Deirdre Kelly

Donny Osmond: Been There, Done That And Doing It Again

Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson share the pain of growing up in the spotlight

Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson share the pain of growing up in the spotlight

Donny Osmond was in Toronto performing Joseph and the Technicolour Dream Coat when I caught up with him backstage for a heart-to-heart. Almost a decade later, he is back in the city, this time performing with his sister, Marie, and I thought I’d revisit our conversation as it was so revealing of the real man behind the teen idol persona. Interestingly, he said then that he wouldn’t want to revisit his Puppy Love past, but here is again, reviving a stage show where undoubtedly the old Osmond hits will be sung once more. But that’s show biz, and Donny Osmond, as you will read, is a seasoned pro. If the audiences come, he will sing to them. You’ve got to respect that.


THE story of Donny Osmond is not an easy one to tell in a short space. A book might be better. Although the former teen idol seems to have been around forever, he is, amazingly, still three years shy of his 40th birthday. Yet his life has had as many chapters as someone twice his age.

The first, and the most widely known, is filled with descriptions of his life as a jet-setting member of the internationally known Osmonds. You remember, the singing brothers from Utah. The Mormons in bell bottoms, sequins and big-collared shirts? The guys whose squeaky-clean image helped push them to the top of the recording industry? At one time they scored nine gold records in one year. Their rivals were the Jackson 5, brothers too, but black. The teen magazines pitted one against the other.

The Osmonds were the black Jacksons and the Jacksons the white Osmonds, so-called because both groups of siblings tested their pipes on soul- accented tunes. Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond, the youngest members of their respective groups, however, grew to be friends. At one time they were swapping stories about the pressures of growing up in the public eye. They also talked about their fathers, both of whom pushed their sons to be successful.

As Osmond reveals now, there were times as a youngster when he was miserable. “He was an army sergeant when I was a kid,” he said of the family patriarch. “He pushed me hard. Oh, there were times that I was crying, saying, please, I don’t want to do this, times when I didn’t want to go on stage. And there were times,” he added in an interview, “that he was too hard on me.”

But in the end, he conceded, discipline was good for him. “He taught me a lot of traits, for instance what it takes to be successful. And if I hadn’t learned that I’d be digging ditches right now, like my cousin Danny.”

Donny, on the other hand, is digging gold with a revived career as a stage performer, most notably in Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The show, now in its third year, first opened in Toronto with Donny cast as the eponymous hero. The success of the show here, produced by Garth Drabinsky’s Livent, prompted a North American tour that so far has played Chicago and Minneapolis. Now back in Toronto until September, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical will travel to Detroit in the winter. Plans are to take the show to Broadway in 1996 or 1997, with Osmond continuing to play the lead. And if the show does return to the Great White Way, where an earlier incarnation starring Michael Damien (The Young and the Restless) received only lukewarm reviews, it will mark the first time Osmond has played Broadway since the disaster of Little Johnny Jones.

This show, which marked Osmond’s Broadway debut, closed after one night. The effect on the childhood star who until then could do nothing wrong was “devastating.” He plunged into a depression and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. But the chocolate-eyed star has become philosophical with time and today admits that while unprepared for Broadway 13 years ago (“I didn’t know how to be anything other than Donny Osmond so I just played Donny Osmond and it was all wrong for that part”), he knows what to do now. “People want to be entertained. They want me to give them a 100 per cent. And I do give them that. But before I used to just do it for the people. Now I do it for myself,” he said. “There’s a big difference between making other people happy and making yourself happy and letting other people join in and peek into your world and share the joy.”

The disappointment he suffered with Little Johnny Jones was a good thing, he says now, because it pushed him to “grow up.” It made him look hard at himself, make up his own mind about what he wanted to do with his life and get on with it. Sounds normal. But when you’re a superstar who has been in the spotlight since the age of 7 (he made his debut on NBC’s The Andy Williams Show in 1965 singing You Are My Sunshine), normal isn’t exactly apart of your vocabulary, let alone lifestyle.

“I remember this time in England,” Osmond said, his trademark white teeth showing through a smile as he sat backstage at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre. “The police had locked us into a hotel. We were playing football in the halls. It was Beatlemania – except everyone was calling it Osmondmania. I was 14 or 15 and I’ll never forget. The balcony collapsed because there were so many girls] A couple of people were hurt and people were run over. It was just pandemonium. And the people just screamed.

