What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving weekend than with an interview with the woman who was part of the show-stopping number "Turkey Lurkey Time" in the original cast of Broadway's Promises, Promises! Although her Broadway resume also boasts the original productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Company, Donna McKechnie will remain forever linked with her Tony-winning role as Cassie in the premiere cast of Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line. I may have missed that legendary performance, but I've been lucky enough to see McKechnie perform on several occasions, including her terrific work as Sally Durant in the Paper Mill Playhouse's staging of Stephen Sondheim's Follies where she displayed a remarkable vulnerability that was completely heartbreaking. McKechnie also shone as one of the many theatre veterans who portrayed Sweet Charity in the all-star 1998 concert of the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical at Avery Fisher Hall. Now, the actress singer-dancer is lending her numerous talents to the Goodspeed Musicals' production of Mack & Mabel, re-creating a role she first performed during the Reprise! mounting of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical. McKechnie portrays Lottie Ames and gets the chance to stop the show each night with her uplifting performance of "Tap Your Troubles Away." I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the award-winning performer, who spoke about her current role, her upcoming autobiography and her new one-woman show, Gypsy in My Soul. That interview follows:
Question: How is the run of Mack & Mabel going?
Donna McKechnie: It's going really well. In fact, Christiane Noll's [Noll plays Mabel] parents saw it opening night and came back yesterday and noticed a real improvement in terms of pace and a lot of things I guess I take for granted. We're just up there doing the show every night.
Q: How did this role come about?
Donna: About three years ago, Reprise! was doing Mack & Mabel. I got called to do it, and it was a great experience. It was one of the last things [musical director] Peter Matz did. He was onstage with his orchestra — some incredible musicians — and it was done in concert with costume pieces and some set pieces. It ran a few weeks and was a big hit. People just loved it, and [composer] Jerry Herman was there every step of the way. He and Francine [Pascal], who is Michael Stewart's sister, had taken the time to rework it because . . . this is [Jerry's] favorite piece, and he just wants to see it done right . . . I was very excited to do it with them, and Dan Siretta choreographed it. We were working as we went with the writers and changing and fixing. Then, they were going to produce it on Broadway. I kept waiting for some phone call to say, "You're going to be on Broadway." [Laughs.] The Texas money fell through, and then the Texas money came back. Anyway, you just learn to put it in its place. Then, we did this amazing concert at Avery Fisher Hall of the Mack & Mabel score with no book. And each performer — Leslie Uggams, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Orbach — came out and did one number, so it was unrelated to a running character. It featured the music — Jerry [Herman] was there, and it was a grand success. I had the best time because for a week I worked at Radio City with the Rockettes. So the fun thing for "Tap Your Troubles Away" — unlike the Reprise! production where I had boy and girl dancers — was the long, lovely Rockettes, who would come out and do this number. It was so fabulous, and it was so exciting for me. They got this idea of a concept — [director] Arthur Seidelman and Jerry — to create a show that would include the Rockettes . . . [as] the ensemble. The women would play all the parts: the boy chorus, the girl chorus, the cops. All the production numbers would be about the show, but it would be all these beautiful girls because one big production number is "Hundreds of Girls."
I heard about that and I thought, "That is fantastic," and then I heard Goodspeed, and I went, "Oh, small stage." [Laughs.] But it's being done anyway! We've managed — I guess because the story is very intimate, it's a love story — to use that stage and make it look like it's a bigger stage because of the way it was directed. There's a whole other show going backstage where you choreograph every footfall. [Laughs.] That's where we are with it right now, and it's had a wonderful relationship with the Goodspeed Opera, and it's a great company of people. I'm just having a great time. For the future I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they do intrigue the Radio City management to see this as something that they could do [with the Rockettes].
Q: I also heard that you're working on an autobiography. Do you have a publisher?
Donna: Simon & Schuster, and our deadline is April, [but] I'm hoping they'll give us a little extension. [Laughs.] I'm working with a very good writer. If I did this on my own, it would take a million years. [The writer is] Greg Lawrence, and he's wonderful. I've been trying to do this book for ten years. I had a couple starts with different writers, and it just wasn't right. It has to be my point of view, from my mouth. The other writers had an imposed idea of what I was or what they wanted the book to be. When I met Greg, I was a big fan of his — he wrote the Kander and Ebb book ["Colored Lights"]. A couple years ago, he did the biography of Jerome Robbins, and he also wrote one of my favorite books of all time, the kind of book I want to write, Gelsey Kirkland's "Dancing on My Grave." I thought it was a beautiful, touching, candid telling. So, I don't need to instruct him or give him any education because he's got it all. He's brilliant; he does all the stuff that I would never find the time to do. He goes to the library and looks up things in the paper from years ago. I've saved a lot of stuff, too. He's actually made it fun for me — I never thought it would be this much fun.
Q: How does it feel revisiting all these past memories?
