Passing It On: How Tony Recipient Rosie O'Donnell Gives Her "Kids" the Gift of Theatre

By Michael Gioia
08 Jun 2014

Rosie O'Donnell
Rosie O'Donnell
Photo by Dana Fineman

Comedian, television personality and Broadway veteran Rosie O'Donnell talks Rosie's Theater Kids, the New York City program that changes lives of young theatregoers and earned her the 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award.

*

Three weeks after it was announced that comedian and actress Rosie O'Donnell — a supporter of Broadway, the arts, equal rights, and education — would receive this year's Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award, I took a trip to the Maravel Arts Center. Rosie's Theater Kids (RTKids) were in the midst of rehearsing Footloose's "Holding Out for a Hero" for their annual Passing It On gala.

The Maravel Center on 45th Street is home to RTKids, where children from around the city gather after school to tie up their tap shoes, tickle the ivories and fine-tune their craft. Although these students receive public education in Manhattan — the stomping ground of Broadway greats — they are given minimal exposure to the performing arts. That's where Rosie comes in.



"It's safe here," Professional Performing Arts (PPAS) high school junior Lauren Rexach told me in the Academic Room at Maravel. "You come here knowing that you walk into people you love, and they love you. They're friends that you just don't carry here. It doesn't leave as soon as we walk out the door. Whenever she walks in the building — everyone's been frantically rehearsing — she [says], 'Remember why you do this. It's because you love it.'"

She referred, of course, to O'Donnell, who performed Sweet Charity's "The Rhythm of Life" alongside the RTKids at this year's annual gala last month. The students couldn't contain their excitement about sharing the stage with Rosie. More so, they couldn't contain their pride over her Tony honor.

Krystal Rivera, also a junior at PPAS, admitted, "When they told us that Rosie was getting the Tony Award, my jaw dropped… I'm proud to be a part of such an amazing organization."

As for Rosie, "I was stunned, number one, and then my second thought was, 'Please tell me it looks like a real Tony,'" she said. "Whenever anyone comes to my house, I'm going to tell them this was for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical, and I was against Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel… but I won… It's a huge thrill and great honor and probably the only way I'll ever get a Tony in my life, but it's good enough for me." I laughed. She responded, "You're supposed to say, 'Of course you'll win the Tony, Rosie!' That's what you're supposed to say!"

O'Donnell co-founded RTKids, then called Rosie's Broadway Kids, with artistic and executive director Lori Klinger in 2003. Since then the program has grown from 40 to over 1,700 students. Rosie hopes to continue their work and possibly replicate the program in other cities.

"When I hear that [arts programs are] getting cut, it really does break my heart because for many children, including me, that is the outlet, that is the rope that you climb out of the well—the velvet rope of the theatre curtain," she confided. "To cut the arts, we're doing a disservice to the children and ultimately to ourselves because where are we going to find the next generation of Stephen Sondheims?"