the comeback story of the year.
But Osmond did not rest on his laurels, instead choosing to try his hand once again at musical theatre, this time as the lead in the North American tour of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
"I've worked all these years to get back on the charts. I get on the charts. And Joseph comes along and I throw it all away. That's taking the hard road," says Osmond. "And ten years almost to the day after the huge misstep [of Little Johnny Jones], I'm back on the musical theatre stage. I guess there was part of me that just had to prove to myself - more than anybody else - that I could do it."
Osmond soon became synonymous with Joseph, touring in the show on-and-off for more than six years and winning critical and commercial kudos along the way.
Since then, he has continued to subvert expectations and reinvent himself - reuniting with his sister to host a daytime talk show, earning a Daytime Emmy nomination for the game show "Pyramid" and, after a remarkable 54 albums, finally penning his own songs. Dubbed by many as his most personal work to date, last year's hit record "What I Meant to Say" found Osmond co-writing 10 of the 12 tracks, including "Breeze on By" and "Whenever You're in Trouble," a song dedicated to his wife and five children and inspired by a late-night phone call from his son Brandon. "The first time I sang that [it] was very difficult to get through because the lyrics are so personal and you know the circumstances under which you wrote it," he says. "It takes on a whole new meaning than just singing somebody else's songs."
As for the future, Osmond is developing a Broadway-style show for Las Vegas, but he refuses to divulge any hints about its content. That project is expected to debut in 2008, but for now he's excited about being back on the Broadway stage. "I love that experience where the audience is right there, in the palm of your hand. It's the magic of show business that everybody wants to feel."