When I first interviewed Donna McKechnie nearly 30 years ago, she was starring in a London revival of Cole Porter’s 1950s Broadway musical Can-Can. And it is now 42 years since she won a Tony for originating the role of Cassie, the former Broadway chorus girl making a comeback in A Chorus Line.
McKechnie has been very much part of the fabric of Broadway for more than half a century, since making her debut there in the original production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying back in 1961. Her own career could be an object lesson in how to succeed in showbusiness, and achieving longevity as a performer in a world where show dancers are usually retired by the time they’re 45, if not before. She has also survived crippling arthritis to emerge as a performer of radiant maturity who has more than a few stories to tell.
Sitting in a rehearsal room for the London premiere of composer Michael John LaChiusa’s 2000 Broadway musical The Wild Party, in which she plays a supporting role to fellow Tony winner Frances Ruffelle and John Owen-Jones, she tells me a few of them.
Now 74, but looking considerably younger, she began her professional stage career nearly 60 years ago when she was still at high school in Michigan, when a friend suggested she audition for a winter stock season of four shows.
“I got the job but she didn’t, though we’re still friends on Facebook. Betty White was Anna in The King and I, and Jeanette MacDonald was in Bitter Sweet. I was able to go to school and then to the theatre to dance afterwards.”
At just 15, McKechnie headed to New York, and got a job in a dance show that rehearsed there then toured the southern states of the US. “It was the days before civil rights, and we would be performing in what were called ‘negro colleges’. I got a cab there, but I had to lie down on the floor so I wasn’t seen. It was a rude awakening for a naive little girl.”
But she already knew what she wanted to do with her life: to dance. That was why, when she secured a job with the ballet corps at Radio City Music Hall – “it was the hardest audition, you had to do 32 fouette turns on the right and then on the left” – she walked out soon after getting it.
“We were doing the Easter show, and you just had to find your mark and hold some tulips up. I thought this wasn’t dance and left to do a tour of West Side Story instead. But I didn’t know you had to give notice – I just walked out. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t even go back for my pay cheque.”
Dance and movement is what McKechnie was clearly born to do. She says: “I was a little ballet girl and if you want to dance and you want longevity, you have to have ballet, always.”
But dancing can take its toll. Just four years after her great triumph in A Chorus Line, McKechnie woke up to find she couldn’t move. The diagnosis was rheumatoid arthritis. Today, she says: “Talk about metaphorically and literally stopping me in my tracks. My body said, ‘You’re not taking one more step until you pay attention.’ That’s when I really had to investigate the interior, and doing what I’d been putting off because I’d just been surviving.”
Q&A: Donna McKechnie
What was your first job? A winter stock season in Michigan when I was still at school.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Gwen Verdon. She was it. She was my first dance captain on Broadway [for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying].
What’s your best advice for auditions? Make your choices very clear and stay connected with yourself no matter what. If it’s real for you, there will be no mistakes.
If you hadn’t been a dancer, what would you have been? When I was a kid I wanted to be a missionary.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I have a ritual of getting ready – it’s different for every show.
By a combination of changes to diet and psychotherapy, she put her life and career back on track. “It’s a hard way to get an education, but if you are able to survive a dark time like that and come through it there is so much that is rich. It changes you.”
So did McKechnie’s much-chronicled relationship with the late director and choreographer Michael Bennett, to whom she was briefly married. They worked together on the original productions of such musicals as Promises, Promises, Company and A Chorus Line between 1968 and 1975.
“When you have enough years behind you to be able to look back, you see the contours of your relationships. And the gift he gave me early on was to be inspired by his work and have someone like him saying, ‘I’m going to do this show for you.” I’d say, ‘Hurry up, I’m in my 30s now.’ ”
More than 40 years later, McKechnie says: “It’s the gift that keeps giving. A Chorus Line is always playing somewhere.”
How does it feel, having had that show’s The Music and the Mirror, one of the most iconic dance numbers in the history of musical theatre, built on her?
“I don’t think about that a lot,” she says. “But when I do, I realise how much it reverberates still among younger generations – three or four generations later, I’m still teaching and training dancers who are doing it. That’s when I think about it, but I’ve never been precious or territorial about it. I just want it to go out there and be good and I want the dancer to have the joy and luxury of that personal expression, to make it their own.”
