FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL
As a teenager, Rosie O'Donnell didn't have time to cruise the malls of Long Island with her friends: the would-be comedienne from Commack was busy riding the train to Manhattan and buying standing-room tickets to Broadway musicals like A Chorus Line, Pippin, and Dreamgirls. "At some point, the ushers would recognize me and let me in without paying," recalls O'Donnell, who didn't mind seeing her favorite shows five or six times. "Sometimes I'd catch the beginning of one show and the end of another," she says. "I was a fanatic."
Hallelujah for those indulgent ushers, because Rosie has grown up to be Broadway's biggest fan and as hostess of the hottest new daytime talk show on television one of its most highly visible supporters. Check out the guest list of her wildly successful "The Rosie O'Donnell Show": Carol Channing, Julie Andrews, Betty Buckley, Liza Minnelli, Sarah Jessica Parker, Savion Glover, Adam Pascal, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Linda Eder, Frank Langella, Whoopi Goldberg, and many other Broadway performers, famous and non-.
In addition to an encyclopedic knowledge of their contributions to Broadway, O'Donnell welcomes the performers with old playbills, autographed programs and ticket stubs from her carefully preserved memorabilia collection. So when Rosie recalls how much a particular performance meant to her, you believe it and so do millions of viewers. That love of live theatre is what O'Donnell is hoping to convey to a prime-time audience as host of the 51st annual Tony Awards.
From the first episode of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," O'Donnell has acted as Broadway's unofficial ambassador to the rest of the country, particularly those who live far from Times Square. "I was lucky to grow up close to Broadway," she says. "But someone like Billy Porter of Smokey Joe's Cafe, a phenomenally gifted entertainer who grew up in the South, only got to see Broadway on the Tony show. He told me that he would listen to his cast recordings and wait and wait and wait to see the numbers performed live onstage. That's the kind of excitement I want to generate as host of the show."
Though ratings for the Tony broadcast have lagged in recent years, O'Donnell is convinced that people outside New York City do care about Broadway. "Everybody knows the words to the songs in Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music. Musical theatre is a staple of American culture," she points out, "and I believe we can interest people in new American musicals and dramas through a program that's entertaining and touching and dignified."
O'Donnell sees the Tony ceremony's unprecedented move to Radio City Music Hall as a key element in creating an appropriately grand celebration. "Visually, any Broadway theatre looks small [on camera]," says O'Donnell. "I want the Tonys to be a big New York event. You know, 6,000 responding to a musical number is a lot different than 1,100 people."
Gary Smith, executive producer of the telecast, says that O'Donnells's wide-eyed love for the theatre is infectious. "Rosie is full of energy and ideas," he says, "and I think her enthusiasm for Broadway translates very effectively on camera."
According to O'Donnell, her relationship with Broadway was love at first sight when she saw Bette Midler's Clams on the Half Shell revue at the Minskoff Theatre 22 seasons ago. "From the time I was 12 or 13, I knew there was a place called Broadway where people did what I wanted to do for a living perform onstage," she says. "I never thought of movies as a career option because I never met any of those people. But to go to a Broadway show and see those phenomenal actors and singers, and then to wait by the stage door and speak to them as they walked out, had a profound impact on me and my career."
Thanks to her talk show, O'Donnell can share her Broadway memories with millions of viewers while thanking the people she once idolized. "I had a mad crush on Lucie Arnaz and used to write letters to her at the theatre," she recalls of the star of one of her all time favorites, They're Playing Our Song. "Not only did she write me back, I kept all her letters, and when she did my show, I brought them out and showed them to her."
At that, O'Donnell breaks into a chorus of an obscure song from the show, demonstrating her famed knowledge of musical theatre repertoire, which rivals the permanent collection at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. "Tell me just how sweet this weekend will be," she sings, "Just you and me, just you and me." O'Donnell laughs. "I don't think there's a show you could name that I don't know. It's insane." In addition to funny, tuneful musicals, her taste runs to emotion packed shows with larger-than-life characters. "When I was 16, I wanted to be Patti LuPone," she says flatly. "I'm sitting there at Evita watching this woman who grew up on Long Island and she was just it to me." O'Donnell is gushing now, as she did when LuPone appeared on her show. But when Rosie gushes, America listens. Another guest O'Donnell gushed over is Jennifer Holliday. "I still get chills thinking about her in Dreamgirls," says O'Donnell. "When she came to our show and sang 'And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going,' I started crying. She kills me."
Musicals aren't O'Donnell's only enthusiasm. "I've seen Master Class five times," she reports. "I knew nothing about Maria Callas the first time I saw it. I was sitting in the front row, sobbing hysterically, and I was afraid of distracting the actors." Three Marias and five viewings later, she's a familiar sight: "When the cast sees me now, they say, 'What are you, a stalker?'"
O'Donnell laughingly admits that her passion for Broadway sometimes creates headaches for the producers of her talk show. "It's costly for us [to book theatrical guests] because of union requirements with costumes and sets and music," she says. "Every time I bring it up, they'll say, "You know Rosie, it would be easier to have Jean Valjean singing alone instead of the whole cast of Les Miz doing 'Master of the House.' And I'm saying, 'Yeah, but 'Master of the House' is much more fun.' Sometimes I have to settle for 'Bring Him Home.'"
Surprisingly, despite her love of live theatre and a successful appearance as Rizzo in the original cast of the 1994 revival of Grease!, O'Donnell is content to remain in the audience (with the exception of Tony night!). "It takes more discipline than I have to perform a show eight times a week without changing a line," she says now. "I need the freedom to edit myself, or I get really bored. I'm in awe of actors with the strength to give 100 percent at every performance."
Onstage or not, O'Donnell gives 100% to her talk TV show. To children's charities. To her two-year-old son, Parker whose first taste of Broadway was Beauty and the Beast. Tonight, her love of Broadway is on display at Radio City Music Hall, and on TV screens across America. Next, O'Donnell hopes to be on screen, playing Matron "Mama" Morton opposite Goldie Hawn and Madonna in the movie version of Chicago. "That would thrill me, but we'll have to see if something works out."
Asked if her current success surprises her, O'Donnell says, "Not really, and I don't mean to sound arrogant when I say that. But I think you have to dream something to live it, and I dreamed my show would be successful. I like to encourage kids to believe in themselves and live their dreams. That's what I did."
-- By Kathy Henderson