Broadway may be losing one of its most public advocates — talk show star Rosie O'Donnell — in 2002.
O'Donnell, who has given more airtime to Broadway shows than any other talk or variety program since the time of Ed Sullivan, told the "Today" show that she won't continue after her current contract expires in spring 2002. She told "Today" host Katie Couric Nov. 17 that an announcement to retire "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" is expected in January.
O'Donnell, a Long Island native and vocal, lifelong fan of Broadway theatre, regularly has stage stars as guests and invites Broadway companies into her studio to perform.
Her syndicated program is seen throughout the country. Broadway producers such as Rocco Landesman have said publicly that her presence on the Broadway scene is refreshing, and he felt she introduced a new audience to Broadway theatre.
Her only equal as a Broadway booster was the late Ed Sullivan, who, on "The Ed Sullivan Show," gave airtime to such new shows as Camelot, Bye Bye Birdie, A Family Affair and other musicals of the 1950s and '60s, giving them a sometimes huge box office boost. Bootleg video copies of original Broadway casts on "The Ed Sullivan Show" are swapped by theatre fanatics and treated as priceless documents. O'Donnell, an actress and standup comic who appeared in Broadway's Grease! and hosted The Tony Awards twice, said she want to focus on her children.
Industry experts told the Associated Press that O'Donnell may be angling for a better contract, and others say the show is petering out — it's the No. 5 rated daytime talk program (tying with Montel Williams).
"All of us in the theatre know that Rosie has been a tremendous supporter for us," said Broadway press agent Chris Boneau, whose Boneau/Bryan-Brown agency handles scores of Broadway and Off-Broadway show." She genuinely loves the theatre. She's been a great advocate to tell people to go see what — and you see results."
Sales for The Lion King on Broadway, for example, "went through the roof" after O'Donnell celebrated the show for a week around the time of its opening, he said. "She was the first New York ambassador for that show, nationally," Boneau told Playbill On-Line. She also cheered Ragtime and Aida, among many other plays and musicals, both Off-Broadway and on.
Boneau said there are other TV talk or news programs that give valuable attention to the theatre, but none seem so personal and aggressive about it. "She really is special," said Boneau. "People really listen to her. Whatever she chooses to do, she's great and has a whole career ahead of her. I can't imagine she won't be involved with this community. Selfishly, we all hope she will change her mind."