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InDepth InterView: Donna McKechnie - Part II - with Never Before Seen Photos!

Today, I am sharing with you Part II 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 II of this comprehensive chat we discuss her new show with Kaye Ballard and Liliane Montevecci that kicks off next year titled BROADWAY LADIES, working with choreographers Jerome Robbins and Ron Field, Bennett's thoughts on Leonard Bernstein, Robbins and ON THE TOWN, what Robbins work meant to Bennett growing up, what Gwen Verdon's work meant to her, her thoughts on punk rock and amplification in the theatre as well as working with Rock Hudson, Dick Van Dyke and, of course, Bennett himself.

Mastering Masterpieces With Masters

In honor of celebrating the completion of the successful run of Donna McKechnie's sold-out Australian tour directed by the esteemed Richard Jay-Alexander Donna McKechnie: MY MUSICAL COMEDY LIFE which has been received throughout Australia to rave reviews and multiple standing ovations, BWW presents Part II of this exclusive InDepth InterView with Ms. McKechnie herself in which she candidly discusses working with Bennett, Jerome Robbins and Ron Field, her thoughts on the workshop concept that Bennett revolutionized, the current state of Broadway and the punk aesthetic, amplification, as well as her forthcoming cabaret show with Kaye Ballard and Liliane Montevecci. 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 and in just the way she talks about Gwen Verdon it is clearly evident her passion, dedication and expertise on all things dance, particularly dance on Broadway. So, today we are turning the mirror on her once again and giving her the chance to share some of her experiences, insight and love for her craft with us and we could not be any luckier to be the audience for that. To cite a song title from A CHORUS LINE: there is only one Donna McKechnie, but surely she's the one.


PC: In my ideal Shubert Alley there would be three one-woman shows playing: Elaine Stritch, you and Barbara Cook, but it seems there isn't the same respect for legends now, true?

DM: Right. Do you realize... One of the things I'm doing right now that is going to be hilarious fun and quite wonderful because of our experiences and all: I'm doing a concert in December with Liliane Montevecci and Kaye Ballard.

PC: Oh, my God, what a trio!

DM: We wanted to do something together for an audience. Our energy... we're all girlfriends and we have a lot of fun together. Isn't that gonna be a great night?

PC: Without a doubt!

DM: It's called BROADWAY LADIES. It's to benefit this big organization that has a lot of money already raised but they're trying to get more for animals. For dogs and cats...

PC: Kaye Ballard is a very vocal advocate for animal rights.

DM: Yes, and her friend Marguerite is the producer. We're putting this together, designing it now. We're going to end up, hopefully, with a follies - since that's where we all met, in FOLLIES [at the Papermill Playhouse] - and we're all going to sing "I'm Still Here" together at the end.

PC: Oh, that sounds fabulous! I was going to say, you three should do "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" from COMPANY, too!

DM: (Laughs.) We should do that, too! It's a good idea, we should try it out!

PC: I can only imagine Kaye Ballard delivering that great punch-line in that song on "...drag."

DM: You know, when I first worked with her, we did almost the same thing except for on television, on a big HBO special. It was me, Kaye and Roberta Peters.


PC: This was in ‘81 or ‘82, BROADWAY SHOWSTOPPERS, right?

DM: They were big HBO specials, right. I think Elaine Stritch sang "Ladies Who Lunch". Pam, Susan Browning and I did "You Could Drive A Person Crazy". There were a couple others, I did about three. There was one special that I did that I think Rock Hudson was on. I did a song and dance with Dick Van Dyke called "Naked Yankee". The three of us did "Sing For Your Supper" which was adorable, very cute. So, that's when I met Kaye. I think it might be a funny idea to do "You Could Drive A Person Crazy", though!

PC: You have such different personalities, but I'm sure you compliment each other wonderfully.

