Donny Come Lately
There are two kinds of people in the world.
In the first camp are those who subscribe to the conventional wisdom that a solitary piece of tainted fruit is capable of contaminating an entire load.
And then there are Donny Osmond fans, an optimistic (if grammatically challenged) clique who, like their idol, staunchly maintain that "one bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl."
If earlier stops on Osmond's current nationwide concert tour are any indication, it's a cinch that this core audience will be out in full force when the former teen heartthrob takes of the stage of Gammage Auditorium next week. Purple socks will be flung tonight!
Speaking from his home in Orem, Utah, the 43-year-old performer talks about his This Is the Moment tour, which coincides with the release of a CD of the same name. A collection of show tunes, most of them contemporary, the disc gives Osmond a chance to show his impressively matured chops on material from Rent, Riverdance, Seussical and Toy Story -- the last a duet with former foe-turned-booster Rosie O'Donnell that isn't half-bad. (Gallantry prevents identifying the person responsible for the other half.)
Still, up until the tour kicked off in Detroit earlier this month, even Osmond admits he was curious about the demographics of his current audience.
"Let's face it, it's a largely female crowd -- the 'Puppy Lovers,' I call them," he explains, referencing the title of his 1972 chart-buster and signature tune. "I started looking around and they're all 35 to 45, but now they're bringing their husbands, they're bringing their kids and they're bringing their grandparents. What's really weird is that every age group knows me for something else."
If most of the seats are warmed by middle-aged teenyboppers who spent their classroom adolescence scribbling "Mrs. Donny Osmond" in their notebooks (sorry, girls, but he wound up marrying his brother Jay's old girlfriend, Debby), older audiences may remember him as the cute kid from The Andy Williams Show, on which he made his TV debut with his brothers' barbershop quartet in the early '60s. Younger fans, meanwhile, might know him from his voice work in Disney's 1998 animated feature Mulan, or his stint in a touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Biblical war-horse that found him prowling the country in a loincloth and "Weird Al" Yankovic wig for the better part of the '90s. (In one memorable sequence from the video version of Joseph, 67-year-old Joan Collins [Dynasty] hungrily paws the half-naked Osmond. You have been warned.)
Osmond's skimpy wardrobe in Joseph may be responsible for an untapped fan base that recently prompted a tabloid to tout him as a "gay sex symbol." "And the deeply religious dad of five doesn't mind at all," reported The Star, "even when a lovestruck guy gives him a kiss or a jockstrap as a gift!"
"Actually, I think that all happened around '89 or '90 when 'Sacred Emotion' came out," says Osmond, who briefly sported facial stubble and black leather during a period in which emulating George Michael didn't seem like such a bad idea. "I think it was the video for that song that did it; they called it 'the Calvin Klein' video.'"
As he enters his fifth decade (yes, fifth) in show business, Osmond looks back on a career that had more ups and downs than that yo-yo he and his brothers were always singing about.
There were hit records. Personal appearances marked by Beatlemania-type mass hysteria. And the wildly popular The Donny and Marie Show, a brother-sister take on Sonny and Cher that earned him the distinction of being the youngest person ever to co-host a national TV variety show. In 1981, during a packed show at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium, he made a grand entrance via helicopter in the midst of a fireworks display.
But if Osmond could do no wrong in the '70s, as the '80s progressed it appeared he could do little right. A victim of changing public tastes (one rock critic took Osmond's parents to task for not drowning him at birth), he discovered it was no longer necessary to sing "Go Away, Little Girl" -- she'd already split.
In rapid succession, his ABC TV show was canceled, his family lost the $30 million production facility it'd built in Utah and he decided to accept the starring role in the notorious Broadway flop Little Johnny Jones, a show that closed after a single performance.
Although you wouldn't know it from the smile, the man behind the dazzling dentistry was crumbling. While he publicly sang of being a "Soldier of Love," Osmond privately battled an escalating obsessive-compulsive disorder that found him a slave to his own hosiery. In his 1999 autobiography, Life Is Just What You Make It, the entertainer wrote of the purple stocking that was both his trademark and a bizarre manifestation of personal demons. "I couldn't imagine not being the man everyone associated with those socks, and so they became like magic talismans to me, objects with which to ward off my own self-doubts and insecurities."
Later, during the Joseph tour, he was stricken by panic attacks so crippling that he wondered whether he could ever perform again. Finding relief in an herbal remedy that included a minute amount of vodka, Osmond later wrote, "My mind was deteriorating so rapidly, I seriously started to consider drinking alcohol for real" -- an act tantamount to Mormon heresy. With the aid of a therapist who specializes in anxiety phobias, Osmond says he's learned to work through his sporadic attacks, episodes he believes were triggered by his inability to accept failure at any level. Conquering the syndrome heralded the start of a mini-comeback co-hosting a short-lived daytime talk show with sister Marie.
A firm believer in the notion that you can't step in the same lazy river twice, an older, wiser and still wisecracking Osmond sees the current show-tune tour as a way of testing the waters for a possible Broadway performing career. Which, gentle Puppy Lover, is not to suggest you will go away disappointed.
"I really went through an interesting dynamic putting this show together," says Osmond. "I decided that it's got to be more than just this album, it's got to be about everything I've ever done, just the right amount of current and old stuff."
To that end, Osmond has assembled a compilation reel of career highlights that will open the show's second act. Digging around in his basement, he uncovered some lost footage from his first appearance on The Andy Williams Show.
"It was like watching a different person perform," says Osmond, who uses the archival clip to open and close the video segment. "Then, at the end, I come back onstage and sing a duet with myself" -- à la Natalie and Nat "King" Cole's Unforgettable.
Osmond's live set also includes a Q&A session with audience members -- in which he claims anything goes. It says something about the nature of his appeal that one of the most memorable questions to date came from a 5-year-old girl who wanted to know, "Can I have a hug?"
Of course, Osmond complied, "It's my favorite part of the show."
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