BWW Interview: National Theater Hall of Fame Inductee Donna McKechnie Reminisces on Her Broadway Career
In celebration of her upcoming induction into the National Theater Hall of Fame on November 18th, I sat down with Broadway legend, Donna McKechnie for a spirited, informative, career-spanning chat.
What does it feel like to be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame?
Well, first of all, that was never ever in my thinking as a young performer. I always knew things like the Hall of Fame existed and it was a great honor, but it wasn't until I got the Letter (an actual letter, not an email) letting me know that I was inducted that it hit me. Made me sit down and smile, think back on my career... it was a very warm feeling but it was a happiness that I did not expect... Although, We don't do what we do for the awards, this life is too hard. We do it because we love it, although awards are a great honor! This Hall of Fame induction is like a big cherry on the top!
After a start as a ballet dancer in Michigan you came to New York and landed your first Broadway show "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying". The original choreographer was Hugh Lambert but was replaced by Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon as dance captain! Would you mind sharing some of the things you learned from them as a young performer?
I learned so much, it turned my whole world around. Being in that show, working with those people made me realize that if I learn how to also sing and act I could do this for a long time. Up until that point I had dreams of being a ballet dancer but this show taught me that this was something I had to study in order to have a prolonged career because a dancer's life is short.
But you're still dancin'...
After your stint on Broadway you were cast as Philia in the national tour of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum"
Yes, that was when I first met and auditioned for Stephen Sondheim. My first singing role!
Soon after that, you were cast in the TV series where you would meet someone that would go on to play a large role in your career, Michael Bennett. Did you know he was something special off the bat?
Oh, he was a great dancer! When we did Hullaballoo all the dancers followed him because we knew he wanted to be a choreographer, they looked up to him. There was a big production number and I asked him to choreograph something for me, he said "Sure!" That was the first time he ever choreographed something for me and he really did a great job. He made me look so good and I went, "Wow he is really is fabulous!"
The first show Michael Bennett choreographed for Broadway was A Joyful Noise. Tell us about that experience...
Yes, I was a part of the out of town try out, sort of a summer stock tour of it. With Tommy Tune in the chorus and Leland Palmer and all these great people. It was my first role playing opposite John Raitt and Jimmy Rado, who would later go on to HAIR fame. It was terrifying! I remember looking at all of the dancers and I wanted to be with them instead of doing the scenes. I didn't do the Broadway show because they got a new producer that recast the whole thing besides a few leads. But it was a great experience.
You were then cast in the short lived The Education of Hyman Kaplan and soon after you were cast as Mrs. Della Hoya in Promises Promises, on Broadway, choreographed by Michael Bennett. This was also when you were cast in the legendary Dark Shadows.
Interesting story there... I was initially hired by David Merrick for a singing/acting role. After a while, the director Bob Moore, the wonderful director, was cutting some scenes and all the smaller parts were being cut. Fearing that, Michael, knowing that I was a dancer said, "Let me put her in this number because it would be good to build this number around a principle." He saved me because he knew I was a dancer. That was not the original plan, but I'm so thankful he was there to say "I know her, she can do this number."
Obviously we are talking about the now legendary number "Turkey Lurkey Time." What were your chiropractor bills like during that production? Your neck pops and arm windmills are other-worldly.
(Laughs) I was very flexible back then.
I could tell!
You pay for it later! Most dancers will tell you it's like later, in in your 30's and 40's that you really start feeling it.
Speaking of "Turkey Lurkey Time", how do you feel about this performance and others of your living on through YouTube?
I was just talking to Baayork (Lee) about this. We had no idea that it would have a life like this. Every year it goes viral around Thanksgiving and into the holidays! Last I checked the Tony Award performance video was up to nearly 40,000 views!
Well, it's a great reference for sure. I wish I could choose which videos were up and which weren't but we have no control over such things but I am thankful that it can be used as a reference for young performers.
Speaking of YouTube performances, the Company 20th anniversary concert footage on YouTube I think is the only recording of you doing "Tick Tock."
Actually at the Lincoln Center Library there is footage from the original production with the Boris Aronson sets, which were a part of the choreography we couldn't do at the reunion. In fact, the sets were a part of the creation of the dance. We have to thank Betty Corwin for that. She created the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. In fact we just lost her recently. I used that grainy footage 20 years after to reference the Tick Tock choreography for the reunion concert.