DM: We're doing an opening number together. It's all new stuff we're doing. We're working with a great director out there in Palm Strings who used to play for Nancy LaMott. Since it's called BROADWAY LADIES, I have an idea that I want to open with a sort of potpourri, you know: "Lullaby of Broadway" and (Sings.) "New York, New York", Bernstein; get all those flavors in. We all will have three distinct entrances.

PC: Sort of like ON THE TOWN with the Three Sailors. Since you also just mentioned Bernstein, what was it like working on the revival of ON THE TOWN back in the ‘70s? Jerome Robbins wasn't involved in any capacity on that one, right?

DM: No. It totally new work from Ron Field. I wish Jerry Robbins had been involved, too.

Performing with Tracy Everette in HOW TO SUCCEED...

PC: What was it like working with Field?

DM: I'll tell you, I liked him a lot. Really. He created the best dance on television that I ever did. It was just wonderful.


DM: No, it was on Kraft Music Hall.

PC: Oh, ok.

DM: You know, he's a great artist but the shows he was doing [in the early 70s], he was producing, directing and choreographing. I think that, in my humble feeling, he may have had too many hats on with ON THE TOWN. I think that gorgeous music intimidated him in the choreography. That big ballet sequence, especially. I mean, he made it like it was fun for the audience; but it made me sick, really, that all that music was wasted on me in this cartoon car being pulled across the stage when I really wanted to be dancing to that music.

PC: What did Michael Bennett think of Bernstein's Broadway scores as dance music?

DM: That's what he was raised on. That was in his blood. He emulatEd Jerome Robbins, that was his idol. The way Gwen Verdon was for me. Gwen has always been my beacon, I always sort of felt that I had a real career - such as it is - because of her paving the way. Chita, too, in kind of similar way.


PC: Yes, her being the muse and spouse of Peter Gennarro.

DM: Right. But, Jerome Robbins was, for Michael, it. He followed the contours of Robbins' career. When Robbins directed a play off-Broadway; Michael wanted to direct a play. In other words, Jerome Robbins was his beacon. Everything that Robbins did, because of it, Michael knew it was possible.

PC: They were so alike in that they created a totally new choreographic language for each and every show they created. There was never a repeat, no dragging out the top hat, gloves and cane like Fosse, as sarcastic and ironic as that might have been.

DM: He loved all that stuff [top hat and cane], too. That had it's place. But, he was always first concerned with the story, the character, what is it about and what is the intention. Those were the questions he asked.

PC: But, all his shows completely re-invented the musical format. COMPANY, FOLLIES, A CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS...

DM: He learned from Robbins. That was the style of show he loved.

PC: Did they ever get to work together?

DM: Yes.

PC: So, he learned more from him than would just a dancer in the WEST SIDE STORY tour [Bennett's first professional job]?

DM: I don't know how much they worked side by side, but he did a show of the ballets, the Robbins' jazz tour in Europe. BALLET USA.

PC: So, he recreated the choreography for Robbins himself?

DM: Yes.

PC: Robbins was known as being quite difficult according to Arthur Laurents' book. Did you ever get to work with him?

DM: We did. I actually auditioned and got a workshop that never went anywhere. We auditioned on a Broadway stage, it might have been the Winter Garden.



PC: The FOLLIES theatre, the most beautiful on Broadway.

DM: Yes, this was way before FOLLIES or A CHORUS LINE, though. I mean, this was before PROMISES even.

PC: So, mid-to-late 60s?

DM: Yeah. So, Robbins was going to do this kind of theatre workshop for dancers, but we were going to work with masks and he was going to give us a background on every kind of dance. So, you know, you'd be put through your ballet paces, then your jazz paces, and so on. It was exhilarating.

PC: It sounds it, especially for a dancer like you.

DM: I was there for a week. Everyday you would come in and work.

PC: Was it really a workshop or more like a long audition, though?

DM: It was kind of an audition. But, he really auditioned people. Really. He was always there and dealt with everyone. I was accepted into that and I was thrilled. I thought, "Oh my God, this is the best thing that could ever happen to a dancer!" To work with him, the master. But, then it fizzled and that was it.

