Onstage & Backstage: How Rosie O'Donnell Went From Stand-Up Comedy With a Fake ID to Starring on Broadway

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: How Rosie O'Donnell Went From Stand-Up Comedy With a Fake ID to Starring on Broadway
 
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
Rosie O'Donnell, Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley
Rosie O'Donnell, Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley

I'm back in beautiful Provincetown! I'm so happy that I'll be coming here almost every week til mid-September. I've never started the Broadway@ series so early (usually it begins at the end of June) and I was unprepared for the frigid weather on Cape Cod. Holy cow, it was cold. The good part is that I love to shop in Provincetown and the plunging temperature meant that James, Juli and I all got new jackets. Any excuse to max out my credit card!

View from balcony at the Anchor Inn
View from balcony at the Anchor Inn

Right now, I'm in my room at the Anchor Inn, looking through my terrace door to the bay where it's high tide and the water is rolling in. So pretty! The premiere show was with Rosie O'Donnell and it was really special. Usually there's a lot of singing in the Broadway@ shows, but Rosie will be the first to say, she ain't no singer. Still it wound up being fantastic. First, she entered to a little opening number I wrote for her to the tune of "Roxie." FYI, Provincetown sometimes has themes over the weekend so groups of people will come like "Family Week" or "Carnival." This weekend was for young lesbians, or their nickname: baby dykes. Here is the opening number:

(Sung to the tune of "Roxie")
I can't believe its my first time performing in...P-town!
I'll chat, I'll sing, I'll dance, I'll mime
I'm here for you...P-town!
We'll talk about my TV show, my broadway shows and heart attack!
I'll give you dish on Donald Trump and Fox "Reporter" Hasselback!
And if you think I'm looking good
Remember I'm…. single!
Feel free to wave and say Hello!!!
And frankly there's one type I like
This Mama Bear wants a baby dyke!
But first, let's start the show!!

Before the show, Rosie told me I could ask her anything, and we discussed so much. First, her childhood: I asked if she saw any Broadway shows with her Mom and she remembered George M! starring Joel Grey and an extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall. She talked about how moving it was during the very first year of her talk show when she was nominated for an Emmy Award (against Oprah) and won (!), and she walked on the stage of Radio City - the very stage she looked at with her Mom from the tippy-top balcony. Speaking of which, many years later, her kids yelled from another room "Mom! Can we use these for an art project?" Rosie yelled back her usual response, "Does it have a plug?" They said no and she told them to go right ahead and use whatever it was. And that's how all of her Emmy awards got painted. Her mom died when she was ten and, in a horrific twist of fate, the funeral was on Rosie's birthday. When people came to the house after the funeral, they gave Rosie birthday presents. Yowza. Talk about mixed messages! Those were the days when kids weren't taken to the funeral or the cemetery and she used to see a plaque in her school dedicated to her mom (who was PTA president). Rosie wondered if that's where her mom was buried. Rosie spent many Wednesdays in high school stealing $20 from her dad's wallet (!) and coming to the city to do standing room at shows like A Chorus Line and Evita.

Eventually, the ushers knew her and would let her second act shows. One of her favorites was They're Playing Our Song because she had loved Lucie Arnaz on "The Lucy Show" and then when she saw Lucie as Sonia in They're Playing Our Song, she felt it was a role she could play. The character was funny and didn't have to have a voice like Patti LuPone. Rosie started writing fan letters to Lucie…and Lucie wrote back! Rosie remembers how cool it was to get letters on stationary that had "They're Playing Our Song" embossed on the top with "Imperial Theater" underneath it. And they weren't just generic "thank you for being a fan" letters. For instance, in one letter Lucie told her to go to college because "nobody wants a dumb actor." PS, Rosie went to college and then dropped out. They were both right? If you're never seen Lucie in They're Playing Our Song, here's the really fun Tony Awards performance.

Rosie told us that one point, all the O'Donnell kids were sent to live with relatives and Rosie lived her aunt who was Hawaiian. When They're Playing Our Song closed, Rosie sent Lucie a shell from Hawaii. Many, many years later, Lucie was a guest on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and Rosie mentioned that she used to write her fan mail. Lucie immediately said, "Were you that girl who sent me a shell?"! How cool is that?

