Last season Donna McKechnie portrayed Carlotta in the Barrington Stage Company's production of the powerful Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies, a role that allowed the Tony-winning actress to perform Sondheim's classic anthem of survival, "I'm Still Here." And, if anyone currently working in the musical theatre has the right to make that statement, it may be McKechnie, who was once told she would never walk again, let alone dance on a Broadway stage. The singing actress, however, managed to defy the odds and through an unconventional road to recovery found her way back to the stage and further success.
In her upcoming autobiography "Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life" — due Sept. 6 from Simon & Schuster — McKechnie explores the physical and psychological causes that led to her battle with rheumatoid arthritis as well as the ups and downs of her award-winning career. "Time Steps" is a wonderful read, not only for fans of the musical theatre and this singular talent but for those who may be battling any kind of physical or emotional ailment. McKechnie is surprisingly and enjoyably candid about all aspects of her life, chronicling her childhood in a dysfunctional family, her ill-fated marriage to the late director/choreographer Michael Bennett, her triumphant stage success in A Chorus Line, her aforementioned illness and her work with such legendary Broadway figures as Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the multitalented performer, who spoke about "Time Steps," which she has been working on for two decades, as well as her upcoming return to the London stage and the imminent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line.
Question: How did the idea for writing an autobiography come about?
Donna McKechnie: Well, [actress/director/choreographer] Baayork Lee was my angel on earth when she got me back to dancing in 1985 on a tour [of A Chorus Line]. When Joe Papp heard that I was dancing again, the [current Broadway] Cassie was pregnant, and he said, "Would you come back and do the show for eight weeks," and I said, "Great!" I went back filled with apprehension but excitement — it was a very personal thing for me [after recovering from rheumatoid arthritis]. I felt confident then to do [an interview with] The New York Times about not being able to dance. To let out that you have an illness in show business is risky . . . [but I received] so many letters, hundreds of letters, because I talked about [my great experience with] Dr. Getlen. There are 36 million people, more probably now, that suffer from arthritis. There are 100 different kinds. . . . When I received the letters, I wasn't really anticipating that [kind of response]. I was more insular in my thoughts — that I've just got to promote myself and let people know that I'm okay and that I can survive in this business. I didn't realize that it would make other people come about like that and want to know [more about how I recovered]. I had to seek [Dr. Getlen] out, and he was 105 by then. Luckily, he was still living. I asked him to help me tell people [about his work] . . . [and] he gave me that list, a basic cleansing diet.
It was at that time that I realized it was bigger than me, and I had, if not a mission, a real responsibility to write this book down with all the warts because it had to come from a real place with the dilemma being psychological as well as physical. That became the quest from that point, and that was 1986. I didn't plan it to come out this way, where it would be here when Chorus Line opened again. It seems like it would have been a plan, but Greg Lawrence is actually the fourth writer I've worked with.
Q: I was wondering how Lawrence came to the project.
McKechnie: It falls into that category of "it was meant to be." A few years ago [the late] Fifi Oscard got us together. She was one of my first agents in New York and has a literary agency. . . . Before that, in the eighties, I was working with a different editor from a different publishing company and there were two different writers, and it just wasn't right. All these years later — it was 2001 — I met one writer, and that didn't work out either, and the deal wasn't good. Then they called me six months later and I met Greg Lawrence, who co-authored a book with Gelsey Kirkland ["Dancing on My Grave: Colored Lights"], which was one of my favorite books. It was painfully honest and candid, and it was very moving to me that she kind of cracked open that world. I had read his other books — I had just finished the Jerome Robbins biography ["Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins"] — and I really enjoyed it because he wasn't judgmental about that complicated character. Jerome Robbins was a genius — we all admired his work — but his personal life was difficult to comprehend, and I loved the fact that Greg didn't try to put a slant on it. . . . I thought maybe I could work with this person [and] unravel the complexity of part of [my] story with his help.
Q: What is the process like when you're writing with another person?
