Stand-up comedy just a start for Rosie O'Donnell

March 07, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Reaching her childhood dream "is harder than anything I've ever done," asserts Rosie O'Donnell. No joke.

Stand-up comedy, television work and movie roles don't

compare to the difficulty of performing in live theater, says the performer, who portrays tough gal Betty Rizzo in the Broadway-bound revival of "Grease," playing at the National Theatre in Washington through March 12.

What has been so hard about her first stage play?

"Having to maintain a character for two and a half hours is very different than in film, where you only do a minute at a time," she says. (Ms. O'Donnell drew nice notices for her supporting roles in "A League of Their Own," as Madonna's buddy, and "Sleepless in Seattle," as Meg Ryan's buddy.)

Then she had to quell her stand-up comedy instincts and ignore the big audience. "It's hard not to actually see them, and who's sitting where, and who's wearing what, and how many empty seats there are. . . . Often there are little girls going, 'There she is,' and I wink at 'em, you know, or I'll wave to them quietly, or whatever, or make eye contact when I shouldn't."

One night, when critics were in the audience, the stage manager made a request that she not wink at anybody.

"The next night, he says, 'OK, you can wink again,' " she recalls.

Fitting into a cast of other performers was another problem. While some call stand-up comedy the most difficult form of entertainment to do well, "I think it's the easiest," Ms. O'Donnell asserts.

"In stand-up, you're the writer, you're the director, you're the actor, you're the choreographer, you have total control. . . . There's no one to blame, and there's no one to give credit to except for you."

Whereas, in a play, "It's harder to have to depend on other people and to be part of an ensemble, to know that you're responsible not only for yourself but for the 20 other people on stage."

Ms. O'Donnell, 31, says she always viewed her success in comedy as an avenue to other things.

A winner on "Star Search" in 1984, she had begun doing comedy in clubs in the Boston area, where she attended Boston University's School of Theater Arts.

"I wanted to do stand-up to be seen, to do other things. I never wanted to be Joan Rivers. I always wanted to be Carol Burnett or Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand. The comedic actresses were always more inspirational to me," she relates.

"I always knew that stand-up comedy was sort of a one-way street. Unless you branched out and off of it, you didn't have much of a career, because you'd have to travel all the time. I don't have any desire to be a 40-year-old woman traveling across the country doing concerts."

So she took parts in the TV sitcoms "Stand By Your Man" and "Gimme a Break," and subsequently became host for four years of "Stand-Up Spotlight" on cable's VH-1 network. And she landed the "League of Their Own" movie role, which featured her good friend, Madonna.

"She's a very supportive friend and an intelligent woman, and career-wise, she's really done it all," Ms. O'Donnell says of the pop star.

She says Madonna urged her to try for a role in the revival of "Grease."

"She said it would be a challenge, and there's nothing like the experience of live theater and, you know, to do something I wasn't necessarily very good at initially."

Madonna has yet to see the show, but plans to catch it when

"Grease" moves to the West Coast after its Washington run.

Ms. O'Donnell says she was prepared to do this particular show.

Although she did not see "Grease" when it ran on Broadway, "I saw the movie [1978] about a bazillion times, like every other 30-year-old in the country. I remember knowing all the words and having the double album that folded open with all the green letters and the pictures of the cast."

She and friends (she grew up on Long Island) would act out the show in their backyards. "And I remember thinking, there's a role I can play, the Stockard Channing role, the tough girl with the heart of gold, the role I ended up doing."

The performer says she grew up loving musicals such as "Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

"I had a mother who loved musical theater, and so we went to see shows. I grew up knowing all the words to 'Oklahoma' and 'West Side Story,' " recalls Ms. O'Donnell. (Her mother died at 33 of pancreatic cancer.)

When she heard about the "Grease" revival, "I thought, there's a role that I can do on Broadway, being that I'm not a trained singer or a dancer. You need to do both of those things to do musical theater generally, but this is a role that's sort of light on both of them."

In "Grease," she sings two songs but makes no pretense that she is a great singer. Instead, she praises the voices of co-stars Billy Porter, Sam Harris and Susan Wood.

She also notes she has been happy to share the laughs on stage with other women in the cast, including Michelle Blakely, Jessica Stone, Megan Mullally and Marcia Lewis.

What's next?

Ms. O'Donnell says she has written, is producing and will star in a new Disney film, "Girl Hoops." And after that, perhaps, may come another dream.

"I've been talking to the people at Disney and Universal, and they know directing is the area I'd like to move toward, and hopefully we'll be able to do that sometime in the future."

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