BWW Exclusive: Cyndi Lauper Interviews Rosie O'Donnell About the TONYS, the 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Award, Who She's Rooting For, Rosie's Theatre Kids & More!
Two legends came together today with BroadwayWorld.com in honor of this Sunday's Tony Awards. Rosie O'Donnell (while en route to Parker's graduation), who will be receiving the 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Award and Grammy, Tony, Emmy award-winner Cyndi Lauper chatted by phone (while on tour with Cher) about the Tonys, Rosie's Theatre Kids, her theatrical favorites, and of course about LAST year's big winner - KINKY BOOTS! The Isabelle Stevenson Award is presented annually to a member of the theatre community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations. If that doesn't describe Rosie, we don't know what does. O'Donnell will be presented with the 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Award for her commitment to arts education for New York City's public school children.
Congratulations, are you excited about your award this weekend?
I am! I'm kind of a little bit shocked, and a little bit nervous about having to walk in high heels...but aside from that - I'm thrilled!
Are you going to walk in high heels?
You know me, I'm the queen of clogs, right? So, I just had my fitting...
You're going to blend right in! Ok - Everyone knows that you love theatre, and are both a participant and its biggest, biggest fan - tell us, what does receiving an honor at this year's Tonys mean to you?
Well, you know, it really means everything, in that when I was a kid, Broadway was the goal. Like you, I grew up on Long Island with access to the theatre and that was the best gift that the universe ever gave me...that I was in commuting distance to see Broadway. That became my church from the first time I went in there at 8 years old, and that never has changed for me. I have such a love and reverence for all the people who do it and to be given this award - was thrilling and shocking to me.
I knew Isabelle Stevenson from when I hosted, and she was always there as the head of the Theatre Wing and everyone was a little awed in her presence. I know how much charity work she did in her career, and how many women she helped. So, for me - this is a huge honor.
Aww, What was the first play you saw? What was that at 8 years old?
The first thing I saw was Bette Midler's CLAMS ON A HALF SHELL.
OH MY GOD! Really?
That was was 1972, I think. Can you believe it? She was in a big clam shell and she was all gaudied out. I remember thinking - I don't know what that was, but I want to do that.
Then I went with the school to see plays like SHERLOCK HOLMES, and my Mom took us to see musicals and shows at Radio City from the 3rd or 4th balcony.
Oh, I love that.
I loved the velvet seats, and I loved the curtain and I loved the orchestra tuning up. The whole thing was magical to me. To get to be a part of it, in my adult life, is by far the most fulfilling part of show business.
Sometimes you just have to look in your own backyard, Ro...
I know. And last year, watching you, Harvey and people that I love and know in my heart and my life for decades. Seeing you getting all these accolades. It's like - when did it become us?
I don't know...
It was like Michael Bennett, and here it is US - I'm very, very grateful.
The honor is for your work with Rosie's Theater Kids - how did that organization get started?
The work is for Rosie's Theater Kids, which you've been so helpful in doing fundraising for. It was a program that we started back in 2002, because I really wanted to be hands on.
We had a foundation for way over a decade for women and children in crises, for which we opened a lot of daycare centers. When my show ended, I wanted to find something where I could look into the faces of the kids and to love them one on one. That was done to me when I was in public school and had a teacher who saved my life through love and theatre and a feeling of family.
When I started about a dozen years ago, we never expected we'd have our own school, and that we'd put all these kids not only through high school, but also through college.
Our first graduates are graduating college. It's really a very, hard to believe thing that these kids... They're all below the poverty level, they're the highest percentage of school lunches in the city and that's how we choose the schools. So, these are kids who never would have access to theatre. No one in their family ever went to college, and they got a full ride. There's a 100% graduation rate, and a 100% participation rate. No one drops out. It's an amazing program.
That's awesome. With arts education continually in trouble, how does Rosie's Theater Kids work with New York City public schools?