McKechnie: We actually rarely met — it was over the phone. He had a whole system, [which] is why I couldn't have done it without him. He was so organized, where I'm not. I'm very emotional. [Laughs.] I just talked, talked, talked. I was all over the place, and he taped and transcribed. It was a lot of work he did [and] then putting it into chapters. From there I really wrote the beginning, wrote the end and wrote the stories that filled in. He did the work of organizing, getting the dates right, the research. He was really great at that — I counted on him for all of that work. And we went through about four drafts. I essentially kept filling in the gaps. I don't know how we did it, but he felt like the perfect person. I never lost that belief from day one, and we finished it, and we're still friends!
Q: One of the great things about the book is how open you are in discussing all aspects of your life. Did you have any qualms about being so candid?
McKechnie: Oh, absolutely. It's not my nature. When I had some tough times with it, I would get this sick feeling, this cold chill. And I thought, "This must be fear." [Laughs.] But I had to remember the only reason to write this is to help people. And I felt the impulse when I got all those letters [in 1986], and I realized I had a responsibility in a way. There's an opportunity to really help people that could so easily abandon themselves in the face of adverse situations in their life, whether it's an illness or depression, whatever makes you want to feel like you want to give up on yourself. So I would think about the higher purpose of the book, and the only way to do it was to almost detach myself and see this as a real person, me, and really write her psychology as best I could.
Q: Was it a cathartic experience writing about your life?
McKechnie: Yes, although it wasn't like a big thing, [but] it's coming in waves now. The sense of accomplishment, just doing it. This has been weighing me down at times or in the back of mind since 1986, so just to accomplish it is great. I'm getting a feeling of moving forward — not that I always haven't thought forward — [but] with this accomplishment comes a sense that I can really move forward, and I don't have to think in a static way about anything. It's behind me.
Q: What were the most difficult portions of your life to write about, and what were the most enjoyable to revisit?
McKechnie: I keep making the joke that Chapter 6 ["A Choreographed Marriage and Other Singular Sensations"] almost sent me back to therapy! The sadness of the love [for Michael Bennett] that I had at times and I couldn't express and that Michael had and couldn't come to terms with. That was really sad to me. Of course, the pain of losing him — his death was very sad to me, but then there's the beauty in recalling how his nurse found me and was so reassuring. . . . When someone close to you dies, if you're not there, you want to know if they were okay [at the end]. It's this human need to know that they were okay . . . You don't want them to feel alone. . . . But finding other places to celebrate [the people in my life] — going back in time with Michael — was really joyous. To go back to visit the early days with Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, when she was the dance captain of How to Succeed and finding them again 25 years later and working with them on Charity. That was really great fun.
Q: What do you think you learned about yourself in writing the book that you may not have known?
McKechnie: Someone asked me recently, in another interview, an interesting question about self-esteem. He said, "I was surprised to read how you battled with self-esteem." And I went, "Oh, I was, too!" I knew I had that, because I worked on it very hard in therapy, and that's an aspect of the book that makes me very pleased now because when people see you performing with confidence, it would seem that you would have a very carefree existence, and I know a lot of people in this business don't.
Q: When you read the book now, in its finished form, what impression do you get of your life?
McKechnie: That I've come through that [battle with self-esteem] and that I am the whole person that I always wanted to be. . . . When you look at another person who's gone through something, you have a lot respect for that person, and that's kind of how I felt looking at myself after reading it. I finally thought that I have really accomplished something — besides finishing the book, I brought myself through a lot. And that's why I wrote the end of the book the way I did. It's counting your blessings, but it's saying, "You've come through something, and you've given yourself a life — not just in the theatre but everywhere." I can be myself everywhere and be happy and confident and not feel that I am just what I do.
Q: Have you given copies to your brother and sister?
McKechnie: Yes. Very few people read it initially. My sister is a very smart — my brother is, too, he's a scientist — and feeling individual. She read it, and she was very helpful because I got certain things wrong [about my experience dealing with arthritis]. She was there to help me correct it. In my mind I just got it all mixed up because it was such a difficult time. She went through it with me, so she was very helpful. You work hard for accuracy, otherwise why do it. I had Harvey Evans read it because I have a great love and trust in his sensitivity.
