by Richard Ouzounian
June 18, 2011
What’s Donny Osmond really like? Every time I meet him, I come a little bit closer to finding out.
He started out as the kid who initially charmed the world as the youngest of The Osmonds, later went on to conquer television with his sister Marie and probably could have run for Mayor of Toronto after his 4 appearances here in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat during the 1990s.
But now he’s back, with Marie, bringing their hit Las Vegas show to the stage of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts as a Dancap Production from July 5-17.
And it means that we get to sit down and have a lengthy chat for the third time in 6 years. First was in his dressing room on Broadway when he was appearing in Beauty and the Beast, next came backstage at The Flamingo in Las Vegas, just after he and Marie opened their smash show and now, we’re in Toronto, enjoying a quiet late lunch at Nota Bene, after the crowd has gone away.
Well, not quite all the crowd.
Osmond is sitting facing the room and, while we’re ordering lunch, I notice that he keeps glancing across from him. I turn around and discover two 50-ish ladies staring at the former pop star, enraptured and giggling.
“Do you mind if I take a minute?” he asks.
The next thing I know, he walks across the restaurant, engages the women in conversation, has them blushing like schoolgirls and poses for iPhone pictures with them.
He comes back to the table smiling. “I saw them recognize me and the restaurant was empty, so I thought they’d enjoy it if I said hi to them.”
I study him closely for sarcasm, but it’s nowhere in evidence. Donny Osmond is truly an irony-free zone.
“Okay, Richard,” he says, rubbing his hands as though settling down to work. “How deep are you gonna dig this time?”
It’s a fair question. Osmond began our first encounter in 2005 by saying “What you see is what you get,” but he quickly proved himself wrong.
Because underneath the beaming smile and seemingly endless positive energy, he wound up revealing to suffering social anxiety disorder which led him to a series of crippling panic attacks in his hotel room while Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was playing in triumph every evening.
“I’d start shaking for no particular reason, I’d find myself crying out of nowhere,” he recalled. “I thought I was having a nervous breakdown.”
I also got him to revisit the time in between the end of Donny and Marie on TV in 1979 and his recording of “Soldier of Love” in 1989, and he painfully relived that period of near bankruptcy and complete career collapse.
“Man, I don’t ever want to relive the ’80s,” he said at the time, having exhausted his negative memories.
Three years later, when we sat chatting in the lounge of The Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas before a performance of the newly-opened show with his sister Marie, the conversation was mostly about her, probably because it was supposed to have been an interview with both of them, but she wasn’t to be found.
“Hey, Marie and I are different people. Always have been, always will be. That’s part of the secret of our chemistry,” said Osmond as he watched the clock ticking towards show time.
“I’m always on time. No, I’m always early. The good boy, right?” he grinned. “She’s never late, although she does cut it pretty close.”
They’re different in other ways, too. Donny’s private life has been just what you’d expect from a good Mormon boy. He fell in love with Debra Glenn at 16 (“She had me at ‘No’. Didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”) and they just celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary. Five children and three grandchildren complete the happy picture.
Marie, on the other hand, has suffered through divorce, post-partum depression, the tragic 2010 suicide of her son and enough assorted gossip to keep her name front and centre in the tabloids at all times.
Donny wouldn’t discuss any of it. “She’s my sister. We love each other. End of topic.”
And now today, three years later again, I decide to ask him about celebrity.
“Oh man, it is a tricky horse to ride! None of us ever wanted to be celebrities. Four of my brothers started singing to make enough money to get hearing aids for the two oldest, so that they could be Mormon missionaries.
“Then I came along, joined the group and things started getting crazy. Darn, it was here in Toronto, we were doing an appearance at CHUM, and the crowd of fans got so big we needed police to get out in one piece. I think that was 1971. I was 14 then.”
A thought crosses Osmond’s face.
“How old is Justin Bieber? 16, 17? Maybe he can deal with it better, cause he’s a little more mature than I was. I just thought it was a ride that was going to last forever and when it stopped, I didn’t know what to do.
“Would I do anything different? Maybe I would have enjoyed myself more. I don’t mean anything crazy. I’ve never been that kind of guy, even as a kid. No, I mean, just having fun performing, not worrying about the money, or the schedule, or the record sales or the fan mail or any of it.”
Osmond admits he finally came to enjoy the sheer pleasure of singing, but it took him a long time.
“The hardest part was right after Donny and Marie went off the air. It was like somebody turned off the water tap, that’s how quickly it happened. One month we had our own national television show and the next month we were doing little teeny state fairs and nobody came to see us.
“And gravity is very big in showbusiness. Once you start sliding down, it’s hard to stop.”
But it wasn’t just the professional world that seemed to turn on the once-golden Osmonds. As the recession of the late 1980s hit, it became obvious that the financial investments largely handled by their father and brother Alan had all gone bad, causing the family to lose over $80 million.
Alan was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Marie went through a divorce and post-partum depression and personal tensions came close to ripping the family apart.
“Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it finally started getting better. I had a couple of hit records again and then I got a call from a man named Garth Drabinsky.”
The flamboyant impresario convinced Osmond he was the one to star in a company of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that Drabinsky planned to launch in Toronto and then tour across North America.
“I didn’t want to do it, although we surely needed the money. I had flopped on Broadway really badly in Little Johnny Jones back in 1982. We closed in one night. I didn’t think I could go through it again.”
He didn’t have to. Drabinsky persisted, Osmond gave in and the show was a hit. It opened just a little more than 10 years after his traumatic New York flop and he toured it triumphantly for six years.
Osmond now looks on that run as the watershed that has seen him through his middle years (he’s now 53) and will guide him for the rest of his days.
“I learned not to be afraid of the past. Not to be afraid of failure. I learned to love to sing, really love it and that’s what I’m going to do as long as the Lord will let me.”
FIVE FAVES WHO INFLUENCED DONNY OSMOND’S CAREER:
ELVIS PRESLEY – He was always one of my idols. The way he could sing, the way he could move, the way we could turn an audience on. He was great!
STEVIE WONDER – I’ve always been in awe of his musicianship and I often ask myself what he would do with a certain song.
THE OSMOND BROTHERS – They were the guys who started it all and I was just the little kid along for the ride. They taught me everything.
MARIE OSMOND – Yeah, we drive each other crazy sometimes, but that’s all good. We love each other and we bring out the best in each other on stage.
GARTH DRABINSKY – He came along when I was at the bottom and offered me a break that changed my entire life. How can I not be grateful to that man?