Fynsworth Alley: Donna McKechnie

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

donna mckechnieDonna McKechnie is best known for her Tony Award winning performance as Cassie in A Chorus Line, but her career has spanned four decades, from her start in the chorus of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying all the way through the upcoming Broadway revival of Mack and Mabel. She made her first big splash as a featured dancer on the television show Hullabaloo, where she met Michael Bennett, with whom she would create memorable dances in Promises, Promises, Company, A Chorus Line and more. In recent years, Donna has starred in State Fair on Broadway, Follies at the Papermill Playhouse, and Mack and Mabel as part of the Reprise concert series in Los Angeles. She is currently performing in her one-woman show, and she appears on the forthcoming Fynsworth Alley CD, You Never Know.

DL:When you were a little girl, what made you want to be a dancer?

DM: It was never a question for me. I guess I’m lucky that I didn’t need to grow up and go to college to wrestle with what I wanted to do with my life. Maggie’s story in A Chorus Line, in the song “At The Ballet” is my story. I used to dance around the living room with my imaginary Indian Chief. And it was never separated from the music; the music and the movement were both equally important to me. So my mother took me to ballet classes, and I eventually worked my way up from the little local classes to more serious classes. By the time I was in junior high, I was giving lessons to little girls in my basement. Sheila’s story in A Chorus Line is mine, too, watching The Red Shoes and being inspired by the girl with the red hair. From the time I saw that movie, I wanted to dance ballet.  

DL: What was your first big break?

DM: That was How To Succeed, and I don’t think I appreciated it at the time. I went in there as a very cocky dancer, not knowing much about theatre, who Frank Loesser or Abe Burrows really were. But what an education I got! I learned so much from everyone involved, from Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows and Cy Feuer and Bobby Morse… I fell in love with the theatre, where I got to use so much of myself, my personality, more than just my technique. I became an actress! And not too long after that, I got cast as Philia in the tour of Forum, which confirmed it all for me.

DL: And was Hullabaloo right after that?

DM: I joined Hullabaloo in 1964, I think. I auditioned on a whim, everyone went to the audition, it seemed. I wasn’t trying to leave the theatre, it just sounded like fun. And it was great fun. And that’s where I met Michael Bennett. I had no idea of the power of television — fifty million people watching me!

DL: Did Jaime Rodgers do all the choreography for the show, or were you allowed some freedom?

DM: He did most of it, but every once in a while, we were given the opportunity to let loose and be ourselves. At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so Michael Bennett created a fantastic combination for me, a real showcase for my talents. Of course, he kept the big drum solo for himself, but why shouldn’t he?

DL: So what inspired you to leave the show and head back to the theatre?

DM: I don’t exactly remember. I think it was just time. I got another job… I think it was A Joyful Noise, and I had already been with the show a couple of years. The timing turned out to be really good, since Hullabaloo was only on the air for one more season after I left.

DL: Before too long, you were in Promises, Promises. How did you end up with such a fantastic featured dance?

DM: I was cast as one of the secretaries, but when we took the show out of town, it was running almost four hours long! So as the director started trimming the show, the secretaries’ roles were almost eliminated. I was kept on because I was a dancer, and in one of those great out-of-town moments, I suddenly found myself with a showstopper.

DL: And that almost directly lead to Company. We look back on that today and say what a groundbreaking show it was… did it feel that way when you were doing it? Did you have any idea what it would become?

DM: Oh, yes. I was in therapy then, and I was very interested in my own relationships and where they were going, and how I could make them work in show business. Having a life in show business is not easy on relationships. I didn’t know it would be a success, but I knew it was very exciting the way all these creators were putting it together. I knew they were trying to be very honest.

DL: How did the “Tick Tock” dance number develop?

