Donny Osmond and the amazing technicolor dream life
The legendary crooner is about to begin a new residency in Las Vegas — this time without his sister, Marie. This has Donny Osmond thinking about all the different eras of his life
Donny Osmond had an idea. The fabled crooner was wondering how he could possibly condense all the different eras of his career into one performance. He wanted a way to cover everything from his early days on “The Andy Williams Show” in the ’60s through his rise to intergalactic stardom in the ’70s, his stark fall from public favor in the ’80s, his dramatic return to the top of the pop charts and his more recent run as a successful contestant on shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Masked Singer.”
Donny decided the answer — the best way to recap the highs and lows of his life in music — would be through a rap.
Yes, Donny Osmond. That Donny Osmond. And yes, rap.
He’s telling me this as we sit together in the den of his palatial home in Provo. He leans forward in his chair, flashing that impossibly charming smile — a smile that has set so many hearts aflame for so many years now. He’s trim as ever, wearing a T-shirt, workout pants and Nike tennis shoes. In front of him is the sleek, polished grand piano used in the original “Donny & Marie” variety show in the second half of the ’70s. Over his shoulder is a striking view of the nearby mountains.
Honestly, when he first tells me he’s planning on rapping for six minutes about his six decades in music — he calls it “Six in Six” — I can’t tell if he’s joking. But then he starts beatboxing, slapping the arm of his chair to add some bass.
Then he starts rapping.
“It started back in Utah, I was 4 years old,” Donny raps. “Started singing with my brothers and the sound was like gold.”
In rhyming couplets, he goes through his rise to stardom with his family, his solo success as a teenager and his darkest days, like when he starred in “Little Johnny Jones” on Broadway in 1982 — which opened and closed on the same night. He even mentions his appearances on “The Love Boat.” He covers everything through the long-running Las Vegas residency he had with sister, Marie, and his runner-up finish on season one of “The Masked Singer.” He was the peacock.
The rap is actually kind of amazing, in that not-sure-if-it’s-OK-to-laugh sort of way. It is OK to laugh, it turns out. In fact, when he’s done rapping, Donny can’t contain himself anymore and he cracks up at himself, clapping his hands as he giggles.
This rap, he explains, is a song he’ll perform in his new Las Vegas show later this year. It’s a new residency at the newly refurbished Harrah’s on the Strip. And this time, it’s just Donny, no Marie.
Donny Osmond takes on Vegas solo
The residency at the Flamingo with his sister was a staple in Las Vegas, one of the most popular and profitable shows in the city’s illustrious history. They started in 2008 for what was supposed to be a few weeks — and went on for 11 years. Over that span, they sold north of 9 million tickets and performed more than 1,700 times. Then, for reasons that have never been made public, they decided to end it. Their last show was in November 2019.
This time it’s just his face on that giant marquee, just his name printed on those expensive tickets. He’ll be the one deciding which songs to sing and when, what to say to the fawning or fidgeting audience. And that audience will be there for Donny and Donny alone. Sure, he’ll have producers and designers and backup dancers and an entire live band there on stage with him, but the success of the show will rest entirely upon the shoulders of Donny.
Planning all of this has given the 63-year-old Donny a chance to think back on his 58 years in the entertainment business. He’s met so many people, created so much music — he’s recorded more than 600 songs — and experienced a series of total reinventions. Working on the new show has made him a little introspective, almost philosophical. More than anything, it’s making him think about his own identity.
“Who am I,” he says. “I was a little kid on ‘The Andy Williams Show.’ Then I was this little kid singing ‘One Bad Apple.’ Then I’m this little teeny-bopper on fan magazines. Then Donny of ‘Donny and Marie’ is the Sonny Bono, the fall guy, the stupid guy.” He pauses, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands behind his head. “All of these different personalities, and so many different careers. Who am I?”
I ask him if this new show in Las Vegas is a new chance to tell his audience who he is.
“No,” he says quickly, smiling again. “This is a chance for me to tell me who I am.”
Donny Osmond reflects on his career
Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, Donny Osmond bursts into song. Not like in a showy way. It’s pretty casual actually. He seems to sing without even thinking about it. He’s recounting a story about a time in Chicago, when he was performing “Puppy Love” as it was climbing the charts — and he goes right into the opening line: “And they called it puppy looooove …” Later he’s telling me about something that happened when he was touring as Joseph in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Minneapolis — and a second later he’s singing “Close every door to me …” and then carrying on with the story.