Donna: Well, it's so interesting. When we first started, the technique was — and it's worked well so far — I just told my story. It's important, for me, that the real story is about the survival of the degenerative disease arthritis. I'm not interested in writing about my life in the theatre, even though some people might find that interesting, but I'm too private to do that. . . But the age that I grew up in in New York and the people that I came in contact with and worked with and were trained by. Even though it's one step removed or arm's length, the business is so different now, I revere those people — like Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, George Abbott and Abe Burrows — and I worked with them all.
Q: You worked with so many great people . . .
Donna: I was directed twice by George Abbott. I had to stand back, and I'm old enough now to be detached about it, and I see it as a very interesting slice of theatrical life. . . When I got to New York in '59, they were saying [that] Broadway's dying. There's that line from A Chorus Line, "Don't tell me that, I just got here!" And, then it wasn't dying at all, but then it started dying, and then it came back. I think that's kind of interesting, but the main story is about the psychology of someone being in a particular place at a particular time and recovering with knowledge. Finding out the whys and wherefores of how this came about. I think it's ironic, being a dancer, that my body would just stop.
Q: Where are you now with the disease? Are you fully recovered?
Donna: Oh yes, totally. There's not a lot of dancing roles, [so] I have to create my own shows in order to keep dancing, which is why I did my cabaret. And I have a new one that I'm going to be starting right after [Mack & Mabel].
Q: Tell me about the new show.
Donna: I just opened it in London before I did [Mack & Mabel]. It's called Gypsy in My Soul, and I'd like to go back to all the venues I've played in the last two years. It's about the life of a woman, an actress on the road. I start the show saying, "My whole dream as a young dancer in Detroit was to come to New York and be in a Broadway show, and that happened, and then I spent practically the rest of my 40 years in the business on the road."
Q: What songs are in the show?
Donna: "A Lot of Livin' to Do," "Gypsy in My Soul." I re-create all of the roles that I grew up into finally, like Momma Rose, Pistache from Can Can. I do a medley of the songs — "Some People" and then I do "It's All Right With Me" and "I Love Paris" and a wonderful song by Maltby and Shire called "Patterns."
Q: Is there a director involved?
Donna: Well, I put it together; I wrote it. Not to say that I won't have one. I work with Thommie Walsh a lot. He's a good friend and, I think, a wonderful director of these types of shows. I put it together in London — I thought I could try it out there.
Q: How did it go in London?
Donna: It went very well. I have a good press kit already, and I did see that I needed some reworking in the first act, but the second act is tremendous. What I was most concerned about is [whether] the idea, the concept, communicated itself. I can't just do song after song. I have to have a through-line and a beginning, middle and end. That was the challenge. There are so many songs you can do, but it really has to work as a little play. So that's my next [project], but meanwhile I'm working with Greg every week [on the autobiography]. We are behind a little bit, but he makes it very easy.
Q: Do you get to see much on Broadway these days? What do you think of the theatre now?
Donna: I always believe that people will create what the need is. I think it's great that there's something for everyone. I really do. I love the good old book musicals. There are some shows that I haven't seen that I want to — like Wicked and Avenue Q.
Q: Any dreams roles you'd like to tackle?
Donna: Oh gosh. [Laughs.] The dream roles — that's part of the book, too. In the seventies, when I was going from show to show, it seemed like [theatre was] being part of a collaborative team and originating roles. I thought, "Oh, that's what you do," but not necessarily. Not to say that doing a tour of Hello, Dolly! isn't terrific, but the dream role for me is one where you're picked to create a role because you're right for this original new piece, and you help develop it. But it's never boring — there's always something around the corner.
Q: You did perform Momma Rose in Gypsy at Cleveland's Ohio Theatre. What was that experience like?
Donna: It was tremendous. In my show I talk about walking around onstage and knowing that Gypsy Rose Lee had played that theatre, part of the Orpheum Circuit in vaudeville. I love all that stuff, the richness of that connection. I worked with some really wonderful people. . . It's a killer role. In fact, I lost my voice. [Laughs.] It sent me [to find] a new voice teacher. I have chords of steel, but it freaked me out a little bit. It wasn't the singing, it was the emotional necessity. If you don't know how to relax and pace yourself in rehearsal, [you'll lose your voice]. I was trying to pitch myself forward 100% everyday. That's just foolish, so I learned the hard way that's not the way to do it. It's a challenge I want to meet again. I really loved it. It's such good writing, so powerful, and I have a great sense of sympathy for the mother.
Q: How did you view her?
Donna: I love analyzing things. She has unresolved conflicts obviously. Her fears were so great, plus the feeling of worthlessness that she got from her mother. That connection . . . is there when she breaks down and goes, "Momma, momma." . . . When people are overbearing, it's because they're really afraid and they defend against their feelings. So, she has a real soft, vulnerable, fearful [side] and pushes her daughter because it's something that she could never do herself. It's very complicated, but I love that stuff.
Q: I did get to see you in the Paper Mill production of Follies and thought you were terrific.
