An Interview with Rosie O'Donnell
"It's the third year that we're in existence," explains Rosie. "We started out doing one school in the theater district, bringing a 15 week in-school program to 5th graders that teaches them everything from performance and composing to stage craft, and costumes. We try to give them as full a range of the Broadway experience as we can. At the end of the program they perform for their parents, and other school children and then they go see a Broadway show."
The response to the program has been astounding, and it's since expanded from one school, to eight, and now to twelve. The program shows no signs of slowing down either. "We start with students that are in the 5th grade, and now we have an 'excel program,' which is a summer camp for the kids who excel. We just purchased a townhouse in the theatre district that we're going to renovate and turn into an academy so these kids can start in the 5th grade with Rosie's Broadway Kids, and hopefully we can be with them all the way up until they are in college."
The program is run by Lori Klinger, Artistic Director who previously was the Artistic Associate with the National Dance Institute for fifteen years, a program that Rosie and co. used as a model. "They did a similar thing for dance, going to the inner city schools and teaching it there, and it was a pretty phenomenal program, so we structured ours after it." Though Lori runs the day to day operations of the organizations, Rosie's influence is clearly all over the program. "I've been involved in picking what songs kids are going to sing, and inviting some theater professionals to go in and speak. At the end of the year I go in and watch their performances, and/or perform with them and I also direct a week during the summer program, working on their musical number."
"I believe that it's through the arts that the kids get to hope,
to inspire, and to dream."
The problem of the lack of arts funding is an important topic to Rosie, today more than ever, and interest in the program from public schools is palpable. "Every school wants it, and it's sad, because the arts programs have been cut so much in public schools. More than 90% of students in the schools that we go to, live below the poverty level. Public education is in a pretty sad state of affairs. It's how I was raised, and it's one of the things that supposedly makes America great, so I wish that we'd invest more money and time into it. I believe that it's through the arts that the kids to get to hope, to inspire, and to dream. It allows access to emotions, and free expression of them. I think that it's vital for the building of children's little lives."
As much of America knows from watching her talk show, it was as a kid that Rosie first got her exposure to the great white way, thanks to her mother. "My mother loved theatre, and I grew up seeing Funny Girl, knowing who Barbra Streisand was, and what day she was born, and where she lived and what happened to her, and my whole experience of Broadway stems from following Barbra and my mother's love of her. From there I was hooked, and kept going to shows when I was a kid. I was lucky growing up on Long Island that I had access to go to the theater. I think that had I not done that, that my life would have been very different. In many ways, it was some of the most positive memories that I spent in my childhood either in the theater, or in the route to or from."
Trying to help kids having the same life-altering and enriching experiences is what Rosie's Broadway Kids is doing on a daily basis. "Imagine living in Hawaii and not being able to go to the beach? These kids live in the theater district, and their parents walk, and they walk by these theaters that they'll never have enough money to go into. To me, it was unbelievable."
Getting the organization off the ground was no easy task, and a lack of support from other Broadway producers resulted in Rosie funding the organization herself up until recently. "We still haven't gotten the theatre tickets donated, and I funded it myself up until this last month. We've had to buy the tickets, and it shocked me. You're going to make us buy the tickets? But they did, and gave us a discount, but still, you'd think that we'd be interested as a community in fostering an interest in the next generation so we can have another Sondheim, or another Stroman, or whatever."
"There needs to be an independent film division of Broadway"
Support from the Broadway community is a topic that she feels passionately about, given her experience with Taboo. "I think there should be a real restructuring of everything, because Broadway has become a total unimaginable beast in a way. There needs to be an independent film division of Broadway. You know how independent film created its own niche because there was no way to make it in the studio system, and the same thing is happening to Broadway. The costs are ridiculous, and the cost for tickets, and the costs to produce - it's becoming an elitist art form, and that's never what it was. I expected a lot more support when I did Taboo than I got from the Broadway community, and it's not to point fingers, it just shocked me. I found that within the acting community everyone is very giving and trying to support each other. As a producer though, it's totally not, it's just a business and that's disheartening."