PC: Do you remember the title of the show being workshopped?

DM: No, I don't.

PC: What was the gist of the show, even an outline?

DM: It was done just to develop a new work. It wasn't going to be a show, necessarily, but, yeah, it was going to be something eventually. He was developing a new form. This is the PR, at least. He was going to work with theatre pieces, non-realistic masks, a little Noh theatre. Bringing all this theatrical design into it and these different forms, bringing them together.

PC: Do you think Robbins would have created more had that workshop concept worked out better? It didn't really catch on until Bennett revolutionized it with A CHORUS LINE.

DM: That workshop didn't happen, but the concept of it was there. The thing that is interesting is that Michael thought that the workshop process that we had on CHORUS LINE would be the sort of invention to use for the rest of his shows, but it wasn't. I mean, it couldn't be. In other words, we thought in our insular world that that would be like a great plan for every show, but it doesn't work that way because you don't have Michael Bennett to do every show. It showed me after the fact, all these years later, looking back I see it was all those elements coming together.

PC: A perfect storm.

DM: I mean, if GUYS & DOLLS was such a big hit, then, using those same creative forces, every show they did should be a hit. But, all the mystery of that - what brings the art together; what elements, starting with the story - it's all so interesting, isn't it?

PC: Fascinating.

DM: Then, Equity couldn't abide the kind of time we were putting in and not being paid - which I think is fair.

PC: Didn't the term "workshop" come out of Bennett's negotiations with Equity during the creation of A CHORUS LINE?

DM: Yes. But, then it got so expensive to do a workshop that it wasn't feasible. You couldn't afford it. A workshop would be like $250,000.


MUSIC, MUSIC with Larry Kert and Thommie Walsh

PC: Michael had workshopped quite a few musicals before he passed: THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE, SCANDAL, plus the ones that eventually made it to Broadway like A CHORUS LINE and DREAMGIRLS.

DM: He thought the workshop could change the face of musical theatre; the workshop for A CHORUS LINE. But, really, it's not viable because you don't have something holding it all together.

PC: It always seemed like CHESS could have been a true masterpiece onstage had he seen it to fruition. The set he purchased was just astonishing, and so hi-tech for the time, but we'll never know what he planned on doing with it.

DM: Yeah, I don't know. I know that when I saw CHESS in London I thought it was horrible. It was so static. People were coming down front and just facing the audience, singing. I kept thinking, "Why are they walking down to the edge of the stage singing out like it's a concert?"

PC: They barely even used those three walls of TV screens. It's gob-smacking to think of what Bennett could have done with the TV/live theatre elements playing off of each other.

DM: I know. They're sort of doing it now in AMERICAN IDIOT.

PC: What do you think of Green Day and the punk rock aesthetic on Broadway, specifically like in AMERICAN IDIOT?

DM: I liked it all right. I mean, I have nothing against it. But, what bothers me is that there's no book, really. Even if you did the book with all music, the songs aren't clearly defined enough, and it's not specific enough, and it doesn't go underneath enough to help us get to know these characters. It's like a stone at the bottom of a pool: the water skims over it, you just get the reverberations. So, it's very superficial. The result is that you can fall asleep because you have the same rhythms in too many songs, then you go into a ballad which is nice, but when you lose track of the stories and the characters... I mean, being able to understand what they're saying. It's too loud and too bright, I felt like an old fogey. I had a headache when I left. It was like somebody trying too hard.

PC: What are your feelings on amplification in theatre, whether in rock musicals or traditional shows, or even plays?

DM: Sound should bring you in. We have people in all these specialized departments to make it one whole. They are supposed to work together to bring us into their world, not push us away. For example, rock music has to be loud but it doesn't have to be too loud.


Donna McKechnie in DARK SHADOWS

PC: Could you define collaboration for me?

DM: To bring the very best out in each other, always.

PC: And you bring out the best of the best of Broadway in all your performances. We need you back on Broadway soon.

DM: This has been wonderful. Thank you and I hope I will see you soon!


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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...)