Donny and Marie Know Their Way Around Christmas
by Chris Jones, Theatre Critic
December 5, 2011
You can't be as famous for as long as Donny and Marie Osmond have been famous — Donny's "Puppy Love' charted in, wait for it, 1972, Marie's "Paper Roses" in 1973 — without learning the wisdom of, well, anticipating the question.
"'Donny and Marie: Christmas in Chicago," you might as well pass out the insulin shots at the end," chortled Donny Osmond, whose speaking voice is about an octave deeper than you'd likely expect, by phone from Las Vegas a few days ago. "Oh, we know. We know. That's always the danger we run."
And, Donny, how about all those years of "Joseph" and his darn dreamcoat? Now there's a Chicago Christmas memory.
"Ah, yes. Me, old Garth Drabinksy and that loin cloth," said Donny, referencing the infamous Canadian producer. "I had to hang it up."
He gave a throaty laugh.
A few days prior, Marie Osmond had been on the phone from her car in that same desert city — the brother-and-sister duo have a long-running gig at the Flamingo Hotel, even though Donny commutes from his home in Utah — discussing recent reports about a health scare. She proved to be just as droll as her brother.
"I had a cough," she said, helpfully coughing for effect. "One place online said that I had overdosed and was in a coma. Funny how I was able to Tweet from a coma."
With the mental picture of comatose-but-Tweeting Marie Osmond knocking me off my stride, I mumbled a conventional question about whether she ever expected to still be confessing from a stage that's she's a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll in, well, 2011. I didn't even get the entire question out.
"I did not expect to still be working at age 29, and I literally mean at age 29, even though I have been there for a few years now," she said, fervently. "My parents told me to go to school and find other work. To still be doing this after another 20 years is just insane."
Actually, there's a chance you're thinking the Osmonds, whose much-anticipated Christmas show opens Tuesday night at the Oriental Theatre, are older than is actually the case. For the record, Marie is 52 and Donny is 54 on Friday, not that you will likely think that possible when you see them on Monday night at a press event. The Osmonds' age-defying properties are as legendary as their talent.
"Recently, some guy thought I was Donny Osmond's son," Donny said. "I couldn't believe it. Clearly, he thought the actual me was in my 80s, or maybe my 90s."
Well, they did start young.
Donny and Marie Osmond have been singing Christmas songs in public for 40 years. And how they started — doing network variety shows, often broadcast at the holidays, alongside such greats as Andy Williams, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra — certainly explains their affinity for the genre of the classical Christmas special, even if changing tastes and ever-rising costs have turned it from a TV staple into something you only can experience live.
After talking briefly about Williams' recent on-stage announcement that he is fighting bladder cancer — the young Osmonds had a deep connection to those Andy Williams Christmas shows and their older selves have a great affection for Williams — Marie paid tribute to his generation of entertainer. It seemed like maybe she had parked her car.
"We grew up with the old-school performers," Marie said. "We are a certain kind of animal. We feel a responsibility to entertain and to bring the best possible show we can bring. Every night. In Vegas, we'll go in a different direction with our show on a given night because we've learned by now to read what an audience needs. Some nights we feel like they want to be challenged, so I'll put in an opera piece. Other nights we might do more humor. Some times we sense people just want to go for walk down memory lane. I do everything from rock to country to opera. And by now, you can imagine, we can do quite a variety of Christmas music."
No doubt. Must be fun to be in your band, I say, and never know what is coming up next. "They can play anything," Marie says, with total surety.
A few days later, Donny was waxing lyrical about what he called the Justin Bieber effect, aka the timeless perils of the former kid star, grown up.
"Yes that was me in the 1970s with that cheesy grin," Donny said. "You can't get away from that unless you go into the witness protection program. But it can be a very treacherous track. A lot of former teen idols come to really hate it, and I went through all that myself. But I've come to see there's no reason you can't look back and embrace it."
Donny started to talk about doing a concert — during that hating-it phase — when he'd caved in audience demands to sing "Puppy Love" and had come up with an angry, heavy-metal, anti-version of the sweet song, partly an ill-conceived exercise in personal brand-extension but mostly a manifestation of his lack of comfort with what had made him Donny Osmond.
"I was headed from the stage to the bus when this angry lady confronted me," he said. "She said, 'Why did you make fun of "Puppy Love"?' That might have just been a hit for you. But it was my childhood.' Really, that changed my whole outlook. You can't mess with people's childhoods."