DM: Well, it developed with Michael. Because he was such a conceptual choreographer, without being a studied intellectual at all, he had a great knowledge, a wisdom… and intuition. He was very creative in his thinking. The dance is abstract, so he’d take an image, like the ticking of a clock… the dance is about loneliness, and yearning, and sex. About being in a relationship and not being able to relate intimately, whether in sex or in a conversation. So he got this image of a clock ticking. It was just me and Michael and Bob Avian and Bobby Thomas, the dummer. That’s how we started every number. Now, I was a friend of Michaels, but I didn’t really know him intimately beforehand, we never shared these kinds of discussions. So I was very prim around him. He would try to get into what we could do with this moment, and he’d say, “You know when you’re in bed with someone having sex, and you’re supposed to be with a person but you’re very aware of the clock ticking. Whatever it is when your mind is not there, and you’re aware of something else… That fear of intimacy. I want to capture that in a number.” Well I thought first of all that was the most interesting thing. How do you capture that in a number? But that was the little kernel he would grab onto, and it would be a springboard for invention. I was very shy about that kind of thing, so I was very happy he had these incredible ideas, so I could in a more physical and spiritual and emotional way interpret it.

Here’s a funny story that I’ve told before: Michael was still searching for a way to make this unique, to find one dance for one dancer alone onstage for seven minutes. He thought maybe we should get a see-through or topless costume. He was talking very matter-of-factly, so I acted like it didn’t bother me, but inside my stomach sank. I was thinking, “Oh my God, how do I explain to my friend, my choreographer, that I couldn’t possibly do that?” We had just come out of the wild and free 1960s, but I was just as inhibited as I had ever been, coming from Michigan. So I had this discussion with him, being above it all and saying, “That would be wonderful, but then there’s no mystery left.” I gave him this whole argument about how the movement would be less musical, and the nudity would distract the audience from the essences and the mystery and the romance. It was a good argument, but I was really fighting for my life. He said, “okay,” probably realizing I just didn’t want to do it.

So we started there, and we had some rhythms and Michael had some dance vocabulary, but we really worked on it like a scene… what is going on the moment before, what is the action, what is the intention, what is the ending? And then along the way we had a dance arrangement that we threw out in Boston because it was too on-the-money, too rock-and-roll sex ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom. This is what I loved about Michael and Hal Prince. I could contribute, I didn’t know any better, so I just jumped in with things like “why not bring the strings in at this point…” So they got David Shire who was there on his honeymoon, and Talia Shire didn’t like that one bit. So one day, from twelve noon to twelve midnight in Boston at the Shubert, we were all there in this dark theater with the stage light, and this whole number was put together by David Shire. He arranged it, and it was in the show in a few nights, and it was a world of difference. That’s when we brought in reprises of some of the other numbers… all the contours changed, it wasn’t just a rock and roll beat throughout the whole thing.

DL: That was a number that was so built around you and defined by you…

DM: They don’t do it anymore! It’s a shame in one way. I know when Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals would go out, you had to have the same polka-dotted costumes; they kept it very rigid to keep the integrity of their shows. I wish there was a middle ground. That number was like a painting, it was so abstract, and it was the interpretive power of the person doing it, but it was really Michael Bennett’s choreography. There was great thought that went into what it was about. If there could have been a design or a way to give the new choreographer and dancers the freedom to do their own interpretive ways but in the context… if there could have been guidelines that say what to do in each part of the music. It’s hard to say, because then someone will come in and want to do it with four women. I saw it done years ago in Long Beach like a pas de deux, with a man throwing a woman around… they were semi-nude together, and it was horrible! Now, perhaps I had a prejudice, but it’s not about sex. It’s about the desire to be loved, to achieve intimacy. So when anyone approaches the results of these things and makes it the intent, that’s trouble; they’re missing the most important thing.

DL: Do you think the era of that kind of number, so tailored to a specific dancer, is over? Is there still an opportunity for that kind of creativity?

DM: I think it’s harder now, because it’s more corporate. Look at the Weisslers, who bring stars in who sometimes aren’t even qualified. Sometimes they’re delightfully surprising, but mostly these shows are created where the show is the star. You can just put somebody else in, and nobody knows the difference. I think that thinking is there more than it ever has been. Of course, there’s a good side to that, because shows are long running. The downside, of courses, is that shows like Mack and Mabel can’t get a theatre. And musical theatre needs to be collaborative. That’s the way I was raised, and that’s when you get the best out of everybody. That’s what I witnessed all those years working with Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. Bob Fosse had such regard for the individual dancer and performer, and he would utilize all of their gifts, not just the dancing. Michael did that too, but I haven’t experienced it lately.

DL: Since you mentioned them together, can you compare working on a Bob Fosse show to working on a Michael Bennett show?

