In 2013, tasked by Playbill with writing about the epic Act 1 finale of Promises, Promises—in which three female employees perform a dance at the office party—Ben Rimalower immediately called up Tony winner Donna McKechnie, who, with Baayork Lee and Margo Sappington, has become an icon of Thanksgiving with the song and its popular YouTube video.
Donna explained how, in the show's out-of-town tryout in Boston, "Turkey Lurkey Time" had originally been a very realistic performance by herself and the two other secretary characters, doing a kind of amateur Andrews Sisters bit for the holiday party, complete with homemade costumes and choreographed "mistakes."
"I remember the audience just staring at us," she said. "It was like, out of this wonderful musical so far, this horrible number happened. You know 'Springtime For Hitler'? That's what it was. They were jaw-dropped. It's horrifying when you feel that flop sweat and you're opening out of town."
Following the original performance, McKechnie said, choreographer Michael Bennett assured everyone he could revise the number. She praised his instincts, saying, "I think one of the great things about Michael was that he could have his thumb on the pulse of the audience, even emotionally. And he was guided by his own sensibility. He had made such a great effort to make this realistic, but he realized immediately that it's the first act finale and they needed a big lift up—it's a heightened reality, the musical, and it hit him in the face.
"And in 24 hours, Michael and Bob Avian went back to his hotel room, and on a skinny mirror on the back of a closet door proceeded to start the number, like the girly girls we became. And it became a dance number. That's what he saw."
She further clarified the significance of acting to dance, praising Bennett and Bob Fosse for encouraging actors to "take the ball and run with it," a technique she now utilizes while teaching.
"I have my own style—it's all acting based. But there are actual steps. And what's fun now, all these years later, I just taught it to Jessica Lee Goldwyn for 21st Century Dance Machine... We're doing all these great choreographers, like Balanchine, Robbins, Gower Champion... theatre dance. You're getting the language of these great choreographers, and their great knowledge of structure, their vocabulary. And a lot of the dancers today don't have access to it, and it only makes you a better dancer." Performing "Turkey Lurkey Time" requires the actors to loosen up a bit, McKechnie said, in order to portray the festive, boozy atmosphere of the office party.
"I had to focus everybody because they're so good and they were doing everything religiously and with great discipline. It was very good, but it was very stiff," she remembered. "I said, 'You know what? It's a party and you're a little drunk, so do it at like half-mast, not so full force... You have these very strong dancers who will do it full-out from the top, without connecting emotionally, and they have to find their own personalization. Part of training is to be like an acting coach too, you know, how much do you use your body? When you are a little tipsy, it's going to change everything. You're looser, your personality comes out in a different way. These three women are very different, and they each pick somebody out and are flirting with them, have a whole story about them. They have relationships in the office. All of that is incorporated in that performance. That's all Michael Bennett.
"When we were watching the kids at 21st Century Dance Machine, I said to Baayork, 'Isn't it great? Isn't it great to watch it and not do it?'"
One of the memorable parts of "Turkey Lurkey Time," which everyone who's seen it talks about, is McKechnie's famous double head-pop in the number. When I asked her whether she or Bennett came up with it, she said it was probably her, adding, "I have the oldest whiplash in the business. I just move like that."
And she added, "Thank God for YouTube. Every Thanksgiving, I'm bombarded with 'Turkey Lurkey Time.'"