On the subject of Company... I would be remiss if I didn't ask you for an anecdote about your co-star, the great Elaine Stritch.
Well, I wrote a few stories about Elaine in my book (Time Steps). One of the more famous stories, (Elaine talked about it in her Tony Award Winning one woman show At Liberty), I was there for. It was opening night in Boston and I had just finished my number and I was up in one of the plexiglass cubes. Elaine had forgotten her lyrics and in the reflection, I could see her putting her hands in her mouth! It was hard to watch someone you admired struggle. Reminded me in a way of Judy Garland later in her career. Anyway, after the show I went backstage to check on Elaine and make sure she was ok. She said to me "You are the first person that has come to see me". I told her I wanted to see what happened. She said, "I was trying to find my lyrics!" Afterwards we met at the Tiki Hut where I saw Ruth Mitchell, Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim all sitting with head in hand wondering probably what they were going to do with Elaine. It was sort of presumptuous of me, but I went up to the table and told them I went to see Elaine, which they were shocked at, but I reassured them not to worry because Elaine assured her the hand in the mouth thing would only happen on opening night. Considering we were going to open in New York in a few weeks, I am not so sure how reassuring that was. (Laughs)
Your stint in Company took you to London, where you wowed West End audiences and you were also on the national tour.
Not too long after I left Company in LA to come back and audition for Ron Field for On The Town. I was cast as Ivy in the Broadway revival.
That must have been thrilling to see...
It certainly was thrilling to do!
You then choreographed Sondheim: A Musical Tribute!
That certainly was a night to remember! Something I have always been very proud of.
After that, was that when Michael Bennet first approached you about his idea about a show revolving around the lives of dancers that would eventually be A Chorus Line?
It was around that time, yes. He optioned a writer friend to initially write a backstage murder mystery based on a photo he saw of a chorus dancer sitting backstage. He showed that to me and said I want to create something based on this for you. I thought to myself, "Wow!" And took it as a VERY high compliment and I was very eager to have that happen but that never came to fruition, I never asked why, but I was at least in his thinking. Which was the highest compliment that you could get from a choreographer like Michael.
Michael loved dancers. he wanted to do something for dancers, but he also wanted to do something for himself. At that point he had learned from the best. You can't get much better than learning from Hal Prince and Jerome Robbins was iconic to him and he wanted to emulate him. Michael wanted to do something that was totally his expression. A Chorus Line was the culmination of that. The characters in A Chorus Line are based on a lot of different stories but Michael is in each of them.
Your creation of the role of Cassie in A Chorus Line has gone down as one of the most iconic performances in Broadway history- specifically the glorious "The Music and the Mirror." Can you talk to me a little about the creation of "The Music and the Mirror"? It all looks so free and organic.
I am glad you see it that way, because that was the desired effect. That is why Michael created so many repetitive steps, which was meant to represent how dances are created in the studio. Going further and further each time. Building. That was an element in the dance and I thought it was just wonderful. It gave me the feeling that it was organic. It took a while to get all the colors right.
Michael talked about the three elements of the dance- the lie, the mirror and Zach. I realize it's a dance piece, but there is a lot of acting. In fact I tell every Cassie they have to build their own inner life, in their own way. This is why so many of the Cassie's I have known over the years and have worked with find themselves changed afterward, because the dance gives you so much. It's so challenging but they find a kind of confidence and freedom and they can own it even though it's been done by others. It depends on who is doing it to bring the emotions to it. "Tick Tock" is the same kind of number- an emotional story...
You received the Tony Award for your portrayal of Cassie...
All I ever wanted was to be in a Broadway show and dance and have a career as an actor... to learn how to sing and extend the roles in that way. During A Chorus Line we were so insulated down at the Newman Theater first and then when we moved to Broadway we were doing 8 shows a week. It was an exhilarating and exhausting time, so I didn't really have time to think about awards. The show was an award. All of us were so happy to move to the Shubert. It just doesn't get better than that.
I was dealing with personal issues as well. My father had just died and I had a lot of big feelings happening at once. I remember Michael took me to dinner at Joe Allen's to talk to me about the Tony nomination process and honestly I told him that part of things was none of my business. It was about the work for me. He can handle that aspect of things. Of course it was thrilling to receive such an honor from your peers.
