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Jay Osmond: ‘This show is a living memoir of my life in the Osmonds’

The Crazy Horses singer on his new musical telling the story of his sibling band’s high and lows, the way his father drilled discipline into them and how they got those smiles that dazzled a generation

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Jay Osmond. Photo by Mark Condren

Jay Osmond. Photo by Mark Condren

From left: Donny Jay, Merrill, Wayne and Alan Osmond in the early 1960s. Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

From left: Donny Jay, Merrill, Wayne and Alan Osmond in the early 1960s. Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

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Jay Osmond. Photo by Mark Condren

‘Oh, there was orthodontic work. We all got braces and retainers, and the Osmond smiles were worked on.”

In the Circle Bar of Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Jay Osmond is talking about the famous sibling grins that put Irish teeth to shame at the time. When the Osmonds came over from America to conquer the UK and Ireland in the early 1970s, you could barely see their faces for the dazzling ring of confidence emanating from their mouths.

Jay, who is in Dublin to talk about his show The Osmonds: A New Musical, says the teeth were part of their father’s plan for the band: “If we were going to be the best, then we had to work on being exactly that, and that meant every aspect of the presentation.”

While the fans — mostly teenage girls — could choose their very own Osmond brother to swoon over, what motivated the group was well-drilled, well-oiled levels of professionalism. “That’s what the musical is really about, to be honest,” Jay says. “It isn’t a concert, it isn’t a documentary or even a tribute show. It’s a living memoir of my life as to how I viewed the Osmond brothers.”

The family’s background is fascinating. In the late 1950s, four of the brothers (Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay, then aged three) visited Disneyland, broke out into song with an on-site barbershop quartet, and were spotted by the resort’s director of entertainment, Tommy Walker, who hired the boys to perform on a segment of the hugely successful television show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.

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From left: Donny Jay, Merrill, Wayne and Alan Osmond in the early 1960s. Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

From left: Donny Jay, Merrill, Wayne and Alan Osmond in the early 1960s. Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

From left: Donny Jay, Merrill, Wayne and Alan Osmond in the early 1960s. Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

Their spot was seen by Jay Williams, father of US entertainer/crooner Andy Williams, whose own TV show was watched by millions coast to coast. Cue regular appearances on the show from 1962-69, by which time younger brother Donny joined the group, followed by siblings Marie and ‘Little’ Jimmy.

The way Jay tells it, they wouldn’t have got off the starting blocks if it hadn’t been for their father, George. A former US army sergeant and a decorated war hero, he was “a strong father, a man who never faltered, very disciplined but also good. Discipline and persistence were his favourite words, and yet he had a tender side to him”.

He was never abusive, verbally or physically, Jay says, “but he was firm”. “Our mother [Olive], meanwhile, was a comforter, strong-willed, kind, the most positive person I have ever known in my life, and very supportive of our father,” he adds. “One of her favourite sayings was, ‘This too shall pass’. She knew our father supported us, but he had a bit of a rough side and she softened that.”

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Raised in the Mormon faith, which continues to be a central part of their lives, the brothers gradually shifted from perma-smiling variety show-type performances throughout the 1960s to pop and rock in the early 70s. Hits such as Hold Her Tight, Crazy Horses (on which Jay sang lead vocal as well as playing drums) and Down by the Lazy River were original songs. But with younger brother Donny triggering virtually all the screaming power of the fanbase with a sequence of cover versions, a stylistic shift occurred that was difficult for the band to control. While their record company facilitated varying changes in their output, the entertainment media, Jay reckons, were confused as to exactly what kind of band they were.

“The media was asking us were we a rock band or a pop group or a bubblegum outfit — which one were we? In 1972, Crazy Horses came out, and so did Donny’s Puppy Love. That, as anyone will tell you, is quite a divergence of music styles, so it was a struggle. In the musical, we look at the conflicts the record company put us through. Of course, as a group, for years we were used to doing every kind of music, but the style variations were pulling us apart.”

It also didn’t help matters, Jay admits, that in 1973, during huge commercial success, they released The Plan, a concept album that mixed rock music with the conservative messages of Mormonism. Jay says their fans knew the siblings “put our faith, family and music in that order”, but one can detect the formidable influence of their father (instinctively, he disliked the disrepute of rock music).

I ask if it felt like a conflict for the siblings to live the life of successful pop stars yet on the other to be so entrenched in the Mormon faith? He says not, claiming it was their faith that protected the brothers (and sister Marie, who while acknowledged in the musical, doesn’t form part of the core narrative).

Faith

“When we were at the top of our game and when we were at the lowest, our faith gave us grounding. The highlight for me in the musical is not when we were at the height of the game and everything was going great, but when everything was going wrong, which was towards the end,” he says.

“To see us come out through that as a unit and bond together as a unit would have, I bet, destroyed most families. To lose what we lost, but then to see us pull it back, stick through it, move forward and go back again — that was what our faith did.”

It is, Jay notes, 50 years since Crazy Horses was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. “Seriously, how is that possible? It feels like it was yesterday, and yet knowing that the story of the Osmonds is continuing through the musical is not just surreal but also déjà vu.”

They tried so hard to be perfect, he reflects, fondly recalling their nickname of the ‘One-Take Osmonds’. “No-one is perfect,” he says, “not even The Osmonds. It never felt like we weren’t good enough, but I remember our father said that discipline is about remembering what you want, and if you want something bad enough, then you will get it, but only through drive, ambition and hard work. The process was hard and difficult, but it paid off. That approach gives people hope, and that’s what I want people to get from the show.”

Would he want to revisit the heady days again? Jay smiles — and, yes, the teeth still look good. “I wouldn’t go back a day, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

 ‘The Osmonds: A New Musical’, March 22-26, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin 


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