Donna: Oh, thank you. I was very proud of that production. What a cast! Every night before Sally makes her first entrance — I'd been around long enough and I'd done enough shows — I would just stand there and think, "Well, this is as good as it gets, right now. Be in that moment and just enjoy it because it doesn't get better than this."
Q: It was a shame that that didn't get to Broadway.
Donna: That was a heartbreak. Again, show business can be so wonderful and then throw you down to the ground. We had a producer, a theatre, all the money. We had it ready to go but because of a glitch with the writers — unbeknownst even to Stephen [Sondheim] — it didn't get done. It broke Ann Miller's heart. She was on the phone trying to get things happening. . . I pay tribute to her in my show. I talk about making my entrance as she makes her exit [in Follies], and how she would give me a barometer of the audience every performance. There would be a young man waiting in the wings because she had a bad limp, but she never showed the audience and never complained. She would come offstage as I would be making my entrance and she would say, "Donna, they're dead." [Laughs.] Or, sometimes, she'd come off and she'd be patting her wig the same way, and she'd say, "They love me." She was adorable.
Q: One last question. When people hear the name Donna McKechnie, what would you like them to think?
Donna: That's a good question. I think the biggest compliment is "a woman who devoted her life to theatre." Even I have to finally admit it. It's what I love.
Leslie Uggams' belted-to-the-rafters rendition of "My Own Morning" — which she debuted nearly 40 years ago in the Tony-winning musical Hallelujah, Baby! — was the highlight of this year's City Center Encores! Bash concerts, which I caught Sunday night. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, the weekend of performances saluted the centennials of Harold Arlen, Marc Blitzstein, Dorothy Fields, Frederick Loewe and Jule Styne and prominently featured The Encores! Orchestra onstage under the direction of Rob Fisher. Each half began with a different overture: the first with Styne's Funny Girl (orchestrated by Ralph Burns) and the second with Loewe's My Fair Lady (orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang). Perhaps because I'm less familiar with Blitzstein's work, I was especially taken with three of his songs: Michael Arden's simple, touching rendition of "Emily" ("The Ballad of the Bombardier") and two tunes from 1959's Juno — Malcolm Gets on "One Kind Word" and Rebecca Luker's "I Wish It So." Other high points of the night included Sara Gettlefinger, who sparkled in Seesaw's "Welcome to the Holiday Inn"; Anne Hathaway, who displayed a comedic knack in Bells Are Ringing's "It's a Perfect Relationship"; Burke Moses and Brent Barrett, who lent their powerful voices to a seven-person arrangement of "They Call the Wind Maria"; Victoria Clark, who demonstrated the range and volume of her soprano in "From This Day On"; and former Hairspray stars Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa, who reunited for Gigi's "I Remember It Well." David Garrison and Christine Ebersole also scored, respectively, with the comical ditties "A Cow and a Plough and a Frau" and "A Modest Maid."
There are still a few tickets left for the all-star benefit concert of Pippin, which will be presented this Monday, Nov. 29, at The Manhattan Center's Grand Ballroom at 34th Street and 8th Avenue. Tony Award winner Ben Vereen and Emmy winner Rosie O'Donnell are the latest additions to a company that also includes Michael Arden (Pippin); Laura Benanti (Catherine); Darius de Haas, Billy Porter and Kate Shindle (sharing the role of the Leading Player with Vereen and O'Donnell); Terrence Mann (Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire); Charles Busch (Berthe); Harrison Chad (young Theo); Cameron Mathison; (Lewis) and Julia Murney (Fastrada). Shindle, who's co-producing the concert with Jamie McGonnigal, told me earlier in the week, "Last year, Jamie, Mark Hartman and I just sort of threw together the Children of Eden concert with the help of some very capable friends. This year, the event has really taken off: We've got a brilliant director in Gabe Barre and Andy Blankenbuehler, who I think is the most talented young choreographer in the city. We've also got a team of designers and producers who are doing a ton of work with a very limited budget, and we are so grateful for that. This is the first time I'm officially credited as a producer, and it's been a tough six months in some respects. The political climate for HIV/AIDS fundraising is not great, and a lot of our potential donors have already given everything they could give to election-related causes. So, it's been stressful, but rehearsals have totally reenergized me. Michael Arden is really the perfect Pippin and brings a great energy to the project offstage as well. We're thrilled to have him. Laura Benanti's instincts are amazing. I sit and watch her in rehearsals with my jaw on the floor. And,of course, we just added Ben Vereen and Rosie O'Donnell, which we're thrilled about, and we have a great cast top to bottom. I haven't even rehearsed with some of them yet, but I can't say enough about how much I admire Darius and Billy and Julia . . . So when I'm dealing with travel arrangements or finding a moving company to transport percussion equipment from South Jersey, I remind myself of what we're doing and who we're doing it for, and how lucky I am to have found people who feel the same way about this project as I do. That sounds like a very Miss America thing to say, I know!" Tickets range from $50 to $1,000, and many prices include the party following the performance with the Pippin company. Call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com. Go to www.pippinconcert.org for more information.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)