And his singing voice is — well, it’s heavenly.
He’s been in the music business for almost as long as he can remember. He has literally one memory from before he was a professional entertainer. He was about 3 years old and he remembers playing in a sandbox. It was him and Marie, and a friend named Scott he’s since lost touch with. “I can’t believe I remember that name!” he says. He remembers playing with trucks and a shovel next to his baby sister and his friend.
“It was my haven,” he says. “And I left it at 3 years old.”
His four older brothers were already singing in a barbershop-style quartet when Donny joined them. He was 5 the first time he sang on “The Andy Williams Show.” Five. Think about a 5-year-old you know. Now think about that 5-year-old traveling, singing professionally.
By the early 1970s, Donny was emerging as the star of the group. More and more, he was put front and center. When he was 13, he had four top 10 singles on the radio. Thirteen years old. Imagine being world famous for something you did at 13.
By the time he was 17, he’d had 12 top 40 hits, either solo or with his brothers. Donny was the teen magazine cover boy of the time. He was Michael Jackson before Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber before Justin Bieber.
One time, he can’t remember exactly when, he trashed a hotel room — clogging the toilet, flipping the mattress, throwing things out the window — just because he could.
“My dad was so mad at me,” he says, a little embarrassed.
When he was 18 and his sister was 16, they had a weekly prime-time TV show that was so popular it spawned a line of “Donny & Marie” dolls and toys. Tiger Beat created an auxiliary publication, Donny & Marie magazine, dedicated entirely to the private lives of the two teen stars. He was barely 23 when he was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
Within a few years, though, all of that disappeared. No more toys. No more magazine covers. No more hit songs. Through bad financial management, the family lost something like $60 million to $70 million. The low point, as Donny sees it, came when he starred in the 1982 Broadway revival of “Little Johnny Jones,” the turn-of-the-19th-century musical that produced the tunes “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” The revival bombed, closing after only one performance.
In his review the next morning, New York Times theater critic Frank Rich called the musical “a listless, not to mention listing, farrago.” (Although he wasn’t entirely displeased with Donny Osmond’s performance, calling him “a give-his-all professional in a show in which professionalism is not exactly the holy grail.”)
“You really begin to wonder, ‘Maybe I’m not any good,’” Donny tells me.
Donny was 24 years old and he felt like his career was over. For most of the ’80s, his name was a punchline, a dated reference to a clean-cut bubblegum pop star from the giant-collar era of music. After all, he was the pitchman for Hawaiian Punch, the most ridiculously saccharine beverage in history. He was wholesome, innocent, pure, at a time when the American public wanted … not that.
At one point, he remembers his publicist suggesting Donny purposely get arrested crossing the U.S. border with drugs. He actually considered it for a moment — he was desperate — before eventually firing that publicist. In the end, he tells me, he just couldn’t imagine having to explain something like that to his wife and kids and siblings and all the people he taught Sunday school with.
“The problem was I knew it would work from a short-term point of view,” Donny says. “But long term, it would kill me.”
He realized he needed to change his image, though. He wasn’t a little boy anymore, even if he still sort of looked like one. Most of his siblings found success in the world of country music, but that wasn’t Donny. He’s always been a student of pop. So he started wearing cut-up jeans and a black leather jacket, like George Michael. He started working with singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel, most famous for his single “Sledgehammer,” which was reportedly the most played music video in MTV history. Still, though, Donny couldn’t get a record deal.
“This is a chance for me to tell me who I am,” Donny Osmond says.
In 1988, he debated quitting entertainment entirely and starting a security company in Utah. He’d always been an electronics buff, sometimes soldering his own circuit boards on tour as a teenager. And he’d always had a lot of security, so he figured he knew enough to start a successful business. (To this day, his house has an elaborate security system.) He thought this might be the only way to provide for his family.
Around the same time, he recorded the song “Soldier of Love.” It didn’t sound anything like the songs he made in the ’70s. Hearing it now, the song is quintessentially ’80s, replete with some intense keyboarding. The song was a top 30 hit in the United Kingdom, but at the beginning of 1989 it wasn’t even for sale in the United States.