Q: I also wanted to talk about some of your upcoming projects. I know you're going to do a production of Over Here! in London. How did this project come to you?
McKechnie: Tony Stevens, another good old friend and an early Chorus Line comrade. He was in the original [Chorus Line workshop] tapes, and he's had a career choreographing and directing. He has been working on this project for quite awhile, and introduced me to the producer because they wanted me to play the Patty Andrews [role]. I saw it with Patty Andrews in 1974 [laughs] and Maxene, and I just loved the show, and it hasn't been revived. The Sherman Brothers, [who composed the score], all their shows are coming back in a fashion and they live in London. And, this wonderful producer, Andrew Jarrot, has been working really hard to get this show going. . . . I'm just thrilled.
Q: Obviously A Chorus Line has been a big part of your life. How do you feel about the upcoming Broadway revival?
McKechnie: I'm very excited. . . . It's my life up there, as well as a lot of people's. I enjoyed writing in the book how [the show has] always come back to me in a meaningful way and a helpful way. It got me back dancing again. That adorable Caroline O'Connor helped me remember the dance because she'd done Cassie in Manchester the year before. And I just think of all the different Cassies and how far-reaching this show has been and how it's helped people. So I've had enough experience with this show. I just think it's great, and I feel confident.
There's always a prejudice with me about the original people. But I know Baayork and Bob Avian are very true, loyal to Michael's work and they love the show. They're not going to try to put their stamp on it, although anything they do, it'll be better I'm sure, and the same for Robin Wagner and Marvin Hamlisch. I talked to them both about what they're doing, and I said, "Please don't change it." [Laughs.] And they said, "No, no, we're just enhancing," because they love the show. They're the original creators, [and] aren't we lucky that they are going to do it again? It would be different if people that had nothing to do with the show before were doing it — [then] I would be very anxious, but I'm not. It's celebratory. It's a whole other generation or two that have not seen Michael's work on Broadway, and it's there again, and his name is there again, and that's important, too.
Q: Have you spoken with Charlotte d'Amboise about playing Cassie?
McKechnie: She called me, and we were going to have a chat, but she was coming out of Chicago and got very busy. And I took it as a good sign that I didn't hear from her [again]. I have a lot of respect for her. I think she's just wonderful for the role.
Q: Now that you've written your autobiography, what are your dreams at this point in your life?
McKechnie: One of the dreams coming true is going into yet [another show]. . . . That's my life. I loved ending the book with [me] dashing to get notes from Thommie [Walsh] for my performance that night [at Joe's Pub]. That's my life and to go to London and see friends that I haven't seen in a long time and start rehearsals — it's like taking baby steps again. You're starting over and putting something together. I want to be doing that as long as I'm able. And dancing. There's a section of the book where I really went through a period of almost resenting dance — it was interfering with people's perception of me as an actress and singer, and I thought it was stopping me from getting roles. But now I'm clinging to every day that I can still dance. I'm holding on to it as long as I can.
["Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life" — by Donna McKechnie with Greg Lawrence — is published by Simon & Schuster. The 289-page hardcover, due in stores Sept. 6, has a list price of $25. Several book signing events will be announced shortly. Stay tuned!] PATTI LuPONE in Gypsy
Congratulations to Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone who scored rave after rave for her performance as Mama Rose in the Ravinia Festival's Aug. 11-13 presentation of the famed Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne musical Gypsy. This diva lover is still in a bit of a funk for having missed what turned out to be the theatrical event of the summer (perhaps the year), but is thrilled that the remarkable LuPone triumphed in what is arguably the greatest (and most demanding) female role in the Broadway musical theatre canon. I thought you would enjoy reading some of LuPone's wonderful notices.
