Rosie O'Donnell is getting a special Tony Award and that's making me happy.
Rosie O'Donnell? Really?
Yes, really. If your thoughts about O'Donnell and Broadway -- if you have any -- are limited to her handful of Broadway performances, her three hosting gigs on long-ago Tony telecasts and the negative hysteria surrounding her 2003 producing of the $10 million Boy George musical "Taboo," you are not alone.
In fact, until a friend associated with an elementary school in Chelsea recently enlightened me, I had paid zero attention to something called Rosie's Theater Kids. Since 2003 -- that's right around the time of the "Taboo" fiasco -- she has been the face and the force behind what has clearly turned out to be an extraordinary nonprofit arts education program.
RTKids, as they call it, has not exactly been operating underground. According to the Tony news release, the musical-theater program gives free lessons to all the fifth graders in 22 public schools a year, many in underserved communities. We all hate statistics, but here's one to love as proclaimed on the group's website -- 100 percent of the kids touched by this program graduate high school.
Every year, Robert Bender, principal of PS 11, sees all of his fifth-graders -- usually around 110 -- get "really changed" by RTKids. "They are taught the craft of musical theater, one class at a time," Bender told me, explaining what he described as an exceptionally well-designed 15-week program. "They're treated like professionals. Expectations are very high. More people need to know about this incredible work."
Each student is taken free to a Broadway show. Each gets to audition for the second tier pre-professional program at its theater space on West 45th Street, with full scholarships (and free meals) starting with the summer after fifth grade. Famous names -- Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon -- have been associated with benefits. Broadway veterans are mentors.
For additional eye-opening stuff about the programs founded by O'Donnell and artistic director
Lori Klinger, look it up on rosiestheaterkids.org.
What fascinates me is O'Donnell's trajectory that will lead to the stage on Tony night, June 8, to accept the Isabelle Stevenson Award. Stevenson was, for many years, the president of the American Theatre Wing, which, among other activities, copresents the Tonys with the Broadway League. Each year since Stevenson died in late 2003, the award has been given to someone who has volunteered time and effort on a humanitarian or other charitable causes.
As Heather Hitchens, current executive director of the Wing, explained recently, O'Donnell's nomination by the Tony Administration Committee got "unanimous support. She is a perfect fit for what the award means. So much arts education has been cut back, so it's a great message."
The last time I remember O'Donnell on the Tonys, it was a different story and a different Broadway. The commercial theater was in big trouble in the mid '90s when O'Donnell had begun plugging and adoring Broadway shows on her daytime TV program. Producers loved talk-TV's alleged Queen of Nice, whom they credited with increased attendance and revived national interest in their shows. They virtually turned over the Tony telecast to her and, through the years, I became more and more appalled by the cheesy raunchiness of the results.
I said so, which may be one reason O'Donnell's people told me she was too busy to be interviewed for this column. But I thought she made a fine bully as Rizzo in "Grease" in 1994 and an altogether honorable Golde in a replacement cast of "Fiddler on the Roof" in 2005.
She did, however, talk to The Wall Street Journal in 2013 about the beginnings of Rosie's Theater Kids, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in September. "I was looking for something a little more authentic, a little more real in my life," she said.
She also may be including the unreality of producing her first Broadway musical, "Taboo," which got more vicious press than I can remember for an event in which no children or animals were harmed. By then, things had soured for Broadway's biggest fan and golden goose. Reports of backstage anguish were ugly, but I couldn't know whether it was more hideous than the last-minute adjustments and insecurities of any new project that dares to open without a costly out-of-town tryout.
"Taboo" had problems but also potential. I liked the good parts and admired the ambition. Rosie didn't even lose anyone else's money when the show closed after 100 performances and ate her entire $10 million. I don't know if "Taboo" would have been a smash -- or, more realistically, an amusing and stylish moderate hit -- if the show had opened at another time. But it opened the same week as she was distracted by a tabloid-ready nasty court case between O'Donnell and the publishers of her defunct Rosie magazine.
Whatever, the wolf-pack confluence of legal and theatrical hideousness became a blood sport in the press. A Broadway that had fallen in love with Rosie suddenly fell out of love. She did perform for a larky weekend as a second-banana wisecracking, tap-dancing maid in "No, No, Nanette" at Encores! in 2008 and was in one of the ensembles of "Love, Loss, and What I Wore" in 2009. But, essentially, Rosie's mutual admiration society with Broadway appeared to be over.
So much for appearances.
Asked about those dark years, Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, refused to acknowledge them. "I can't really speak about the media," she told me recently. "But Rosie has never retreated from her lifelong commitment to Broadway, to the theater and to the next generation."
O'Donnell's personal narrative is familiar to anyone who followed her promotion of theater on her TV show. Her mother died when Rosie was 10, and she has always credited musical theater -- and a teacher named Pat Maravel, her 8th-grade math teacher at Sawmill Junior High in Commack -- for rescuing her.
This explains why the RTKids theater is named the Maravel Arts Center. Aside from the in-school programs, everything happens there.
The website says they are "rehearsing for life." How good, really, that such rehearsals are getting a Tony.