Several program directors at pop radio stations around the country heard the song and liked it, but they didn’t think their audience would want to listen to a song by the former child star. So stations played the song without telling the audience the name of the singer. For weeks, as “Soldier of Love” climbed the charts in America, radio hosts encouraged people to call in and guess the identity of the “mystery artist.”
Donny remembers getting a call from his manager at the time.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” his manager told him. “The good news is you’ve got a hit song. The bad news is nobody knows it’s you!”
“I was excited and hurt at the same time,” Donny says now. “But I realized that this was an amazing opportunity.”
He was finally revealed live on the air at a station in New York. “Soldier of Love” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year. Another single, “Sacred Emotion,” made it to No. 13 on the same chart. And Donny’s career was relaunched, no drug scandal required.
“I did it the hard way,” he says with a little laugh. “I did it with music.”
Nearly 10 years after the “Little Johnny Jones” fiasco, he got another shot at theater, touring in “Joseph.” This time the show didn’t close after his first night, either. He played Joseph in more than 2,000 performances. When it came to making the movie version, the musical’s creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, insisted Donny play the titular role.
By the late ’90s, he and Marie had another TV show, this time a syndicated afternoon talk show. He also sang “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” the most popular song in Disney’s “Mulan.” In the decade after that, he hosted a series of game shows, won his season of “Dancing With the Stars” and began the Las Vegas residency with Marie.
Donny Osmond’s clean lifestyle and staying young
Can we talk, for a moment, about the way Donny Osmond looks? He’s 63, but he doesn’t look 63. He just seems youthful. No, his face isn’t as smooth as it was when he was 15, but whose is? Donny could pass for someone a decade younger. Some of that is from surgical adjustments, he’s acknowledged, but he also lives a healthy life. He’s mostly vegan. I get the impression he was exercising not long before I arrived this morning. And as a devout Latter-day Saint, he doesn’t drink or do drugs.
I ask him if he’s ever had alcohol in his life.
“Not on purpose,” he says.
There was a time, when he was a teenager, touring at the height of his fame, and during one moment in the show he was supposed to come offstage and take a few gulps of water. One night one of the stagehands thought it would be funny to replace the water with vodka — which Donny realized just as he was swallowing.
“I thought I was going to die,” he says. Then, after a beat, he jokes: “Best show I ever did in my life.”
When his dad found out, the stagehand was fired.
“That’s abusive to a teenager,” Donny says.
How Donny Osmond balances family, children and fame
For what it’s worth, Donny also seems happy. He seems content. He’s been married to his wife, Debbie, for more than 40 years. They have five sons and 12 grandchildren, all but two of whom are boys. All but one of his kids live in Utah, and his house is the general meetup point. For years, while he and Marie were performing at the Flamingo, Donny commuted back and forth from Provo. He’d fly to Las Vegas on Tuesday, then fly back Friday night so he could be with the family on Saturday mornings. Think soccer games, birthday parties, that sort of thing. Then he’d fly back for the Saturday night show, then back to Utah again for church Sunday morning. The next Tuesday, he would start it all over again.
When he was on “The Masked Singer,” he’d fly back and forth from Los Angeles to Las Vegas every day, sometimes arriving at the theater with just minutes — or less — to spare.
He plans to do something similar for the new show.
When he’s not working on the new show, or his forthcoming studio album — his 63rd album overall — he spends most of his time behind his house, in his garden. He tells me he built a waterfall and a fire pit and planted one fruit tree for each of his grandkids. He’s even starting a vineyard.
“A vineyard?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’m not doing a Donny Bordeaux or whatever,” he says. “I just love grapes.”
In fact, he says, he has some great grape juice in the kitchen if I’d like to try some.
So after talking in his den for more than an hour, we move to the kitchen, where he pours two glasses of iced grape juice. It’s delicious.
As we sip, we talk about other celebrities he’s known over the years. Elvis, Prince, Michael Jackson. Donny and Michael Jackson were on similar paths for a while. They were around the same age, both the young stars of their respective family bands, both successful solo artists. There was a time, especially in the ’80s, when Donny was jealous of the way Michael Jackson’s career just kept ascending. When they talked, though, Donny got the impression that his friend was actually jealous of him.
