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InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part I

InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part IToday, I am sharing with you Part I of my exclusive InDepth InterView with legendary Broadway star Donna McKechnie who is perhaps best known as the genius director- choreographer Michael Bennett's muse and primary interpreter as well as the originator and inspiration for the character of Cassie in A CHORUS LINE - for which she won Best Actress In A Musical at the 1976 Tony Awards - in addition to her many roles on Broadway and the West End, as well as all over the country on tours of every kind over the years. In Part I of this comprehensive chat we discuss her earliest featured roles on Broadway, working on the groundbreaking COMPANY and her thoughts on collaborators Bennett, Sondheim and Hal Prince; as well as her thoughts on the current state of Broadway, the out-of-town experience in the Golden Age and creating Cassie in A CHORUS LINE. Plus, of course, we discuss her fantastic new show and much, much more!

The Music & The Mirror & Ms. McKechnie

In honor of the opening of Donna McKechnie's new one-woman-show directed by the esteemed Richard Jay-Alexander DONNA MCKECHNIE: MY MUSICAL COMEDY LIFE kicking off this weekend in Australia, BWW presents this exclusive InDepth InterView with Ms. McKechnie herself in which she candidly reveals her beginnings in theater, her early friendship and collaboration with Michael Bennett on TV's HULLABALOO, as well as commenting on their involvement with the original production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1970 musical COMPANY - also: two clips from that show with the original Bennett choreography and danced by Donna herself can be seen in this week's accompanying FLASHBACK FRIDAY column linked here. An impossibly kind and generous individual, McKechnie speaks with fondness, candor and remarkable clarity about being at the very inception of the last great dynasty Broadway has known having worked so intimately with Michael Bennett, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim and being at the actual birth of COMPANY, FOLLIES, A CHORUS LINE, among many others. Today we are turning the mirror on Donna and letting her be the voice and the body of the music of her rich life as she embarks on the bright future before her in this highly-praised and highly-touted new theatrical endeavor, which she also comments upon in Part II and will be bringing to New York very soon. As Cassie sings in A CHORUS LINE - lyric credit to Ed Kleban - "God, I'm a dancer, a dancer dances," and because of Donna's legacy and her work with Michael Bennett she is the very reason many of those little girls in the audience then became dancers themselves and now light up stages on Broadway and beyond proudly carrying on the gypsy torch as Donna once did before she became a Broadway star of the highest order. She still is a gypsy in her heart and soul, and that shines through in her affable and warm exterior. She is Broadway royalty if anyone ever was. Be sure to stay tuned for Part II later on this month in which we discuss more about A CHORUS LINE and her other stage work since then as well and what the future holds for her and much, much more on Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Sondheim and others. To cite a song title from A CHORUS LINE, one thing is for sure: there is only one Donna McKechnie, but surely she's the one.

PC: What was it like working in that magnificent era of the mid-70s - you had Michael Bennett, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Kander & Ebb, Jerry Herman; all the top talents working on shows at the same time?

DM: You know, I was just at John Simon's surprise birthday party, so many people were there: Jack O'Brian, Austin Pendleton, Michael Riedel, Tommy Tune. We were saying that - you know I teach musical theatre to the kids coming up - and the kids now when they go to auditions they audition for the casting directors first. So, you see, we didn‘t do that: we auditioned for the director and composer and choreographer themselves. We had the rich experience of showing up with all your goods and everyone can see it and "Yay" or "Nay" us; not being screened by casting directors who may - with all good intent - second-guess people based on their own personal likes and dislikes.

 

InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part I

PC: In the EVERY LITTLE STEP documentary on the recent A CHORUS LINE revival that was the exception to the rule.

DM: Bob Avian was there, definitely. Exactly.

PC: So, you do think that it is hard out there for young talent in front of - and behind - the footlights?

DM: It's difficult for writers in the theatre. If you look at that interview they just did with Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood in the New York Times they talk about the fact that there are not enough playwrights. The revivals are there because they are tried and true. It's like a miracle now that anything new gets produced. And not only them, but the money people don't know how to market and they have to face all that and, in the end, it hurts us as the actors. As an actress I am always interested in the new writers.

PC: Stephen Sondheim can't even get his newest show on Broadway.

DM: I know, I know. It can kill your hope. But, I love talking about that time [in the 70s]. I love passing down the stories to people like you. It's important to get the facts straight, a lot of information out there isn't right.

