Any fan of Rosie O'Donnell's knows that her love for musical theater runs deep. It should come to no surprise, then, that "Rosie Live," a live variety show performed from The Little Shubert Theater in New York City, arrives on NBC tonight in what could wind up being a regular series. O'Donnell took a break from rehearsals to talk about how her show will pay homage to variety shows from the past as well as her time away from "The View" and her ever-present relatability with her fans.
O'Donnell first commented on why this is the perfect time to bring back the traditional variety show since the current state of the country is similar to another era when variety shows were very popular. "Variety shows were a big hit in the '70s when the economy was in the crapper and gasoline was scarce and people's belief in the political system was shaken. During the last 15 years or, you know, before ['The Rosie O'Donnell Show"] went on the air it was all about violence and humiliation. And so I just sort of went back to what I grew up with."
Besides singers Ne-Yo and Alanis Morissette, O'Donnell was excited to share that the legendary Liza Minnelli will be a part of the special. She also hinted at what they would be performing together during the special. "It's going to be a song you haven't heard [Liza] sing in about 30 years," O'Donnell teased, "and it's a song that I grew up singing very loud on the shag rug in my living room, pretending to be her friend and dance with her. And now the dream is coming true 30 years later. So, you know, [Liza is] showbiz royalty to me. She is the epitome of old time glamour, showbiz variety, triple threat [and] multitasking talent."
As for other parts of the show, O'Donnell still sounds like a true fan when talking about Broadway and how it will be incorporated in her show. "Oh we're full of Broadway boys, believe me. It's live from a Broadway theater and it'll be chock full of dancing boys and girls from Broadway [whose] talent is kind of unreal. I just came back from rehearsal this morning," she shared, "and to see eight Broadway guys who have not learned the opening number put it all together in one hour, you know, with the choreographer going, 'All right, we're going to do step, touch, elbow out, ball change and then hip.' And then they all do it where it's taken me three weeks to learn my song and the steps that go with it. The amount of talent on Broadway always is astonishing to me... and to be able to have a venue for them to present it to the world is a thrill."
Asked why she thought the variety show fizzled out with audiences after the hey-day in the '70s, O'Donnell offered, "I think that... the times changed and... different technology was available. There were all of a sudden 97 channels and you were able to make a reality show for $100 as compared to the $100,000 it would cost to do a show like this." She added that as time passed, "the genre sort of died away and nobody really wanted to revive it. Also, the people who were alive to enjoy it as children are only now like, you know, my age. I'm 46 years old. I'll be 47 in March."
Reflecting on the variety shows from the past, Rosie said, "They were a staple of my childhood. I mean, everything from Shields and Yarnell to The King family... every Christmas the Andy Williams special... we looked forward to those shows. And even growing up I remember watching Ed Sullivan with my Nana and Lawrence Welk. And those were the staples of nighttime television. And then as we got into the '70s the hour-long dramas kind of took over... 'McMillan and Wife', those kinds of things, 'The Rockford Files'... and then sitcoms became popular again so it's all cyclical. I believe that [variety will] come back now and the timing is right. And there'll be a bunch of them, I think, on in a few years."
Regarding her own self-deprecation, O'Donnell has always been the first to poke fun of herself before others and she feels it's a key to her longevity in the entertainment business. "Well, it's just a vital part of who I am as a person," she said. "It's part of humanity to see your failings and accept, and love them, and not ignore them or try to defensively erase them. It's to be able to embrace them and lovingly move forward, you know. So I mean I've always done it in my act, you know. It's been something that's just part of my personality."
When it was time to make promos for "Rosie Live," then, O'Donnell decided the best way to approach them was to utilize that part of her personality. "We sat down with NBC and they wanted me to do the stuff that a lot of promos do like talk about yourself in the third person. Like 'Today on Rosie'... but on my own show even I was very uncomfortable doing that. I would rather, you know, make myself part of the joke than talk of myself as the product, you know. I'm never comfortable selling myself as though I am Kleenex or, you know, Palmolive Dishwashing Soap. I would rather try to maintain some kind of reality... about my own humanity while I'm talking about myself as an entertainer."
An interview with O'Donnell can't seem to exist without a mention of her tumultuous year on ABC's "The View." She talked about her personal feelings immediately after abruptly leaving the show just before her contract ended. "Well, after I left the show," she recounted, "I couldn't watch it because I had so many kind of mixed emotions and it would just be kind of - almost like post traumatic stress disorder... every time I would turn it on I would have mild panic and have to turn it off. So, truthfully, I haven't really watched it. When something does make the YouTube rounds or, you know, hits The Huffington Post or something, I usually watch the clip."
Rosie being Rosie, she couldn't help but give her own unique impression on what her time was like on the popular Barbara Walters-created talkfest. "Having been there and having seen what goes on behind the curtain is a different experience to watch it than the average viewer... no matter what, you know, Barbara wants everyone to believe and think and act as if everybody gets along and is, you know, really good friends and happy, and hangs out together... and, you know, it's just not the reality. I'm not saying that they loathe each other. But, you know, the fact is there wasn't a lot of camaraderie off camera there. You know, people don't get together and have dinner once a month, 'The View' ladies. They don't."
Despite the ups and downs in her career, fans still love Rosie. O'Donnell thinks one of the reasons her fans are not afraid to approach her when she is spotted in public is because "I'm very relatable and that I look like them... my accessibility has been the biggest plus, I think, in my whole career in that when I'm at a table eating dinner with famous people, the people in the restaurant always come over to me and say Oh my God, you're having dinner with Tom Hanks. And I go I know, can you believe it?" O'Donnell also said that no matter who she is hanging out with, fans always flock to her. "Nobody would go over to the people I'm eating with. No one does. And sort of to the point where some of my friends go why does that happen to you? I go because I think they know that I will talk to them. I think they know that, you know, there's some accessibility... and I am interested truthfully in people. I get a kick out of people. I enjoy meeting people."
If Rosie O'Donnell's relatability is as strong as it seems, we could see many more episodes of "Rosie Live" beyond the special airing Wednesday night at 8:00/7:00c on NBC.