Rosie O’Donnell revives her chat show, raises $500K for coronavirus-hit theater world

The Daily Beast

March 23, 2020

In a one-off YouTube edition of “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” O’Donnell hosted stars including Patti LuPone and Barry Manilow—and raised half a million dollars for the theater world.

On March 12, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed Broadway down in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. On March 22, Broadway roared back to life, and it did so in the improbable confines of Rosie O’Donnell’s garage in Saddle River, New Jersey, which hosted the revival—allegedly for one night only—of The Rosie O’Donnell Show.

From there, O’Donnell teleconferenced into multiple celebrity homes for yakking and singing, in aid of the Actors Fund.

There were many treats for theater fans: Patti LuPone singing in her basement, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim singing happy birthday wishes to each other (many celebrities sang Sondheim standards as their own birthday gifts to him), and Adrienne Warren singing Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” from her bathtub. Every celebrity beseeched viewers to give to the Actors Fund, and if they didn’t, O’Donnell did.

Tony Award-winning star Gavin Creel revealed he was “pretty sure” he had coronavirus, after describing how other members of the London cast of Waitress had tested positive. Broadway trouper to the end, he then sang a song and apologized for screwing up a note. Most of us couldn’t have sounded so good, even with wellness on our side.

This star-studded, three-and-a half-hour YouTube broadcast raised over half a million dollars for those working within the theater industry, who—despite an initial deal being struck between unions and the theaters and producers—will struggle to survive an elongated closedown of theaters on Broadway and far away from it.

Two big-name Broadway shows have already closed before opening, Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen and the much-anticipated revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Laurie Metcalf and Rupert Everett.

O’Donnell’s 1996-2002 TV chat show had fervently championed musical theater, and the actor and presenter’s own theater credits include Grease, Fiddler on the Roof, No, No Nanette, and The Music Man.

O’Donnell’s show began at 7 p.m., as President Trump’s Sunday White House press conference was continuing. She said she was happy to have missed it. “I don’t want to to watch him, and this is a day where we don’t have to talk about him.” She paid early tribute to the show’s producer Erich Bergen, who pulled the impressive production together—and who occasionally popped up to sort out technical snafus with malfunctioning microphones.

O’Donnell promised 3,000 guests, and she wasn’t kidding. Much like any chat show, the least interesting bits were the projects they wanted to promote. But the love-fest between presenter and talent felt genuine; she was “Ro” to pretty much everyone. Actors are notorious about gushing how much they love each other’s work. On Sunday night we forgave them this typically grating indulgence, especially as O’Donnell herself was celebrating turning 58.

For many of her guests, their path to stardom began on stage. Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson spoke about starting out in On the Town, and Broadway as community (a recurrent theme), which had surprised his “TV friends” when they came to New York to do a show. Tituss Burgess talked of trying not to go down the wrong rabbit holes of news, and then sang “The Glory of Love.” It was the first of many moments you may have found you had quite a bit of dust in your eye.

If O’Donnell was brightly lit in her stark garage, “and also art studio,” her guests’ surroundings also proved fascinating. Gloria Estefan looked very at home singing “Always Tomorrow,” although O’Donnell was extremely down on the delicious flan Estefan and husband Emilio were about to tuck into.

Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda said he was between dinnertime and bath-time for his kids, aged 5 and 2. He had just shown them Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for the first time. They were having the “super-mom-and-dad sleepover of their lives.”

Soon enough it was time to talk to LuPone, “the queen of all Broadway,” as O’Donnell called her. She was in her basement, colorful jukebox behind her. “Hi, doll!” she greeted O’Donnell. She revealed she had been beating her husband at pool and had just cut her son’s hair. Whether Company survived this enforced furlough remained to be seen, she said. Then she sang “Smile.” More dust in that eye. Then Ben Platt sang “Make You Feel My Love.” More damn dust.

LuPone later gave fans a guided tour of said basement, and obviously now who does not want to go over immediately to play pinball?

Laura Benanti talked about how, as a parent at this moment, she was not living up to the parents of Instagram building “castles out of toilet paper.” Activism, she said, “is the only way I know how to deal with this stress—and cookies.”

There were more celebrities-are-just-like-us tales of domestic woe from Idina Menzel, who said she had screwed up a homemade lasagna by using too much ricotta cheese. Celebrities not appearing live included Bernadette Peters, who said the only mask she was wearing at home was a beauty one.

Chita Rivera—“You’re a Broadway legend,” O’Donnell rightly noted—said that people should use this time to be “absolutely clear and sincere with those that you love, and let them know you love them, and be a better human being.” Rivera’s favorite male co-star seems to have been Antonio Banderas in Nine.

Smiles turned to more dust-in-the-eye, when songwriting master Alan Menken served up a medley, playing the piano, that included “Suddenly Seymour,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Whole New World.”

It wasn’t all songs. Neil Patrick Harris and his children, Gideon and Harper, did a magic trick. Brian Stokes Mitchell talked about finding purpose in fundraising, eliciting O’Donnell herself to reveal she was donating $100,000 to the Actors Fund.

Some of the songs came with unintended laughs, such as when Audra McDonald and husband Will Swenson also sang “Smile,” later revealing they had not realized LuPone had already sung it. Lloyd Webber half sang “Happy Birthday” to Sondheim, while Sondheim sang it in full in return to Lloyd Webber, as he washed his hands—per coronavirus prevention instruction.

O’Donnell appeared to be having a wonderful time and divulged that her son was working at a local grocery store. She was scared he could contract coronavirus but was proud he was doing something for the community.

This was not going to be an evening of dish, or conflict, as per O’Donnell’s legendary screen confrontations with Elisabeth Hasselback and Tom Selleck.

Instead, big names and smiles, live and pre-taped, rolled by: Jeremy Pope, Kelli O’Hara (singing Sondheim’s “Take Me to the World”), Annette Bening, Andrew Rannells, Lea Salonga (singing “Reflection”), Judith Light, Randy Rainbow, Darren Criss (singing “Being Alive” from Company), Shoshana Bean (“Don’t Rain on My Parade”), and Kristin Chenoweth nailing a rollicking “Taylor the Latte Boy”—and revealing an extremely handsome boyfriend.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick talked about not being able to open Plaza Suite on Broadway. “We are optimistic about the opportunity to do it in the future when it’s safer to gather again,” said Parker.

Harvey Fierstein said Broadway would “rise again,” while Billy Porter revealed that the Actors Fund had helped him when he had been broke, and that he felt no shame about that.

The theater community, he said, had rallied to help its own in the midst of the AIDS crisis when he first started performing on Broadway in 1991—and now as Pray Tell in Pose he evokes the lived meanings of that crisis to millions of TV viewers. Porter finished his slot, decked in fabulous, sparkly framed glasses, by quoting more Sondheim—“Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd.

Every show needs a big finish. And here, it was a sound-challenged (but, really, who the hell cares?) Barry Manilow, stationed as impishly perky as ever at his piano. He zinged through a medley of hits including “Copacabana,” “I Made it Through the Rain,” and “Looks Like We Made It.”

At the end of the show, O’Donnell removed her glasses, leaving a little red mark on the bridge of her nose. Running the show had made him lose 30 pounds, Bergen said.

“We are going to get through this,” said O’Donnell of the coronavirus crisis, as she raised a glass half-filled with fizz and with a very familiar musical icon’s face on it.

“And, Barbra Streisand, you are my glass of champagne,” O’Donnell toasted.