The stage mother from ...

Special to The Times

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."

O'Donnell says she was drawn to the show on a number of levels. Having just walked away from six years as a media superstar to pursue a "normal and balanced" life as suburban mother, she could relate to the perils of white-hot fame as presented in this hip rise-to-riches saga, and she was touched by the character of Big Sue, den mother of the freaks who inhabit the club Taboo.

When Morton stepped to the footlights to sing "Stranger in this World," a haunting ballad about motherly tenderness and alienation, O'Donnell said she knew that the next year would be consumed with bringing the show to Broadway. She was convinced "Taboo's" sympathetic vision of outsiders might soulfully speak to a whole new audience of theatergoers as Broadway musicals like "A Chorus Line" had spoken to her, growing up motherless and disaffected in Long Island.

"The theater is where I went to pray, it's my religion," she says. "I've always thought of it as a debt I owe."

Furthermore, O'Donnell was convinced the populist touch that had served her so well in TV would work its mojo in the theater world, even if it was for a show featuring drag queens whose bizarre aesthetic is a far remove from middle-class tastes. "Underlying all these eccentric characters are people searching for love, dealing with illness and loss," O'Donnell says. "Who couldn't relate to the humanity of that?"

O'Donnell, as the sole producer, harks back to the almost-extinct days of one name above the title, as in "David Merrick presents ...." Now it is not uncommon for the risk to be spread among dozens of producers. She dismisses attention given to the fact that she's delving so deeply into her personal fortune. "If I'd bought a house, nobody would have said a thing," she says. True. But given that only one in seven musicals recoups its investment, that "house" appears to be built over a fault line.

Nonetheless, the producer says she wanted to back it herself to signal to O'Dowd that there'd be no corporate interference. The decision also reflects hard lessons she learned while fighting her losing battle for control of Rosie magazine. "I wanted to make sure there was only one driver," she says. "I didn't want any other producer around to tell me what I could and could not do."

Reining in the "control gene," she admits, would be an ongoing -- and in some cases losing -- battle. The name of her production company, One Canvas, attested to that. "There are too many artists and only one canvas," she explains. "Picasso does one painting, love it or hate it, but you can't tell him to add more blue. I realize that theater is a collaborative effort, so my job as producer was to surround myself with the most talented painters I knew and let each one add their style to the canvas. Was it hard? Very. Very. How I've done everything else in my career has been to yank chains. But I've tried as hard as I could to sit on my hands on this project."

She moved quickly to put a creative team in place, supplementing Renshaw and O'Dowd with Charles Busch ("Tale of the Allergist's Wife") to revise the original London book, and helping with the casting. (She briefly flirted with the idea of playing Big Sue but realized "I'm not good enough," leaving the role to Liz McCartney.) She also threw herself into the marketing.

The producer makes no bones that she was out to change the way Broadway does business. "It's not 1968; the old ways don't work anymore," she says. Adds O'Dowd: "Rules are meant to be broken. There's a kind of snobbery in theater, and these are people who are always crowing about somebody having to save theater. Then when somebody tries to do that, they're attacked."

Early on, O'Donnell says, she decided the overriding vision of "Taboo" would be Renshaw's and O'Dowd's. ("Chris supplied the sperm and Boy George the egg. I would be the aunt who taught it to walk.") Nonetheless, she clashed with what she says was Renshaw's lack of assertiveness and with Boy George's pop world laissez-faire attitude. She admits that the latter's habitual lateness drove her bonkers and that she would leave messages on his voice mail quoting back his own lyrics to him: "Heaven and hell are right here on Earth, decided by your own free will...."

It didn't work. The pop star insisted on living on what he calls "my Jamaica/Spanish time." "I told Rosie, 'Look, I'm not Sparkletina Sparkle. I can't just turn it on.' Besides, I've always had a problem with authority, that officiousness -- 'This is how we do things in the theater.' "

Trying to get along

O'Donnell, aware that she could hardly afford to alienate both her composer and star in O'Dowd, says she learned to quell her fury. But her feelings were hurt, to the point of tears, particularly when he was embarrassingly late for a press preview. "We've been able to accommodate each other's craziness," she says. "I told him, 'I won't get mad about your lateness if you don't get mad about me shouting and poking people in the chest.' That's effective with an 8-year-old, but men don't like it very much."

Indeed, at times, O'Donnell says, she felt like the only girl who wasn't allowed to play with the rest of the boys in the creation of "Taboo" -- which might come as a surprise to those who noted that she sometimes was the only one speaking during rehearsals, the others having been cowed into silence. "There's never been any doubt who's in charge," says Raul Esparza, one of the stars who had his own widely publicized contretemps when he walked out of rehearsals in frustration with what he saw as her interference. "But it's her money and she's extremely smart and intuitive. It's been the most exhilarating and frightening show I've ever worked on. And she's unlike any producer I've ever worked with too."

While O'Donnell says that producer Cameron Mackintosh is her idol for his strength of vision and daring, she has worked most often with Barry and Fran Weissler (on "Grease" and "Seussical"), the enormously successful producing couple known for combining acumen with ruthlessness. If she has learned anything from them, it appears to be what not to do. "In a Weissler production, there'd be many more people fired already," she says. "And in the first year of my television show, there were lots of casualties."

Meanwhile, she continues to be an indefatigable promoter of the show, showing up at the first preview to work the crowd like a seasoned politico, taking pictures with adoring fans and wearing multiple "Taboo" T-shirts that she peeled off to give as souvenirs. Win, lose or draw with her first musical, it appears that O'Donnell won't be going anywhere soon. After all, "Taboo" is only the first of numerous projects in TV, film and theater that One Canvas has optioned. And should O'Donnell lose her $10-million investment, she reportedly still has more than $100 million more.

When O'Dowd is asked whether he'd work again with O'Donnell on a musical, he says, "Yes. There's this song by Joni Mitchell that sums up Rosie for me: 'I'm frightened by the devil but drawn to those who aren't afraid.' "

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