PC: Since we're discussing somewhat depressing subjects, what do you think of the movie of A CHORUS LINE directed by Richard Attenborough?

DM: It was wrong, wrong, wrong. Even the costumes were bad. It put dancers back fifty years.

PC: Well, at least they didn't keep your song and ruin that, too. Wasn't Michael's concept for the film that it was to be an actual audition for the movie version of A CHORUS LINE?

DM: That's what he once told me and Bob.

PC: Did anything good at all come out of that experience for anyone?

DM: You know, I do have a little Pollyanna in me. I'll tell you, I feel grateful about the film for one reason: it was not a hit here, but it was a big hit in Europe and that paved the way for me to go over there to open A CHORUS LINE in Paris. Paris was the last frontier for musical theatre. It was a big deal.

InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part IPC: Was this in 1990? Or, was Michael there?

DM: No, this was just after he died. Maybe 88. It was fantastic being there. It was because of the movie I got to do it. I had to stop dissing it.

PC: I never thought I'd get to hear Donna McKechnie herself say, "I had to stop dissing the CHORUS LINE movie!"

DM: (Laughs.) I did!

PC: How old do you think Cassie should be? Why?

DM: 30. Representative of that era, if you're over 30 you're over the hill. If you're much older, it gives him [Zach] a reason for not putting her in. You can't look too old for the chorus, but it's not about that. It's about her achievements and her maturity and her experience; her presence onstage.

PC: When she says "Zach," she means "God," and vice-versa.

DM: Yeah, and she's saying to him, "I can fit in!" and he's saying, "No, you can't!" A lot of the reason he can't see her there is because he still loves her and he has put her on another plateau. She's having an argument with him that he's not having with her.

PC: How much of that did you take from your own experiences? Not just Bennett and being married to him, but working with Fosse and George Abbott, too. The tough taskmasters.

DM: Right. The things that I got with Michael is we grew up together. But, everybody looked up to Michael, even when he was in the chorus, because everybody knew he was ambitious with his dreams. Also, everybody that knew him knew he could do this because he was that talented. He was a great dancer. He had a great imagination. He had that kind of great focus. But, the thing that made him the strongest was his collaboration.

PC: Yes.

DM: He was not threatened if people came up with ideas and threw in their own steps. He wanted that. That's not always the case, even with wonderful choreographers - if they have a different way of doing things. But, you learn from all of them.

PC: Committee can work against collaboration and creation, too. Do you think out-of-town tryouts not being used anymore has affected the quality of new shows that seem so written by committee with no authentic singular artistic vision? Don't out-of-town tryouts bring people together more?

DM: Yes. You know that famous old saying, "If Hitler were alive the best punishment would be to put him out-of-town with a new musical..."

PC: Larry Gelbart wrote that.

DM: Is it Larry Gelbart? Perfect. I always think of that because it's hellish but it's fantastic. It had its place. In other words, years later, remember when they took [KISS OF THE] SPIDERWOMAN upstate and the critic came up and it was horrifying. It wasn't like the critic up there was reviewing it, it was the Times. It wasn't supported by the process. Someone told me that Fred Ebb was going to commit suicide or was so depressed he never wanted to work again.

PC: I've heard that, too. Very destructive on Frank Rich's part.

DM: Those things are very apparent after the fact, but that was a very special time [back in the mid-70s]. You're right, it did bring people together. It was insular. It was the same experience when we were at the Public with A CHORUS LINE. We were within these four walls and we were there all day. We didn't even go out until it was dark. It was wonderful, so wonderful. I remember thinking, "Oh, this must be what it's like in Russia when you work on Chekov for six months!"

PC: So, creation is the best part of the process, you think - especially with a choreographer. Like the "Cassie Grab" as the mirrors turn away. That's theatre. The essence of it.

DM: Right. One of the centerpieces in the show that I do now, called DONNA MCKECHNIE: MY MUSICAL COMEDY LIFE...


InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part IPC: Is that based at all on INSIDE THE MUSIC? I love that CD.

DM: Yes, it is. But, what I have is this centerpiece, I set the audience up by talking to them about this wonderful event in my life, A CHORUS LINE. I say to them, "I want to take you back to that magic moment when I heard my song by Marvin Hamlisch for the very first time". But, it turns out not to be "The Music And The Mirror".