“And in our hotel rooms we watched movies. There weren’t videos at the time so we had the reels, 16 millimetre. Talk about preferential treatment. We felt like royalty. And every time we came into the hotel they’d turn on the fire hoses to keep the people away. And I was sitting in my room watching television, the BBC, and there were two people from Scotland Yard and a commentator and they were talking about whether Donny Osmond is healthy for England. And whether Donny Osmond should be kicked out of the country.”

How did he feel?

“It was a feeling of elation and of depression at the same time,” he said. “I was on top of the world, yet I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I had seen news clips of Beatlemania when I was around 5 or 6 and now that was happening to us. I couldn’t quite believe it.”

The adulation that Osmond confesses he found intoxicating – “I loved the lust. I really did. It was great.” – didn’t quite end overnight. But almost. When he was 19 he joined forces with sister Marie (she was a little bit country; he was a little bit rock and roll) and together they hosted their own prime-time variety show. The Donny & Marie Show was a huge success, broadcast worldwide. “We were worshipped in the South Pacific,” he said, “some place I had never been to. Such is the power of television.”

But he left the show (he says he saw no future in it) and looked to carve out a career of his own, far from the influence of his family. But what followed was a string of rejections from recording companies who tended to remember only the “purple” prose of his Tiger Beat days and not the dozens of gold records he had minted in his youth. One day it was Donny! Donny! Donny! And the next it was snigger, snigger, snigger, he ruefully recalls. He wanted desperately to be back on the charts but no one would take a chance on him.

Then in 1987 Peter Gabriel contacted him and told him he should cut an album. He said he’d help. A single from that collaboration, Soldier of Love, was a minor hit in England, then it resurfaced in the States when a New York radio station began to play it, albeit without identifying the artist. One day “the mystery guest” was invited to come to the station and reveal himself on air. When Osmond said his name, the phone lines went crazy. No one could believe it. When he appeared in public, people saw it was him – but how he’d changed] Instead of the polyester suit there was tight blue denim. Instead of a baby face there was a chin with stubble.

Then people got angry. Apparently they didn’t want Donny to grow up. “Any time you make a change, I don’t care what it is, if it’s your career, your personal life, whatever it might be, it’s met with resistance until you prove that that change was right and everyone accepts it,” he said. “But when I came out with Soldier of Love people said I was wearing the George Michael look just to prove I had an image. I wasn’t trying to prove anything other than that I had changed.”

Donny’s dressing room table at the O’Keefe was littered with mementos. There were photos of his wife Debbie, the one person he credits for giving him an identity outside show business, and his four sons, aged 9 through 17. There were bottles of cologne – Tsar, Van Cleef & Arpels, Giorgio – and, of course, pots of makeup that he applies himself in advance of each performance (and he has done about 1,400 of them to date) of Joseph. And there was a clock, a prized object on which is engraved, “For believing in the path you’ve chosen/Even when it was hard/Even when others/Couldn’t see where you were going.”

“I’ve decided to put my talent out there and let word of mouth spread. That’s the hardest way to get recognition,” Osmond said. “There are easier ways. And that’s through publicity, through marketing the kind of stuff that other so-called teen idols have tried to do. It works temporarily – but I’ve gone the other way, the harder way, exercising perseverance and sticking to good-quality shows.”

But there are people who don’t want the boy featured in the early chapters of the Donny Osmond book to die. For many years this frustrated him. “The artist in me was crying to come out,” he said. “But people didn’t want me to change.” Yet with Joseph, the show Osmond said “has helped my career more than anything,” he no longer feels he has to edit out his past to serve his present or future aspirations.

“There are a lot of people who still have the Puppy Love syndrome in mind and perhaps always will because that’s the generation they are. And you know what? That’s just fine. And when I tour one day I’ll probably do Puppy Love. I’ll probably do Go Away Little Girl. But a very jazz-oriented version.”

The five-minute bell rang. Osmond quickly adjusted the long brown wig he wears for Joseph.

“There was a time when I was trying to exorcise all of that thing,” he added, referring again to the Donny Osmond that was. And who can blame him? Puppy Love is one thing, but what self-respecting adult would want to be caught singing Just Like a Yo-Yo -a hit for the Osmonds 25 years ago – into the new millennium? “Then I basically grew up and realized it’s why I am here today.”

Taking a swig of mineral water straight from the bottle, he raced down the hallway to take his place on stage. When the spotlight shone on him the house went wild. “Donny! Donny! Donny! The story continues.

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