DM: They were very similar, in that I always felt I was working in the hands of the master. It was very easy to feel totally devoted and supportive, because I had such respect for their talent and ability. Bob Fosse really did his homework. He had a great fear of coming into a room and not having anything, of having dancers waiting for him to come up with that first step. That fear was so great, he would make sure he had everything worked out on his body, which is why he had such a signature look to his work. Michael, on the other hand, didn’t do it quite that way, so he didn’t have any kind of signature steps… I think he does, but he was much more expansive, blending it all for each show. He was a conceptual choreographer, he got his ideas from the dialogue or the lyrics or what the scene was about.

DL: Both Michael and Bob had specific dancers and specific groups of dancers they worked. That doesn’t happen so much any more. You don’t really look at people and say, “oh, that’s a Susan Stroman dancer.”

DM: Well, there are Susan Stroman dancers.

DL: But she doesn’t have her Donna McKechnie, her Gwen Verdon…

DM: Well, she’s got Karen Ziemba. There’s someone she’s used, in the same way Michael used me, to develop her career. But it doesn’t happen that much anymore. Unless you’re a Twyla Tharp, in the more classical world where you have your group of dancers just there to dance… For theatre, it just stands to reason that you use people you know you can count on. And if you’re like Susan, and you keep working, you’ll always bring in new dancers. And she works because her background is so strong with Fosse. I know from her work that she uses the dancers like he did, as actors, as individuals. She’s sort of taken over where he stopped.

DL: Apart from Susan, who are the other exciting choreographers working today?

DM: I like Jerry Mitchell. I worked with him in Follies and thought he did a marvelous job. He has that training, he’s of that Michael Bennett/Bob Fosse school. I saw his work in The Full Monty, and he has vocabulary, but he understands musical theatre, and he approaches it as you’re analyzing a scene. Thommie Walsh is a wonderful, unsung hero who will find his day soon, I hope. He also has that ability to be a real director/choreographer. And he understands that less is more, he’s really smart that way. Kathleen Marshall and Rob Marshall are the obvious, I guess. They’re very talented, but they’re still part of bridging that gap of director/choreographers. We’ve lost so many people, because of AIDS and other reasons, things haven’t evolved in a normal way (if there is such a thing). From generation to generation, theatre, which is usually passed on in a personal way, has a lot of catching up to do. There are a lot of wide open spaces that will never be complete.

DL: Recently dance has had something of a revival on Broadway, with shows like Contact and Fosse

DM: Oh, it’s great. There’s a demand for it, because people love it. When you think of it too, outside of Contact, the revivals are coming back. It’s all marketing now, and a lot of marketing is about what works. And how do they know? One of the exciting things about going out of town with a show, which they can’t afford to do any more, was having these audiences that were a big part of making these shows work. It was always so exciting to put all your best effort in rehearsal and the go out of town and have the last ingredient come together before you go to New York. That’s why some of the best numbers in the show were always written out of town. That seemed like a formula that would never die, but it did. Now to move an off-Broadway show, it costs a million dollars!

DL: Did you ever consider becoming a choreographer? Do you ever choreograph?

DM: Yes, I have, but it’s not something I pursued. I’ve had some really nice offers, and sometimes I think “What would have happened…” But I felt that if I started promoting myself as a choreographer, it would have hurt the perception of me as a performer. I felt that I had to really develop and grow as an actress and a singer, and if I started pulling myself apart, I would make it more difficult for myself. I have choreographed, though, in special situations. The last thing I choreographed was a few years ago in London, I did No Way To Treat A Lady. I choreographed a lot, but I never get mentioned… the musical tribute I did in ’73 for Sondheim at the Shubert was really wonderful, I’m very proud of that. And I got a credit for that. A lot of times I co-choreographed numbers with Bob and Michael, but I don’t insist on credit. That’s part of my training, that’s what dancers do. But I get a big kick out of seeing steps I came up with in the finale of A Chorus Line. It’s fun!

I’m more interested in directing, though. That’s where I see the creativity, to make those conceptual decisions. I approach a story, or a musical, or a play as a director, because I analyze that way. Whether I’m watching something or I’m in something, I’m always redirecting it in my head.

DL: When you came back to Broadway in State Fair, you had been away from Broadway for quite a few years. What inspired your return?