Please tell us what it was like to work again with Fosse/Verdon on the revival of Sweet Charity...
I love situations like that. Full circle moments. It had been 25 years since How to Succeed. Gwen was my first dance captain and here we were again. Looking back, one of the greatest gifts in my life was having Gwen Verdon, the original Charity Hope Valentine, teach me the role that she created with Bob Fosse. She literally took me by the hand and taught me every step, every move and nuance of that show! Gwen was such a hard worker. She never took breaks either. I must have dropped 20 pounds in two weeks, (laughs) I never marked anything. I wanted to earn her respect. I was killing myself doing it but she told me that once I could get through the first act, you know you are home free because the first act was a killer. I will never forget the first time I did. Jumping on the bed during "If My Friends Could See Me Now." After the number we looked at one another both with tears in our eyes because I got through it! It meant everything, it was her telling me, "You've got this!" Such an important gift, her approval. I talk about this in my one person show. It was as if Gwen had given me part of her soul.
One more story about Gwen and Sweet Charity... when she was teaching me initially, she told me she could show me Annie's version, Chita's version, Debbie's version and her version. "Which one would you like?" That is how generous she was! I should have asked her to see all of them just to watch her do them all! I wisely chose her version! (laughs)
While we are on the subject, I just thought of something Fosse said this all the time. "Don't compete with anyone else. Compete with yourself." He shared this with us actually backstage at Sweet Charity on his last day on Earth. He told us to save our money and don't compete.
You chronicled this in your book Time Steps but I wanted to ask you about the fact that your dancing career was almost cut short by your diagnosis with rheumatoid arthritis. Can you talk to us a little about your treatment approach. Looking back this mix of holistic and traditional medicine was way ahead of it's time.
Thank you, that is actually why I wrote my book. I wanted to be able to share with everyone how I was able to eliminate RA from my body. I wouldn't accept, I don't know how, I knew this but I knew that things like gold injections and eighteen aspirin a day would be harmful but those were some of the treatments. I knew instinctually that was not good. I made it my job to find an alternative way of dealing with it.
I was able to find through a friend a Dr in New Jersey, Dr. Getland, who put me on a yes and no list of food and behavior along with vitamin therapy. These are all now accepted treatments from traditional medicine. He told me that if I followed this, I would dance again in a year. It was true! After only three weeks, the pain started to subside. Cutting to years later when I returned to the Shubert in A Chorus Line in 1986, I knew that it was a personal victory because there was a time before that I was having trouble walking. That is why I wrote the book to give people hope to not give up on themselves!
Talk to me a little about what you are up to now!
I have been touring with symphonies and singing with them, performing my one person show. Andrea McCardle and I have been doing a Sondheim/Hamlisch show, which was just at 54 Below and is coming back in the Spring. One of the most exciting things I have done recently involved my idol Leslie Caron called Six Dance Lessons in Six weeks where I choreographed six dances for her. A few seasons ago I choreographed Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl, directed by the exquisite Richard Jay Alexander.
Besides that, I really love working in the UK. I was a part of the fantastic production of The Wild Party, which was just wonderful and I was did my one woman show at the Crazy Coqs there which is a wonderful club! This past year I was in Glasgow where the Royal Conservatory of Scotland put a scholarship in my name, which was a great honor! I put a show together in honor of that which was great fun! I am also just starting work on a new musical reading of Victory Train, directed by Lynne-Taylor Corbitt which began readings last week!!
What do you think about the performers you see today?
The talent I am able to see today is fantastic! It's certainly evolved. It's thrilling! So much great talent out there!
I heard you are also doing a podcast!
Yes! It's called "The Ladies Who Lunch". I invite ladies involved in the performing arts who have had longevity in their careers and are still going strong because there are a lot of lessons to impart. I wanted it to be kind of retro so I asked to record it at Sardi's who were so generous to allow us to record there and also built is a set! The first episode is up, with myself, Baayork Lee, Priscila Lopez and Kelly Bishop! In fact we are going to try and get a live version at Broadway Con in January! One of the reasons I did this podcast, especially for women of a certain age, to show how you can reinvent yourself.
Photo Credits: Kurt Sneedon of Blueprint and Carol Rosegg