On the subject of Broadway today, and the recent rush of jukebox musicals, Rosie weighs in as well. "I think that the Mamma Mia thing, where everyone said wow get a group of songs from anyone famous, make a little story and you're done. In a way, it's becoming theme park-ish, with both Disney, and with the theater musical extravaganza. There are people who do it for the money, and if you look at the difference between Beauty and the Beast, which was Disney being corporate and thinking they could do a theme park, and then they did Lion King, and added true talent in Julie Taymor. That made it into something different, and into real theater. You can't blame people who are trying to go, let's just get the Beach Boys library catalogue, and I can see why it would make sense, but it's harder to do than it seems."
The idea for the concert came from Rosie's wife Kelli, and was modeled after a recent Birthday party. "My friend Dan McDonald turned 40 and Seth put together a show just like the one we're doing on Monday night, and it was his Birthday present. We did it in a small club, and it was a pretty good present to just have all these Broadway leads come and serenade you. I thought it was perfect. After that Kelli asked me if we could do it as a fundraiser, and if I'd host."
Rosie and musical director Seth Rudetsky, who's working on the concert collaborated on choosing the performers for the night, who include Farah Alvin, Michael Arden, Elaine Brier, Alix Korey, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Shayna Steele and Marty Thomas. "A lot of them are people I had just come to know, like Michael Arden who I did a benefit of Pippin with, and he was amazing, as Pippin. We've also got Euan Morton who I believe in a trillion dollars worth. Some of them are people that I've seen at venues and said to Seth 'can you get them?' and he did. He also had some people that he introduced me to that I loved."
Those talents that Rosie's got performing, she not only supports them, she supports them 1000%. "I think Marty's amazing, and I saw him filling in for someone in the read thru of Pippin, and I was like 'who the hell are you?' He has an astounding voice I think, and I don't understand why he's not more famous. Maybe it's me, and maybe I don't have the magic touch that I think I do, but when I saw Kristin Chenoweth for the first time on stage, I remember going 'oh my God.' There's few people that make you go 'oh my God,' and he's one of them, Marty is. Definitely Euan, and Michael Arden, they're 'Oh my God' too."
hosted by me I'm available."
Getting America to know these people is something she hopes to achieve in the near future. "There's a lot of 'Oh My God' on Broadway and America doesn't know it. We're inviting a lot of the networks to come and watch the concert, and that's for me to say that this is the series that I would like to do. If you're interested Bravo, or A&E or NBC, or CBS, or whoever - 7 Sunday's in a row, from 8-9 at night, Broadway's best, hosted by me. I'm available. I think that would just be thrilling."
Controversy is no stranger to Rosie's life the past few years, and the latest wave of media attention has come from some recent stand-up comedy and from her blog. "I've been doing standup at a couple of charities over the past few weeks, and each time that I do a PR nightmare happens, or I'm quoted on CNN! I'm constantly saying, 'come on people, it's comedy, it's jokes ok?' I tell a joke about my son, and it's like Rosie's fighting with her son, and I'm like 'oh my god?!?' It's comedy remember it's just comedy, they're just jokes."
Her blog, which lives at www.Rosie.com has also been the subject of much online attention as of late. "My friends were getting really sick of me writing them these haiku-ish, kind of weird, off-beat things to email them, and sending them videos that I make that I of course think are very important. They kept telling me 'you know you're filling up my hard drive? It's very annoying.' Finally one friend said 'why don't you just do it on a blog?', and I said 'what's a blog?' I started blogging more constantly recently, and it was fine until it got in the press, and I started getting asked for comments on entries. I don't really have any comments, and I don't think that blogs are really supposed to be anything but the art form is that they live there. Just read them alone in front of your computer, and make a comment if you have one. That's where they're supposed to live."
Comments though are something that was causing trouble on her blog, and they're now off. "We took comments off because it was getting to be ridiculous. I get great responses, but then you know it just takes one idiot, writing 'you're fat, you're a dyke, you're a fat dyke, you're gay, and you're fat and you're gay, and you're also a dyke' and it gets out of control. There were no limits on how much they could post, so they could just post pages of that, or put links up to porno sites or whatever. Finally, we just decided to make it comment free."