Steven Oxman in Variety:
In the climactic "Rose's Turn," in which Rose finally imagines herself as the star, LuPone takes an excellent performance and makes it unforgettable. Sexy, smart and selling every move and note, LuPone brings the audience to its feet. Then, staying fully in character, she smiles and bows. The audience has become part of Rose's fantasy. It's a theatrical moment to remember. . ."
Charles Isherwood in The New York Times:
"Ms. LuPone conveyed, at various points, all the conflicting impulses of this loving but hurting, self-denying but selfish character: the hungry-eyed intensity of Rose’s backstage vigils, the calculating mind behind the cajoling exterior, the bursts of spontaneous affection, the bewilderment as she is abandoned by everyone she loves. And just as she transformed the inelegant Mrs. Lovett into a persuasive seductress, Ms. LuPone made of Mama Rose a forcefully sexual woman. The playful ballad 'Small World,' one of Rose’s more innocuous songs, became an intimate and irresistible seduction."
Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times:
"[LuPone] turned in a richly realistic yet red-hot performance as the relentlessly driven Depression-era single mother whose fear of abandonment is matched only by her fear of failure, and whose primal hunger to be noticed is channeled into a fearsome ambition for her daughters. . . . The same hallucinatory quality is reestablished in the great second act soliloquy, 'Rose's Turn' — a raging emotional breakdown in the form of a galvanic, performance art-style aria delivered on a bare stage. LuPone performed the song in a way that brought to mind the crazed rage of the failed comic in John Osborne's play, The Entertainer. And when the real audience erupted in prolonged applause and a standing ovation on Friday night, the actress' bows and grotesque grin of appreciation suggested Rose was responding to the thunderous response of her imagined audience every bit as much as the real one. It was perfect theater of the absurd. Beyond that, the performance left you wondering how any actress could make it through this role alive on an eight-show-per-week Broadway schedule."
Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune:
"It was replete with lively lighting, clever costumes, sufficient scenery, honorable homage to the original Jerome Robbins choreography and — in the person of one Patti LuPone — a certifiable Broadway diva playing the famous role of Mama Rose with grace and guts. . . . Her energy focused low in her stocky body, she merely sets her jaw and belts out the timeless subtextual pain behind Sondheim's lyrics of endless resilience. But LuPone also can suddenly lighten and finesse her upper register, letting the vulnerable notes of Jule Styne's intentionally misleading melodies float with dangerous dysfunction on the night air, just as the late, great composer surely would have wanted. 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' and the famed 'Rose's Turn' were met Friday by deserved ovations."
Victoria Clark, who won Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her performance as Margaret Johnson in Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza, will star in the upcoming City Center Encores! production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies. Clark will play former Follies-star Sally Durant Plummer in the staging of the classic musical, which will kick off the 14th season of the Encores! season, playing Feb. 8-11, 2007, and which will feature musical direction by Paul Gemignani. As Sally, Clark will get the chance to wrap her beautiful soprano around such Sondheim tunes as "Don't Look at Me," "In Buddy's Eyes," "Too Many Mornings" and "Losing My Mind." Tickets for the upcoming Encores! season are available by visiting the New York City Center box office, which is located on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues; by calling (212) 581-1212; or by logging on to www.nycitycenter.org. Tickets are priced $25, $50, $90 and $95.
Former Swing! star Ann Hampton Callaway will celebrate the release of her newest CD with a limited concert engagement in Manhattan. Telarc International will release Callaway's "Blues in the Night" Aug. 22. In conjunction with the release of that disc, Callaway will play Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club Sept. 6-10. Callaway will perform several selections from the new CD, which features drummer Sherrie Maricle and the Diva Jazz Orchestra as well as one track with sister Liz (Baby, Miss Saigon) Callaway. Show times at Dizzy's Club are 7:30 PM and 9:30 PM with additional 11:30 PM shows Friday and Saturday nights. There is a $30 cover charge; reservations can be made by calling (212) 258-9595 or by visiting www.jalc.org. Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club is located at Broadway at 60th Street on the fifth floor.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.