PC: It was that terrible operetta song!

DM: Oh, you know the story. Yeah, the music was impossible.

PC: Tell it, tell it! What did Michael think of that song? How did it come about?

DM: He didn't say much. It was tough then for Bob and me and Michael. Michael was having a hard time in the business part of it, too. It was a very, very treacherous time for me, I felt. You know, no one was lighthearted at that time in the show's development. I was doing my best to make it work. I was not making a comment like I do in my show - you know, saying cute things about it, like ridiculous things - because it was absurd. But, I could see that he wanted to give me this big star turn. He tried it at the beginning when I came on like Betty Bacall with ten dollars and I wanted change for the cast and all that.

InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part IPC: As Michael called it, the "c**t in furs" scene; the grand diva appears.

DM: Yes, he realized that's because he was trying to give me a star turn. But, I said, "Michael, they hate me. You're killing me with kindness. You're killing me with love here because they don't want to see someone come in after seeing these hardworking dancers standing onstage acting like she's entitled." That was the first part. Then, the second part of that trying to do something great for me was this other number. He gave me this big number, I was like Ann-Margret with the boy dancers.

PC: Like "The Story of Lucy & Jessie" from FOLLIES.

DM: Right. Exactly. That didn't work. That was the first version of "Music and the Mirror", after "Inside the Music". "Inside the Music" - after I sang it, I said, "Now that I hit the high C at the end for you, who's gonna dance it?" - the boys were in these black jumpsuits and brought the mirrors out. They hated it. Hated it!

PC: Was it called "Let Me Dance For You" perhaps? I've seen that title mentioned before as the workshop title for the song.

DM: Maybe that was on the writing paper, but I don't remember that. It changed day by day, anyway. The next day they [the boy dancers] were cut.

PC: Who were they? People from the line?

DM: Yes! Rick Mason didn't speak to me for years. It was supposed to be my solo number and they came on as if they were in my imagination and they danced with me. Wayne [Cilento] was up there, and Rick, I think there were four total. Maybe six, but I think four. They had to move the mirrors on and then they left and went back took off their black stuff and then they came back on and danced. It built. We were doing that reaching step [the "Cassie Grab"] and it was all to the front. All of us. It was just horrendous compared to the rest of the show which really had a heartbeat.

PC: Definitely.

DM: So, I don't know what transpired in Michael but I remember getting a call. I felt I was up against it and he felt he was up against it. Bob Avian was on the other phone. Michael just came out and said, "Why aren't you dancing?" And I was just... (Gasps). Michael and I never had any words like this through the whole thing.

PC: Really? You were the only one he didn't have words with!

DM: Oh, no. I was always kind of like, he did something wonderful with me: he left me alone. So, this was the only confrontational moment and I knew it was the angst and the frustration. So, he said it to me, he put it to me, "Why aren't you dancing?" and I said to him, "Michael, I am dancing! I mean, we're just learning it! I have to be on my mark when I'm on five and then I have to be on four when Wayne is on three. I'll get it. I'm just kind of approaching it. I'm not dancing as full-out as I can because I am just getting it. Don't worry, it'll be there" And, the next day, he cut everybody. All the guys.

PC: So, he changed it for you?

DM: That's when it became a solo. They thought for the longest time that I told Michael I didn't want to dance with them. He just cut them and didn't give them a reason. It caused a lot of unnecessary hurt feelings. The whole number had to be recreated for the better of the show. It was very upsetting for Rick because it was his first show and his big break and all that.

PC: But, without you, there'd be no A CHORUS LINE. You were Michael's muse and through you he created his best work.

DM: He always said that. I didn't really live with that day to day; like I was irreplaceable. I felt like I could be replaced in a minute.

InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part IPC: Is that why you are the best Sally in FOLLIES, that wounded bird quality, or, as you said, slightly Pollyanna-ish-ness?

DM: Yes. Thank you. It means a lot when people understand what I'm going for.

PC: What was it like working on that Papermill production?

DM: The original was pretty amazing, too. But, this one, Sondheim loved and it meant a lot to me.

PC: I can only imagine what the original was like! Did James Goldman's widow really stop that Papermill FOLLIES from coming in to New York?

DM: Yes. Mmm-hmm. (Pause.)