Well, we met with the Board of Ed a dozen years ago and we followed the program that Jacques d'Amboise had started for the National Dance Institute. He went to different schools across the country (including Appalachia) to teach dance. So, we knew the prototype was there, and we went and met with the Board of Ed, and told them that we wanted to provide 17 weeks of in-school education across the city to students in the 4th and 5th grade. We said that we'd bring accredited teachers, to work with those already in the public school. We have been really lucky to have had the support of the New York City public schools and the department of education from the very beginning.
Our program works with the NYC public schools, and it's grown and grown. We raise money through private donations, through grants and through existing non-profits that we've applied for. It's been very, very successful and a wonderful way to fill the void that has sadly opened up in nearly ALL public schools in New York State where the theatre departments are being cut, and cut and cut.
For kids like me, that used theatre to get out of a sad place, and out of a life that was sometimes dark. It's really a rope at the end of the well, that some kids can climb right out through. I wanted to provide that rope, that ladder for kids.
That's really awesome. It's so amazing that you're doing this... You just said what you hope to get out of this, and you're changing the stories of their lives...
Yeah, just to give back what I was given. The fact that Broadway is so...is so close to these kids and they don't have access to it... A lot of these kids grew up in the theatre district, but couldn't see a show because they didn't have money. It's like growing up in Hawaii and being told that they couldn't go to the beach.
It's a vital resource and art is integral, important and imperative to children's souls. Adult souls too, but once you get a child hooked on ART, and they understand how free it can make them - you can create a whole new generation of artists that are going to contribute to society in ways that we don't even know yet.
Is there one favorite thing you can remember? One favorite kid?
There's this kid named Daniel, who is now a junior at the University of Michigan. He is just absolutely astounding. He's like Brian Stokes Mitchell and in fact, Brian came and mentored him. When he was first in the program, in the 5th grade, he looked just like one of the Hines brothers - you know, Maurice and Gregory Hines. He came to me and said that 'Excuse me, but I'd like to learn how to play the piano, but we don't have one'.
So, we got a piano delivered to his apartment. And, his mother...
Oh my God!
I know! And now he has two little brothers that are in the program, and his Mom is just so great. I feel like he's a nephew, or a special kind of son. I'm so proud of him and so amazed of his tenacity. When he first got into the University of Michigan, he said to me 'Rosie, I don't know anyone who's ever been to college. I've never been anywhere, I don't think I'll fit in.' And, I was like 'You Daniel, have EVERYTHING that it takes and more and they see it, and they're giving you a scholarship and they want to help you become everything that you can be.' To watch this child perform, now he's a man - he makes me cry. I think one day that he will be on the Tonys getting an award.
It's amazing how you give back Ro, honestly...
You do too Cyn...
But not like you. Now how do students join the program? Can people call?
No, we go to the poorest schools - the ones with the most kids on free lunch. A lot of rich parents from the Upper East and Upper West side call all the time, asking to send their kids, 'can I get my kids in there?' The answer is no, you can't - it's a not-for-profit. The goal is to provide for life, not to turn them all into performers. We provide emotional therapy, we provide computers, we have homework assistance, we have life skills assistance, there's a kitchen with nutritional food, there are showers for kids who don't have hot water.
The building is a real refuge for kids to come in and to know that they have a safe place to learn and a place to get help. They're also constantly tutored and they have one-on-one programs for both vocal and dance and whatever the kids excel in. There's also program for performing. In the public schools right around where we are - they had no gym programs, they had no gym and they had no physical activities so we had a meeting with the public schools, and said we'll take the young kids in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades and said when they're supposed to have gym - bring them to us, and we'll teach them tap. So, they get physical education in schools that have cut back and everyone takes tap. It's not bad enough that they cut the theatre, some schools have also cut Phys-ed!
How do you think their learning is going to affect their life?
We're not trying to teach them to be Broadway stars, but we've done that for a few of them. Like Daniel, I can totally see him on Broadway in a minute.
What we're teaching these kids is that life is full of positive surprises, and not just negative ones. And, that there are people that care for them and love them, and that were once them and are reaching a hand backwards to help them up with the knowledge that they will do the same when they can do so.
