Q&A: Donny Osmond
Decades—heck, entire generations—have passed? So what? Today, fans are still in (puppy) love with Donny Osmond, his grandfatherly status notwithstanding. Besides, the way he still moves onstage with sis Marie at their show at the Flamingo—now approaching its ninth year (in a run that was initially set to last mere weeks)—this onetime (and really, forever) teen idol isn’t exactly a grandpappy in the grand tradition of granddaddies. Recently, this timeless Osmond discussed the art of performing with Las Vegas Magazine’s Steve Bornfeld.
What distinguishes your Vegas production is showmanship over spectacle. Is that a philosophy for you and Marie?
To use the term “old-school” can almost be bad in a way to a certain audience group but there are certain techniques we have learned. You go back to the vaudevillian days with Milton Berle and Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis and Andy Williams, even Frank Sinatra—all these people we learned from. Yes, audiences do expect spectacle now because the bar has been raised but the danger when producing a show these days, some producers think, let’s just throw a lot of money at the show and it’s a show. That can’t be further from the truth. Yes, you want the lights, you want the spectacle, the video, the costumes, all that stuff, but there are elements in our show, if you really dissect it, where all of that gets shut down and it’s just the two of us singing a song on a stool. Sinatra was masterful at that, and Dean Martin. The personality came across. And Marie’s and my philosophy is when people walk out of that theater, I want them to know us personally, not just, “Wow that was amazing lights and sounds.”
How important is it to reach out to the crowd?
You have to have that connection with the audience. I’ll sit there and talk to people during my segment. I can’t do it too much because we have to squeeze it into 90 minutes, and Marie will do the same thing—talk to individuals, make them feel part of the show. When Marie and I are on the stools, I will notice somebody singing along with us, and I include somebody in the front row or I can see who is singing with us, and vicariously, the audience lives through that individual.
You’ve described singing as a form of storytelling. How so?
When I did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, my director, the great Steven Pimlott, who was a great Shakespearean director, he told me the first day of rehearsals: “The theater is a place where people come to dream in public, and you’re in charge of those dreams.” It impacted me so much, it changed my whole paradigm about show business and even just getting on a stage.
How does that manifest itself now?
When I come up with dialogue—and Marie does the same thing—we really take our time and look at the cadence. These are things I learned from superstars in the past—Lucille Ball was very, very good at this. Even Danny Gans—he was my first producer here—he and I would sit for hours and say, “How do we say this so that it grabs the emotions of the individual?” Case in point: When I do the tribute to Andy Williams and sing “Moon River,” that whole setup, I have spent hours and days figuring out exactly how to say that. It is such an important time in my life because it gave me my start in show business that I paint the picture of this little 7-year-old kid watching from the wings, Andy Williams singing “Moon River,” and I want to do that someday, and right now is that moment. You really grab the people. Elvis was great at this too, where the people were right in the palm of his hand with every word he said and sang. So storytelling is not only vitally important, it is essential to setting up the execution of a song.
At the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, you did a kind of heavy metal take on “Puppy Love” and a fan later said to you, “You have no right to mess with my memories.” How did that affect you?
It affected me for the rest of my life. Again, it changed my paradigm on who I was and what I represented. I realized that a song really belongs to so many people in their childhood. That’s why I sing “Puppy Love” with respect now so I have that footage of me singing it when I was 14 years old behind me. I don’t make fun of it anymore because it was such an important part of my career, although it was a difficult time getting over that hurdle of being just a teenybopper. But I look back at it now with a lot of respect and treat it with a lot of respect.
There are moments of self-deprecating humor in the show, such as when you poke fun at the song “Deep Purple” as you’re singing it. Is that an important element too?
Absolutely. In fact, this new opening we put together, we have footage of the (Donny and Marie ’70s TV) show and the terrible dancing and costumes we used to wear. Right there in the middle of this really cool choreographed number … we copy the exact choreography that’s on the screen, but it’s so bad and we’re poking fun of ourselves, but in a great way. And after about four scenes of this we jump back into some cool dancing, It’s that self-deprecation.
What do fans say to you at the post-show meet-and-greets?
(Recently), this lady walks up to me and she wraps her arms around me and starts crying. I said, “Are you OK?” And she said, “You have no idea how important you and Marie are in my life.” It’s nice to hear that, but then she went on to say, “I had an abusive childhood and it was your show every Friday night and your albums I would secretly put on, and I would go into another world, a safe world. Just coming here to see your show brought back all those wonderful memories of trying to get away from an abusive home.” It took me aback. And I thought, what you do is important. How you execute a show is important. To some people this was their life. For this one lady, it was her refuge from this horrible childhood. The problem with this, though, is that some entertainers really get caught up in their own hype. And you really got to be careful about that one.
How have you avoided that, given all the success you’ve had?
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of entertainers get really tied into who they are. When you are onstage you are king, and you have to believe that. To think, “You’re going to love this,” you’ve got to be in command of the stage. But thank goodness, over the years Marie and I have been around so many of these people who taught us this kind of stuff that you don’t learn in a textbook. I’m grateful that we have the opportunity to affect people’s lives like that. You have to treat people with respect because people want to be moved, they want to go to that other safe, happy place for 90 minutes to enjoy themselves. That’s why it’s important to connect, rather than throw light and sound at them.
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