PC: FOLLIES is one of the greatest musicals ever written. Of course, you had just worked with Michael on COMPANY when he did it, along with Sondheim and Prince, too. Any memories?

DM: The whole cast of COMPANY was invited to Hal Prince's house. This is one of the highlights of my life. We all sat in the living room. Sitting on the floor, I was right by the piano. We were all over the place. (Laughs. Pause.) Sondheim had just finished the score for FOLLIES so he sang and described every number and sang and performed every number for the first time before an audience. My head was coming off. I was thinking, "This is going to be the greatest show! This is art!" I felt like we were the luckiest people in the world to have that privilege.

PC: You were. So many great songs were in that first draft that were eventually cut. "Bring On The Girls"; and, my personal favorite FOLLIES song, "Who Could Be Blue?" --

DM: Right, and the "Fox Trot" number ["Can That Boy Fox-Trot!"]. I loved that.

PC: So, Michael was already signed on as co-director at that point? That was such a unique arrangement, very unusual on Broadway - then or now.

DM: After COMPANY, you know, it was Michael's desire to be a director. Hal realized - because they had a great relationship - Hal realized that Michael's work in COMPANY was conceptually powerful. They worked together. It was like the marriage of the director-choreographer, right?

PC: Yes.

DM: So, I think Michael's desire was to be a director and Hal said, "We'll do this together." He needed Michael because of what Michael could come up with conceptually. Like a movie. So, that experience gave Michael the wherewithal to be on his own. I guess what I'm trying to say in a nice way is: it's not the ideal situation to have two directors. It's just not the ideal thing. I mean, we're lucky now that they were both there but it was not the ideal time in Michael's career to still have to answer to someone.

PC: What about all the show-doctoring he did as a full-fledged director during that time? SEESAW and all that.

DM: It's a lot more dangerous for him to direct something from scratch. With SEESAW it had been someone else's work and he used their stuff as a rough outline to start from. But, he really did co-direct FOLLIES. It all came together. With COMPANY, I was the only proper dancer in the cast. The movement came out of character. Always.

PC: Yes, COMPANY. Stephen Sondheim writing a special song for you with "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" and David Shire writing a dance number for you with "Tick Tock". What was that experience like?

DM: I don't know why it is, but it's like giving birth to something special. That was dicey, too. This is the thing: I had a dance number called "Tick Tock". The idea of it was to be a solo dance. We had an arrangement by Wally Harper - a talented dance arranger - based on Michael's idea of a really sexy number that could metaphorically represent Bobby's fantasies about his girlfriends. The ideal woman. That kind of thing. That was the result. He wanted it to be sexy and exciting - because it still had to be about the show and the character - but, it could be, you know, a proper dance number, selling it to the audience. So, he came up with this routine. We went through a lot of difficult moments because I was, basically, shy about things like nudity. He wanted to try something new, something groundbreaking.

PC: Topless?

DM: Yeah, he said, "Maybe you could do it topless," and - Oh, my God - I just about fainted when he said that! I was, of course, acting like it wasn't shocking. I said, "Michael, I don't think that's a good idea. You know, there's no magic any longer once you see it," and he said, "Well, what if we use chiffon and you're nude underneath?" and I went, "Well, I don't know." Meanwhile, I'm dying inside. I'm going, "Oh my God! I can't do this! I'm gonna be out of a job!"

InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part IPC: And that kind of nudity hadn't really been done in a dance number on Broadway before.

DM: Well, in the 20s. But, he was trying. He had a little ambition, he wanted it to be a knockout number. Now, as we all know, that's where he started with it. What I love about it is that he was going for the result of something and what we finally came up with was internalizing it and making it about something else.


PC: It was so much richer for that.

DM: Yes. This is why it's wonderful to retrace these things. I loved Michael's creative process because he never was afraid to make mistakes. He just came out with it. Of course, he was very sensitive, too. So, he sensed - rightly so - how I would react. So, that was "Tick Tock". When we got to the dance proper it was sort of forward thinking - with a rock beat - but the first version was very one-dimensional. It did not succeed.

PC: What changed?

DM: The story I tell in my book is when we were in Boston, out-of-town. Hal came to me and said, "Umm, umm," and put his arm around me and I think to myself, "Oh, God, it's over." He was very nice, a true gentlemen. He just was preparing me for the fact that the number was going to be cut. He said, "It's in the wrong place, maybe we‘ll find another place for it. But, right now, it's a little unbalanced." My heart was beating so fast, and he was right. He had the overview of the show, I didn't. He was at least polite enough and nice enough to prepare me before he made the announcement for the company. He did the same with Pam Myers who was singing "Another Hundred People". So, she almost had a fainting spell. too.