A knack for getting talents together, and showcasing them to the largest audience possible is of course one of the key ingredients to producing, an area of theater that Rosie's definitely not done with. "Next for me producing wise, I'm hoping to do Billy Porter's show, to tape Ghetto Superstar that he just did at Joe's Pub as a TV special. I'm hoping to produce a new one person show for Seth Rudetsky too."
The new Dodger Stages are also calling to her to help fill them up. "I love the new Dodger Theaters, they're just gorgeous and I'd love to find a home to produce shows in that space. I want to open people up to the world of Off-Broadway shows, but right on Broadway. It's more cost effective, and the prices are more reasonable. If I had a wish, that would be it."
Speaking of Dodger Stages, there's been a recent rash of rumors that Rosie would be getting involved with Bare, one of the shows that was slated for the space, but never made it. "I'd love to produce Bare, and I wish that I had known about it at the beginning stages, instead of where it is now. I wish that I had known about it sooner, because I love it, and I think that it's a great show, I really do. I think that if there was a way that would make sense for everyone I would love to do it. But I don't think that it makes sense at this point from a numbers point, but I have to tell you that I love the show, and I thought the performances were great, and the rock opera was great, and that that content was so important. It's like Grease for the kids of today."
In addition to producing, there's also talk of Rosie returning to the stage herself in a new straight play, playing Danny Aiello's daughter. "We're looking at possibly the fall for that, and it's a great story, I love the play. We'll see if someone puts it together!"
We couldn't do a BroadwayWorld interview without talking a bit about Taboo, a show that we haven't seen the last of, though it might be a while before we do see it again. "I think Taboo is a great show, and that I got in the way. I thought I could help, but I think that I ended up hurting it. I think that in a way, I would love to revive it like tomorrow, and in another way I think that it would be too soon, and that we have to wait and to give people more time. I don't know. I love the show, and I loved the show since I first saw it."
"I don't think that the show had a fair start, because I was being sued, and the timing was horrible, and my emotional state didn't help. I do think though that it was better than any of, or most of the reviewers said it was. To got a standing ovation at every single performance, and I've seen many shows, and been in two and have never seen that happen. It wasn't the kind of standing ovation where the show is staged so you have to stand up at the end, but it's an organic one, and the way people leaped up after the 'hold up your head' song, you just can't argue with that."
One of the topics that Rosie's still bitter about however regarding Taboo is some of what she feels was unfair treatment in the press, namely by the New York Post's Michael Riedel. "You shouldn't try to open a musical, when the New York Post is trying to ruin your essence. Michael Riedel, I think he's a horrible man, and I think the city of New York should sanction him, because he's hurting the most, the biggest tourist attraction for the city, and the way it makes the most money. The fact that he makes a living killing it should be addressed. I think that he's gone beyond the point where he can be objective, and as pure destruction now, he's doing a disservice to many people's lives, and the city's financial ability to make money. I'd love to offer the Post my services, and I'd go to see every show, I do already, and I'd write an honest evaluation of what I think of it. I'm the average theater go-er, not him."
The leaks that occurred during the rehearsal process of Taboo were a shock as well "5 seconds after Raul Esparza walks out of the show, Michael Riedel knew, and what's the point of that? Is it a surprise that an actor was upset before opening night on Broadway? Of course that happens! Or that the woman who was being sued in the day, and then going at night to run the production had a bad temper? Oh wow, that's shocking during that time people! Even today, when he writes things like 'I bet that she's not going to make it to New York,' I think he does a disservice to the theatrical community. He's one guy, one horribly maladjusted guy, and he has waaay too much power for the little dweeb that he is."
Back to a more upbeat subject, Rosie promises that Rosie's Broadway Belters will be nothing short of fantastic, and with the organization it supports being so worthwhile, how can you go wrong?
The show will be presented for one performance only at The Zipper Theatre (336 West 37th Street) on Monday, April 11, 2005 (8:00 p.m. curtain). Tickets are $250 and are now available by calling 212-703-7400. Ticket price includes a post-performance cocktail party with Ms. O'Donnell and the cast at Al Sur, the new Latin American restaurant attached to the Zipper Theatre (the former site of The Belt Theatre) which is scheduled to open to the public this May.