Donna McKechnie Goes Inside the Music

Donna McKechnie Goes Inside the Music It's been 22 years since she broke our hearts as the original Cassie in Broadway's A Chorus Line, and now Donna McKechnie is back in full throttle -- with a one-woman show about her life and career.
Tony winner Donna McKechnie has a new show, Inside the Music, about her life and career
Tony winner Donna McKechnie has a new show, Inside the Music, about her life and career

It's been 22 years since she broke our hearts as the original Cassie in Broadway's A Chorus Line, and now Donna McKechnie is back in full throttle -- with a one-woman show about her life and career.

Inside the Music, which she co-wrote with Christopher Durang, is the story of "a girl who grows up in the Midwest and comes to New York at the age of 15," McKechnie told Playbill On-Line, adding slyly, "The girl of course is me."

The show has already played in London ("Off Off Off West End," she says, at the small but cushy Jermyn Street Theatre), where the critics turned out in full force and the reviews were raves.

And on Jan. 13, an invited audience saw a special performance of the show in CAMI Hall in NY. Potential bookers and angels were there, and according to industry buzz, the show is angling for an Off-Broadway theatre and/or for touring.

One of the most refreshing things about Inside the Music, said the London press, is that it is not just a collection of McKechnie's "greatest hits" but a true book show that tells a story both comically and movingly. One critic even went so far as to suggest that, should she desire it, McKechnie could have a second career as a comedienne. The first half of the show chronicles the performer's less-than-happy childhood ("it was like living in the black and white sections of The Wizard of Oz, only in Detroit!"), the many hours she spent at the movies, and her move to New York at the age of 15 to become a dancer.

The second half begins with McKechnie auditioning for Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Bob Fosse on the stage of the old 46th Street Theatre for her first Broadway show -- the original How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying -- and is laced with remembrances of her myriad New York shows and national tours: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Promises, Promises, Company, revivals of On the Town and Sweet Charity . . . and of course, A Chorus Line.

There are lots of dance snippets from the landmark Fosse and Michael Bennett numbers (her teeny crossover in How to Succeed's "A Secretary is Not a Toy" and some rather self-parodying renditions of "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Company), plus more extended sequences from On the Town and Sweet Charity.

As McKechnie tells it, she had only two dreams: "To be in a Broadway show and to have a Broadway composer write a piece specifically for me."

The second wish was finally granted in 1975 when Chorus Line was in rehearsals for its first incarnation at New York's Public Theatre and Marvin Hamlisch wrote a song with such a wide range that only Yma Sumac could have done justice to it, McKechnie joked.

That particular song was called "Inside the Music" (in case you were wondering whence the present show got its name) and it was soon tossed out for "The Music and the Mirror," which McKechnie performs in tab version accompanied by Philip Fortenberry on piano.

Much of the show focuses on McKechnie's often-unlucky search for love. In one sequence the actress relates how she "danced herself out of a relationship" in the early-60s. The number she dances to, "Tagalong Vacation," has been set to Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't" and Bernstein's "I Am Easily Assimilated" and craftily staged by Inside the Music's director, Thommie Walsh -- McKechnie's old friend from Chorus Line.

And who says life doesn't imitate musicals? In one sequence, the red-haired actress tells of a date with Fred Astaire, who had come to see A Chorus Line in L.A.; they went to Trader Vic's and then to his Bel Aire mansion -- and at the end of the evening he took her in his arms and danced with her.

Those were the days.

-- By Rebecca Paller