DM: First of all, I loved the show, I thought it was ideal. A Broadway musical with integrity, that really works. It was a wonderful cast. There was a lot of stuff going on in the production that I didn’t know about and didn’t need to know about, but I liked the fact that it was an old-fashioned musical. I enjoyed the idea that it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein show that had never been seen before. It was kind of retro, reaffirming the reasons why I stayed in this business.

DL: As a performer did you have any contact with David Merrick? Your association with him must stretch back to Promises, Promises.

DM: Oh, sure. When I was in London doing Promises, he came over and was very proud of me. I have one very funny memory of him. I think he was basically shy in many ways, and it was very hard for him to articulate things in many ways. After all, he was a business man. I always revered him, he was on a pedestal to me. He was the boss! And he had a looming, powerful history. He was trying to be (I guess!) friendly to me, and we were waiting in the wings in New York at a rehearsal, just before we opened. He came up behind me, and I guess to be cute or funny or show his sense of humor or something, because he was always very stern and serious… I was just standing there watching the show, and he came up behind me and said “boo!” behind me in my ears and scared me half to death! I thought it was one of the kids in the show, so I turned around and was really gonna let him have it. And it was David Merrick, trying to be… I guess… down to earth? He liked me, and he appreciated what I was doing for the show, so instead of being able to say it directly, that was his playfulness.

Of course, State Fair was at the end of his life, when he was very sick. But let me tell you something: when he would come to the show and stand at the back of the theatre, I saw him physically get healthier. He could stand longer, walk better, breathe easier. It was amazing.

DL: You did You Never Know at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1991, when you were living in LA. So ten years later, when you got the call that we were going to do this album of You Never Know

DM: What took you so long? I was thrilled! That was a show that I thought, you never see this around. I haven’t seen it advertised anywhere. I thought we had such a good show, with a great score and an interesting cast. It was a limited run, so I never really expected to record it. So I was surprised – delighted!

The story line is like watching an old movie – a good old movie! You just love it, because the style, the period all comes through. What I thought was delightful about it was that gentle commenting on it, but not making fun of it. Taking it seriously, but with a glimmer in your eye like Brenda Starr.

DL: Now you’re doing your one-woman show.

DM: Next week at UCLA. Come see it!

DL: How did you develop that show?

DM: Well, I developed it over a few years. It was a glorified cabaret at first. But I was doing it in places that didn’t have a real dance space. I was frustrated and people who came to see it thinking of me as a dancer were frustrated, so I decided to try to make it a theatre piece. I did a version in London that went very well. I was very shocked and delighted that I had eleven theatre reviews for this little Off-Off-Off- West End theatre. I thought I could get away from New York and try something, and they all came – Variety was at the second preview! I developed quite a wonderful press kit from it that encouraged me to keep doing it, because it’s hard to do everything, being the producer, director… Eventually, I brought more people on board. I called Chris Durang. I didn’t know him, but I made a list of writers to call and he was the first because I wanted that really off-the-wall humor to prevent it from being another actress’s self-conscious portrayal of her life. That would be boring! I thought I needed a playwright, a funny person who could write deeply but with that black humor. The thrust of my material was growing up in Michigan in the fifties and running away from home because of the repressed conditions. I thought Chris Durang… even though I’m not Catholic… he understands the need to break out. He came on board and started working with me at the Cincinatti Playhouse last September. They gave me the great gift of three weeks, paying for me, Thommie Walsh, Chris Durang, a stage manager, rehearsal space, rental cars… and told us to develop it! No strings attached! I had three performances, invitation only for the board of directors, and it was a great, great gift, because now I have a show. And I’m just starting to have it presented in these venues, and hopefully I will find the backing of a producer who will take it on and help me book it full-scale, because up until now I’ve been doing it on my own.

DL: Now, for the future, I know there’s the possibility of Mack and Mabel coming to Broadway if they find a theatre…

DM: They wanted to start in April, but I think they’ll wait until the fall when there’s a theatre. That’s fine with me.

DL:So you’ve got that and this one-woman show… Are those the big projects for you these days?

DM: Yeah. I’ve been pushing the one-woman show. The Walnut Street Theatre in Pennsylvania wants to present it full-scale, with a set and everything in June. And in April, I’m going down to Florida to do it, and then I’m doing it in Queens on May 4th. I’m still finding theatres to present it, so that’s got most of my focus right now.

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