“Michael always wanted to talk about family,” Donny says. “He had a rough childhood, so he would always ask about my family.”
He says it was the same way with Elvis and Prince. He remembers them wanting to talk about family, too.
“A lot of people weren’t as lucky as I was,” he says.
Speaking of family: When he learns that my wife is pregnant with our first child, Donny’s eyes get bigger and he flashes that radiant toothpaste smile again.
“Boy or girl?!”
“Oh, Mike,” he says. “This little boy is gonna —” he doesn’t finish his thought exactly. He just sits there, beaming at me.
When we finish our grape juice, he walks me out back to the garden he’s been telling me about. It’s a “garden” in the European sense of the word: a multiacre expanse of cultivated nature. A short gravel road winds past a dozen fruit trees, each labeled with a type of fruit and the name of a grandkid. He shows me the place where he’s putting the small vineyard, a system he has for collecting cut grass and the massive rock structure he’s built around a pool in the far corner. Most of the area is invisible to the outside world.
As we get to the chairs around the fire pit he tells me to sit down. He pulls out his phone and swipes at the screen a bit, then he looks up. Suddenly I hear the trickle of water pouring over boulders. He explains that he personally wired the waterfall to an app on his phone. (He’s really not kidding about this electronics stuff.) Within seconds we’re surrounded by the tranquility of moving water.
He’s talked about his anxiety over the years — he wrote a book about it in the ’90s. Since he was a little boy, he’s had an intense desire to be perfect for whoever might be watching him. When he’s recording a song, he spends hours going over it again and again, trying to get it just right. Same thing when he’s planning the new show.
“I’ve learned something interesting in my life,” he says. “Show business can really beat you up and consume you completely. And it will just take you away from the important things.”
When he feels himself drifting too far, he comes here. He cuts some grass. He prunes some trees. He turns on his waterfall and listens.
“I find it so necessary to just balance my life,” he says. Then he points at the gorgeous rocky crags in the distance and jokes: “I spent a lot of money to bring those mountains in.”
He says he was self-conscious about so many things for so many years. He knows his life hasn’t been “normal” — his word. He only went to school for two weeks in the second grade, then two weeks in sixth grade, then one semester at BYU. “Don’t talk to me about geometry or calculus,” he says. “When my kids were studying that, I was like, ‘I’ve got to go write a song.’”
More than the education though, he was self-conscious about his peers. He knew as a teenager that most boys his age weren’t listening to Donny Osmond. “They were listening to Jimi Hendrix while their sisters were listening to me,” he says. “I’ve never had the acceptance of the guys.”
Even when “Soldier of Love” came out and his career rebounded, most of his fans were women. Although by then, some had begun bringing boyfriends and husbands to his concerts. He assumed they were all being dragged to the show and hated it.
“That was intimidating.”
He had the same mentality when he started the residency in Las Vegas in 2008. Soon though, he decided he didn’t want to feel that way anymore.
“A lot of people weren’t as lucky as I was,” Donny Osmond says.
You don’t want to be self-conscious, he told himself. Seeing the guys in the audience, you don’t have to be self-conscious anymore.
He says he entered shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Masked Singer” because he didn’t want to be self-conscious. That’s why he doesn’t feel weird about singing “Puppy Love” anymore. It’s why he’s comfortable rapping. And why now, he’ll often see the men in his audience, pick out one or two early on, and watch as their moods lighten throughout the show. Most of the time, by the end of the night, those men are dancing and swaying with everyone else in the room.
I ask him why he and Marie decided to stop their show at the Flamingo. They were still one of the most coveted tickets in Las Vegas, even after 11 years.
Donny says that Marie wanted to do it for another year. He’d already been talking to a producer about doing a solo show. He says there wasn’t one moment, one disagreement or something that ended it. He just felt like it was time for another reinvention.
The night before he made the announcement about the new show, he called Marie to make sure she knew. He says she told him that she wants to be in the front row on opening night.
“She’s a classy lady,” he says.
What’s next for the legendary Donny Osmond
After talking for a while, Donny wants me to listen to a few tracks from his new album, several of which will also be part of his new show. Inside the office near the front of his house, he has a telephone booth-sized recording studio, insulated with thick soundproofing on all sides. Inside the booth, there’s an open laptop with a file opened to the latest version of each track.
