Sunday, August 19, 2018

Donny Osmond Does an Encore

Donny Osmond, in his prime. (Photo: Billboard)

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 just this year turned 60. 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 a single 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. They used to swap 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. And made them miserable.

"He was an army sergeant when I was a kid," Osmond says 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 tells me, "that he was too hard on me." But it wasn’t all bad. "He taught me a lot of traits, for instance what it takes to be successful," Osmond continues. “And if I hadn't learned that I'd be digging ditches right now, like my cousin Danny."

Osmond and Michael Jackson. (Photo: Getty)

Donny, on the other hand, is digging gold with a revived career that has seen him act on Broadway and reunite with his kid sister Marie for a nostalgic “stage spectacular,” as it is billed, that continues throughout the summer and into the fall at the Flamingo Las Vegas. Chronicling five decades in a 90-minute show, it first launched in 2008 and features such past hits as "Puppy Love." "Paper Roses" and "Morning Side of the Mountain."

"People want to be entertained,” Osmond says. “They want me to give them 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. 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."

I am with him in his dressing room in Toronto when he played the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and it is littered with mementos: photos of his wife Debbie, the one person he credits for giving him an identity outside show business, and of his four sons; bottles of cologne – Tsar, Van Cleef & Arpels, Giorgio – along with pots of makeup that he applies himself in advance of each live stage performance. There is also a clock, a prized object on which is engraved, "For believing in the path you've chosen / Even when it is hard / Even when others / Couldn't see where you were going."

Osmond has been in the spotlight since the age of 7, making his screen debut on NBC's The Andy Williams Show in 1965 singing "You Are My Sunshine." He has never known normal.

"I remember this time in England," Osmond continues, his trademark white teeth showing through a smile. "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, 16mm. 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," Osmond replies. "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."

Osmond in London, England. (Photo: The Sunday Post)

Though raised in a religious family, early on he found the adulation intoxicating: "I loved the lust. I really did. It was great." The sensation didn't quite end overnight. But almost.

When he was 19, Osmond first joined forces with sister Marie (she was a little bit country; he was a little bit rock and roll) to host their own prime-time variety show. The Donny & Marie Show was a huge success, broadcast worldwide. "We were worshipped in the South Pacific," he marvels, "some place I had never been to. Such is the power of television."

He eventually left that 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. Osmond desperately wanted to be back on the charts. But few 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 before getting noticed in the U.S. after a New York radio station began to play it, albeit without identifying the singer. “The mystery guest" was eventually 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 could see for themselves that it was him. But my, how he’d changed. Instead of a polyester suit there was tight blue denim. Instead of a baby face there was a chin with stubble.

Then the people grew angry. They hadn’t wanted Donny Osmond 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," Osmond says. "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."

Osmond performing with his sister Marie. (Photo: Getty)

He learned to move past the criticism by putting himself out there, as he puts it, and letting his talent do the talking for him.

"There are easier ways,” Osmond admits, “and that's through publicity and 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." Guess who now has the last laugh?

Osmond takes a swig of mineral water straight from the bottle before racing down the hallway to take his place on stage. When the spotlight shines on him the noise is deafening.

Donny! Donny! Donny!

"There was a time when I was trying to exorcise all of that thing," he says. “But then I basically grew up and realized it's why I am here today."

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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