Her first big break came when she was a teenager. She would do stand-up in comedy clubs and get in using her neighbor's fake ID. She actually was introduced as her neighbor for her first three times since that was the only ID she had! One night Shirley Hemphill (the sassy waitress on "What's Happening") saw Rosie do her set and told the shocked owner she wanted Rosie to be her opening act. Rosie was still incredibly green but Shirley wanted to support a new comic, especially a female, and told the owner not only would he have to use Rosie as her opener, he would have to have to pay her! Rosie wound up making $25 for each gig which, for her, was an incredible amount of money. She wound up getting scouted by "Star Search," which was a talent show where the categories were singing, acting, dancing, spokesmodel etc.. Rosie was flown to L.A. and told us that the comics were given two minutes to do stand-up and would have to watch an enormous clock next to the judges. There was much pressure because they were told that if they went over time, they would be disqualified! Rosie won her first week and then kept winning for seven weeks. Since she had to stay in L.A. for a week between filming, the show gave her a per diem (money every day) to cover her expenses. Well, she didn't know you could get that money in cash, so it wound being sent to her bank account in New York, and she therefore had no cash in L.A. They housed her in a hotel and she would walk a mile and a half from the hotel to a fast food joint where she could get a hot dog and soda for $1.50 and that's basically all she ate…resulting in her seventh appearance on the show coinciding with the thinnest she's ever been. She wound up not winning the semi-finals but she felt good later on that the other guy who also lost the semi-finals that year was Sinbad! A little while later, she got the TV show "Gimme A Break" and "Star Search" brought her back. Watch!

Rosie always wanted to do Broadway and when she heard about Grease she went to the audition for Tommy Tune. After she sang and danced, she told him there are other ladies who can do it all better but she'll bring in an audience and no one will work harder. She got the role and I found this commercial she did with Susan Wood (Sandy) and Ricky Paull Goldin (Danny). It was filmed before the show had come to Broadway (hence the marquee for the show with a completely different design) and there's a shot of Rosie being mobbed at the stage door. But, I thought, how could she be mobbed when the show wasn't even running? When we watched the commercial she was like "Oh, those are my friends." I guess it was just a group of people Rosie knew who were asked by the director to run at her like a star-crazed mob. I'm also obsessed with Rosie's "rap" about the show which only rhymes "show" with "yo." After we watched she said, "We can't all be Hamilton."

I then showed the Grease appearance on the Tony Awards and afterwards Rosie had tears in her eyes. Not only for the sadness she felt about the passing of the great Marcia Lewis who played Miss Lynch as well as the golden-voiced Jason Opsahl who played Kenickie, but also because she said that doing Broadway shows are her happiest memories.

Jason Opsahl and Rosie O'Donnell in <i>Grease</i>
Jason Opsahl and Rosie O'Donnell in Grease Photo by Stan Schnier and Carmen Schiavone

Rosie told us that she always wanted kids but felt that one of the reasons her childhood was so hard was because they had very little money. When her mom was sick, she thought that if everybody who watched Johnny Carson would send in a dollar, they would raise $1,000,000 and that money would help her money get better. Rosie decided that if she got $1,000,000 as an adult, that would be the amount of money she'd need to have a kid. After having three hit films ("A League Of Their Own," "Sleepless In Seattle" and "The Flintstones") she had $1,000,000 (!) and adopted her first son, Parker. She filmed "Harriet The Spy" soon after and hired a nanny. When she was growing up, she had never known anyone with a nanny, but she was a single parent and would be on the set for 12 hours a day and felt she had no choice. When she came back from her first day of filming, Parker wouldn't come to her! She then told her agent she wanted a gig where she could be with her kid a lot more often.

They talked about a talk show which would only take a few hours a day and at that time Kathie Lee Gifford was talking about leaving "Regis and Kathie Lee." Rosie lobbied to replace her but Kathie Lee stayed, so Rosie started her own show instead. Let's just say it worked out. And I got a writing gig for a few years! Here is the staff holiday production number we did in 1999, and you can see me in the first group. Just some background for the lyrics that don't make sense out of context: Janette Barbour had been in a wheelchair and unable to walk for a while until she went to HealingBackPain.com (go to that site...it's amazing!) and this number was filmed during the four-month period when we got a new executive producer who thought the shows would be better taped and then edited. Rosie realized she was better when she knew it was being broadcast live and there's a segment in the number when we reference that January would begin live shows again. This week I'm home for a few days and then fly to California to do Deconstructing Broadway at Largo in L.A. Come see me May 30 and peace out!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

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