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The stage mother from ...

Rosie O'Donnell has sunk $10 million into 'Taboo,' so she's entitled to yell a bit, no? Not that she intends to.

November 09, 2003|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — On the Monday before Halloween, Rosie O'Donnell, with sardonic self-regard, says she's perfectly suited for the holiday.

"I'm famous. I have a big mouth. I'm the scary Rosie O'Donnell," says the producer, sitting in her spacious office, 17 floors above Times Square, popping fistfuls of candy corn in her mouth.

Indeed, her self-mocking persona has been generating headlines of late, coming as it does in a week that may be the most momentous in the life of the onetime talk-show host. For one, she is making her debut as a Broadway producer with the new musical "Taboo" starring Boy George and capitalized with $10 million of her own money.

On its way to a planned Thursday opening on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, O'Donnell's biggest gamble yet has spawned reports of stormy marketing meetings and rocky rehearsals dominated by a pushy, bombastic producer who is bringing new meaning to the words "hands on." She has been intimately involved in everything -- from casting to the design of the "Taboo" pins and key chains.

And she herself has been the face of "Taboo," as much as Boy George, making countless television appearances, baldly proclaiming in radio ads that it will win the best musical Tony (though word of mouth so far on the show seems to indicate that's far from a done deal).

All this coincides with the onset of an acrimonious court case over her now-defunct magazine, Rosie. When she walked away from the lifestyle magazine bearing her name last year, she was hit with a $100-million breach-of-contract suit by publishers Gruner & Jahr. The star, in turn, countersued for $125 million. Before a judge in New York, lawyers for the opposition have tried to paint O'Donnell as "a foul-mouthed tyrant" who bullied and intimidated her staff.

The 41-year-old woman at the center of these storms, however, is subdued and surprisingly vulnerable as she settles into a chair in her office. She appears worn -- a pale version of the buoyant populist she projected on daytime TV. TV.

Surrounded by collages she began to create after Sept. 11, she is dressed like an artist, her black T-shirt and pants, like her sneakers, splattered with paint specks. In the course of an interview, she is frank and forthcoming about her struggles "not to be a dictator" as she ushers "Taboo" to completion. Not surprising for someone who has adopted four kids with her longtime partner and colleague, Kelli Carpenter, O'Donnell fixes on her role as the producer of "Taboo" as that of a strict mother keeping her chicks in line.

"There's one rule in a Rosie O'Donnell production," she says. "You have to be kind to each other. And if you make a mistake or an outburst, you have to apologize to the family. I knew from the beginning that my job was to create a playground where everyone could play and at the end everyone would cross the finish line together. If anyone was hurt or injured by this project, I would have felt a personal failure."

While some of the creative staff of "Taboo," not for attribution, compared her maternity more to Medea than Maria Von Trapp, Boy George himself, who not only appears in "Taboo" but also wrote the songs, says, "Rosie is a ball of contradictions. She can stand up in rehearsal and scream, 'I HATE IT!' -- and be right, by the way -- and then she can be supportive. There are times when I've wanted to strangle her and then she'll suddenly apologize. Her heart's in the right place, though whether she goes about achieving [her goals] in the right way is questionable."

O'Donnell discovered her new career in summer 2002 in London when she stumbled onto a show, conceived by Christopher Renshaw ("King and I," "High Society") and Boy George, which purported to tell the story of a group of club kids, the New Romantics, in the anarchic pop scene of the early '80s.

Among their drug-taking, sexually frisky lot were two characters in particular who appealed to O'Donnell: the young, luxuriously plaited George O'Dowd, who would meteorically rise and flameout as that androgynous icon, Boy George; and Leigh Bowery, a wildly inventive fashion designer and performance artist who hungered for fame but had to settle for being a local legend. In the show, as in real life, Bowery succumbs to AIDS, with two nurturing fixtures at his bedside: his wife and creative collaborator, Nicola Bateman, and his friend, Big Sue.

Plugging in Culture Club

The semiautobiographical show ran in a 329-seat theater for 15 months but never quite caught on, even though O'Dowd was prevailed upon to take on the role of Leigh Bowery three months into the run opposite newcomer Euan Morton playing Boy George. Both actors are set to reprise their roles on Broadway, and the score of original songs has been supplemented by some of Boy George's Culture Club hits, including "Karma Chameleon" and "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me."

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