That’s the typical generosity of a Broadway hoofer. But she adds: “I also love to see new interpretations of things. It’s important for artists to express themselves in their own way, like we’re doing with The Wild Party,” McKechnie says, bringing the conversation around to her current job. “This is a whole different ball game and a whole new language we’re doing.”
She speaks admiringly of the show’s director and choreo-grapher Drew McOnie. “He reminds me of Michael in a couple of ways. He has a great instinct. It’s really strong and he uses his feelings and it is organic. Michael gave me a lot of things, and one was that as I observed him he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes or take the wrong road. Drew is the same.”
The show itself, based on a 1928 Joseph Moncure March narrative poem, is about people making big mistakes in their relationships, especially the rapidly disintegrating one between Queenie (Ruffelle) and Burrs (Owen-Jones).
Donna McKechnie’s top tips for aspiring dancers
• Study. Musical theatre is acting-based. I know beautiful ballet dancers who are making the transition and it is daunting for them, because they are not used to it. So you need to study acting to give yourself confidence so you can go out and stand for yourself as a unique individual.
• Stay healthy. Your instrument is your body. So you must avoid drugs, and very little alcohol – you really have to take care of yourself.
• Make sure you have your support system – as my character in The Wild Party says: “You’re on your own when it ends, but while you’re on the journey you need to have friends.” Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. That’s a very important thing for actors and was a hard thing to learn to do in my life – I wanted to do it on my own.
“There’s love in the room, but no one can find it. And that’s what I love about this story. It’s like life. We all have our problems to work out in the time we’re here, and what I love about my character Dolores is that she’s got to come to terms with her life. She’s lived a life she chose, and this part crystallises it. It shows how we are so cruel to each other, and finally to ourselves. It is so hard for us human beings to give ourselves a break, and to give ourselves love. You can’t give love to the world and share it until you have it. That’s why I love this piece – there’s so much humanity in it, which keeps bubbling up and finally it resolves.”
McOnie, she says, is “bringing a heightened physicality that heightens the poetry, and tells the story in a clearly defined way”.
Has McKechnie managed to give herself a break? “It’s an ongoing thing. I have had enough ups and downs to bring to this show.” Those have included a number of previous runs in London: she transferred to the West End with the original productions of Promises, Promises (“I was in my cute 20s, but even then I knew it was one of the best things in my life that could happen to me”), Company and A Chorus Line.
The last was a less-than-happy experience. Elizabeth Seal, the original British actor hired to play Cassie, was summarily let go during rehearsals by Bennett, and Petra Siniawski was hired to replace her. “It was agreed that I would take over until I helped train Petra to do it and go home, but it blew up into a thing with a political uprising at British Equity. It was a difficult time,” she says, with a little understatement.
In her autobiography, Time Steps, she amplified some of the backstory to this: “There was a rumour I heard later that a prominent performer paid unemployed actors one pound if they showed up at British Equity to vote against this American actress who was replacing a Brit. There was no representation of the facts or of my history in previous shows in the West End, and never an acknowledgement that I was, after all, an actress in my own right. I was portrayed simply as the ‘director’s wife’, brought over from America to take over the role.”
Today, McKechnie has learned not to be so hard on herself or let people be so hard on her, either. “Dancers grow up with this critical thinking – it’s almost impossible to do what we’re expected to do, so you constantly push and nothing is ever good enough. So I think I’d tell my younger self now, ‘It’s going to be okay – don’t worry so much’.”
And with that, this once wild child of the theatre returns to The Wild Party: one that she has now learned to tame.
CV: Donna McKechnie
Born: 1942, Michigan, US
Training: “I studied ballet as a child, and when I did my first Broadway show How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I became a professional student. I took all of my $166 a week and went to acting class and studied voice. It gave me more to work with as I grew to do more parts.”
Landmark productions: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Broadway debut, 1961), Promises, Promises (Broadway, 1968, also London), Company (Broadway, 1970, also London), A Chorus Line (Broadway, 1975, also London), Can-Can (West End’s Novello Theatre, 1988), State Fair (Broadway, 1996)
Awards: Tony award and Drama Desk best actress in a musical for A Chorus Line (1976), Fred Astaire Award for best female dancer for State Fair (1996)
Agent: Wayne J Gmitter, Think Iconic Artists Agency
The Wild Party runs at the Other Palace, London , until April 1