We're not really trying to be like a conservatory bringing out the kids who are going to be stellar stars. We're trying to improve children's lives and their family's lives through structure, compassion, creativity and love.
The teachers at that school, are led by Lori Klinger. She is really phenomenal and before us, she worked with Jacques d'Amboise for many years. This is her life's work, and her life's calling as it was her mother's. Her mother ran a theatre in the Midwest, and when she passed away, there were thousands of former students who showed up. This is a legacy that's been passed down in her family. These children love her, and we couldn't do it without her.
Wow - moving onto something else - what were some of your favorite performances or moments that you still think of today from the Tonys that you watched while growing up?
The best thing that I ever saw in my life in the theatre, or on the Tonys is Jennifer Holliday singing 'And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going'
OH MY GOD, I LOVE THAT. MY GOD...
That was unbelievable to me, and I still can't get that out of my head. But you know, I was a kid of the 70s, so getting to see A CHORUS LINE in the theatre, and then getting to see it on the Tony Awards... I also remember the original PIPPIN, with Jill Clayburgh in it and John Rubenstein, and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS and CATS! I remember being blown away as a 17 year old kid, when it opened.
There are so many shows that have moved me and almost charted my emotional destiny. Those lyrics from LES MIZ, still ring out in my head whenever I'm faced with a decision of morals, I try to live by the words of Jean Valjean - 'Must my name until I die be no more than an alibi, must I lie?' I could quote the whole friggin score of LES MIZ. It's been my North Star and Broadway is the place I can always come home to and feel the most at peace. I don't remember my life without Broadway, as far back as I can remember.
You're a Broadway Baby kid!
I am, you're not kidding.
Of course I would. In a minute! I think Hugh's been amazing. I think Neil Patrick Harris is a little genius and a Broadway God. I think he's going to win his own Tony. Although, I loved Andy Karl's performance in ROCKY, and what a talented guy and what great work he's been doing. I think Hugh Jackman is always brilliant...but I would do it whenever they want me. I'm ALWAYS available.
There you go. It's been a great season on Broadway - who will you be rooting for?
I loved the musical BEAUTIFUL. I thought it was absolutely amazing and the woman who played Carole King, Jessie Mueller, is unbelievable. I was absolutely blown away by her performance. And, Anika Larsen who's in that show is unreal. It's great.
Did you see HEDWIG yet?
I didn't, but that's a revival so a different category. We're going to see it soon, but I try to see all the things that are brand new first, and then the revivals. I love that original show, and we're going to go see it as soon as we can. I wait to hit the revivals after the brand new shows. I'm dying to see it, because I hear Neil's great.
Did you see Harvey's show?
Yes, CASA VALENTINA I thought was wonderful. He's so talented, and a real Broadway baby.
Ok, one last question. Oh goodness gracious. It's kind of tacky... What was your favorite part of when WE won the Tonys last year for KINKY BOOTS, which is still going strong and going on tour.
That was my favorite part of the Tonys last year - you! Honey, I was sobbing at my house, and I knew you were going to win...
I was sobbing too!
I was with you when Harvey called you to ask you to write the score... Remember, you said 'Hey Ro, do you know this Harvey? Do you think this would be good?'
I remember that! And then I played you the songs that I started...
So I felt from the first phone call that Harvey made, that I was there along the way. You're like my sister and I'm so proud of you. Still, I think it's unbelievable. It's such a great show, and it's changing lives. I hear stories about mothers taking their 12 year old sons, who like to wear women's clothes, and they're fulfilled with joy and hope with the promise of a happy life. You changed people's worlds Cyn, and you changed the world and culture.
I'm glad, I had a great teacher in Harvey, and in Jerry. I wanted to give them everything. I also had Stephen Oremus, and he's great. I was lucky for it as my first project.
You're not lucky - you're gifted. You call it lucky, I call it talent. You know what? Please do another one, because I can't wait to hear that.
I'm writing, I'm writing something now. I'm not going to keep you, I love you!
Thank you, I'll see you on Sunday!
BroadwayWorld.com will see you Sunday as well!