PC: I forgot that song was almost cut out-of-town, too.

DM: Yeah, the two numbers. So, when I had my big pleading with Hal at some point - I'm not sure if it was that day or the next day - Michael was sick and I begged Hal. I was onstage, it was half-hour. I said... I was so desperate and I said - I couldn't hear myself saying it but I knew I did - "The show needs this and I can make this work. It just needs more heart to it. There's just no level, this song just needs strings or something," and I'm saying this in front of Sondheim. (Laughs.)

PC: Wow.

DM: And I said, we can bring back another song and change it up a little bit and Sondheim said, emphatically, "I do not want reprises in this show." So, I said, "It doesn't have to be a lyric reprise, just the music. A musical strain to create other feelings. Like a storyboard," and Michael comes up on the scene, and just to shut me up Hal says, "Just go up to change. Go get dressed." I said - and I actually said this - "I'm not leaving until you tell me you're gonna fix it." I felt like I had just lost my job and now, I thought, "I'm really gonna lose it!" And this is why I will always love and feel indebted to Hal for the rest of my life, he said, "Just go upstairs." He was a man of his word. Within 24 hours, they brought David Shire in, who was on his honeymoon.

PC: To Talia Shire?

DM: Yes. She was sitting in the fourth row, not very happy. We were there from 12 noon to 12 midnight. We were there with Jonathan Tunick and David and Bobby Thomas, the drummer. It was a great session. It was intense. It was very collaborative and quite wonderful.

PC: And the music was written to the choreography, right?

DM: Right. It wasn't that straight-on result. It wasn't static. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It kind of came out of left field. It was sort of like a painting. It had a sensory feeling to it.


InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part IPC: Especially with the overlapping dialogue by George Furth. It was so ahead of its time.

DM: Right, when she turns and [April] goes "I love you," and she does this big turn and then he says, "I...," and he can't say it, and she turns around and looks out front. Then, it becomes the grief and frustration and yearning. All the frustration builds and it ends - you know, it's still the most beautiful dance arrangement. Just the best music to dance to. It's not even on the record, the whole thing.

PC: Thank goodness it was filmed on tour for the archives with you performing it.

DM: Yeah, I made sure I did that stop when they were filming it. But, it doesn't do the choreography justice. I'm glad I had the chance to go back to it on our twenty year reunion because I knew I was having trouble with my hip in that video from the tour. But, at the reunion concert, that was good. It was good.

PC: That is if you define "good" as the best dancing ever on Broadway.

DM: Oh, you're so sweet. (Laughs.)

PC: Of course, Michael only worked with the very, very best. What was it like sitting in the room with his team?

DM: These really were the best. Robin Wagner, Tharon Musser, I mean... when you think of the people that were giving their all, their best; they were the best of the best.

PC: Yourself included, and Michael, too, of course.

DM: And Joe Papp. He was in the mix there because, you know, with A CHORUS LINE Michael knew he needed time to develop this idea. Joe Papp was the champion because he gave Michael the carte blanch. You know, I was there the day Joe Papp saw A CHORUS LINE for the first time. Michael kicked him out and said, "What good are you to me? Get out!" and Joe said, "This is the best thing I've ever seen!" and Michael said, "Get out! It's not done yet!"

PC: The Michael Bennett experience in a nutshell: "It's brilliant! It‘s the best thing I‘ve ever seen" and his reply, "Get out! It's not done yet!"

DM: He was always perfecting.

PC: Perfecting perfection, perhaps!

If you enjoyed Part I, please stay tuned for Part II coming later this month and don't forget to check out this week's FLASHBACK FRIDAY for complete performances from Ms. McKechnie of "Tick Tock" and "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" from COMPANY referenced above as well as much more!

Currently performing in Melbourne and Syndey Australia, click below for tickets and more information!

Tickets 1300 438 849 or www.bennettslane.com

Sydney: Thurs 24 June - The Factory Theatre 105 Victoria Road Marrickville @8PM

Tickets 02 9550 3666 or www.thefactorytheatre.com.au


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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)

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