“Not many people have heard this,” he says, leaning over to start the first song.
I am legitimately not prepared for how contemporary Donny Osmond’s new songs sound or how much I like them. Several tracks could play on any pop station in America right now. If you didn’t know who you were listening to, you might think it was Mike Posner or Justin Bieber. One of his new songs, with a catchy refrain that repeats “It’s never too late to start again” sounds like it could go right in the middle of a Disney movie.
That song will also be in his new show at Harrah’s. He shows me a swatch of a new kind of purple paint that will apparently illuminate on its own, lighting the entire room at some point during the performance.
The purple paint is just one of the hints he gives me about the new solo show. When he sings “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” the room will fill with different moments from the animated “Mulan” — as long as he can get clearance from Disney. At one point in the show, he’ll stop and interact with the audience. He’ll call for requests, anything from his vast catalog, and he and his band will be prepared to perform 20 to 30 seconds of it, like some sort of live jukebox. He’s had to revisit hundreds of old tunes.
“Some of these songs I’ve never performed in public,” he says. “They were B-sides or album tracks.”
Of course, he’ll also do the “Six in Six” rap. There will be a tribute to his brothers, with old footage from “The Andy Williams Show.” And near the end, Donny will perform a tribute to his sister. He says the dialogue isn’t completely worked out yet, but it will be something like: “There’s only one person on this planet that shared these experiences, that can relate to what I went through, and that’s my sister.” Then, as the screens show footage of Donny and Marie through the years — their first duets, their prime-time show, their talk show — Donny will sing the Beatles song “In My Life.”
He hasn’t had his first show yet, but I can already see it. Every night, the audience at Harrah’s will absolutely weep. Tear ducts everywhere spilling forth.
“It’s going to be a moment,” Donny says.
He tells me that as he’s been plotting this out, he’s had a chance to look back at who he was at different times in his life. He says he understands and accepts the different people he’s been through the years.
“I’m all of it,” he tells me. “I’m every one of them. They’re all me.”
He’s that successful child star. He’s the failure. He’s that young man in his 20s who hated the joke he’d become. He’s the anonymous artist. He’s Joseph. He’s Donny of “Donny and Marie.” He’s even that little kid in the sandbox. Though now his sandbox is huge and has a waterfall he controls with his phone.
“My garden is my sandbox,” he says. “But it’s also a place I can see my grandkids.”
Donny is also still that hopeful kid who grew up in a house full of music and wanted nothing more than to entertain whoever was in front of him. That’s what drives him, he says. When an audience loves him, it’s like a drug. It’s something he’ll completely reinvent himself to hold on to. He’ll work day and night, until he’s close to breaking down. Until he has to force himself to step back and focus on the only thing more important.
By midafternoon, Debbie is home and their third son, Brandon, has come over with his sons Peder and Benson. When Peder and Benson see their grandfather, they come running across the yard to give him a hug. Then they both tell him about their new ninja socks.
When Brandon learns I’m writing a story about his dad, he jokes about giving me dirt on him.
“Oh yeah, my dad is on all sorts of drugs,” he tells me, smiling.
“Yeah,” Debbie says without missing a beat. “Statins.”
Conversation moves quickly between Donny, Debbie and Brandon. Plans for the weekend: kids’ soccer games and helping Brandon and his family move. They talk about which days Donny will commute to Las Vegas when the show starts and whether Debbie will go with him. (She will.) They talk about how they want to expand the kitchen to accommodate the growing family, so this house will still be the meetup point for all the adult children and grandkids. Then, somehow, someone mentions one of the songs on Donny’s new album, and how much Peder and Benson like it.
“You like that song, don’t you?” Debbie says to them. But the boys are eating pizza and neither of them responds.
So Donny starts singing. Then Debbie joins in. Then Brandon joins in, too, the three of them subtly harmonizing. Then Peder and Benson nod and sing along. Just sitting in the kitchen, talking about nothing in particular, and suddenly all the Osmonds present are singing.
Donny smiles that smile.
Eventually it’s time for me to go. After a day of conversation and listening to music and watching water flow over rocks and drinking delicious grape juice, Donny walks me out and says goodbye.
He says he has some more work to do in his garden.
This story appears in the June issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.