Although her Broadway résumé also boasts the original productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Promises, Promises; 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 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, and her solo concert evenings always display the many talents of this versatile artist. In fact, of all the great Broadway dancers that the theatre has produced, McKechnie has one of the best voices of them all, a strong, emotional belt that is complemented by a rangy soprano.
McKechnie, who is currently starring as Mabel in the Arena Stage production of The Pajama Game (through December 24 on the in-the-round Fichandler Stage), is also one of the many artists to have graced Playbill Travel's Broadway on the High Seas cruises. (Tickets are now on sale for Playbill’s Broadway on the High Seas July 2018 cruise to Iceland, accompanied by Judy Kuhn, Christine Ebersole, Rob McClure, Jarrod Spector, Carmen Cusack, and Sierra Boggess. Visit PlaybillTravel.com for booking and information.)
Asked to pen a list of her most memorable nights onstage, McKechnie told Playbill, “Being a proud Equity member since 1959 I feel fortunate to have worked in highly professional and smoothly run productions for the most part; however, as I think back there are, perhaps, a few times I remember that things did not go as planned.”
Promises, Promises was the first show I was in that had a bomb threat after the curtain went up. It was announced to the audience to leave the theatre quickly and quietly so that the theatre could be searched. Highly dramatic! So there we were in our make-up and costumes mingling with the audience in Shubert Alley laughing and chatting nervously. After the “all clear,” 20 minutes later, everyone went back into the theatre to pick up where we were when we stopped the performance. We were given a resounding ovation by the audience as soon as the show continued. A beautiful shared experience...finally.
When I was in London appearing in Cole Porter's Can-Can at the beautiful old Strand Theatre, during previews, the enormous steel-framed section of the set was to travel across the stage one side to the other, with me on top, two stories high, singing “You Don't Know Paris.” Well, halfway across, it shrieked and stopped abruptly, leaving me holding on for dear life. I waited a few seconds. No announcement was made, no one came, and it seemed like an eternity. Most performers know that a whole minute onstage without anything happening can be deadly, so my performer's survival kit kicked in, and I started to do my one-liner stand-up routine, yelling to the top balcony, “Oh, Mr. Ziegfeld?” I got some giggles, and then the house lights went on and there we were, me and the audience, eye to eye. I looked nervously around for someone to come onstage...nothing! So I continued to talk to the audience, don't know what I said, but I got a few more laughs.... I remember saying, as a stagehand brought out a very tall ladder for me to climb down in my voluminous period costume, “Now you can say you were there the night the set stopped the show at the Strand.”
Many years later, I was stopped on a street in Manhattan by a woman who said, with a big smile on her face, “I know you...I was there the night you got stuck on a set at the Strand Theatre.”
A Chorus Line National Tour, memory 1
I have fond memories of a national tour I did one year with A Chorus Line, and there are a couple of times during our travels on the road that stand out. The first was at an outdoor amphitheatre near San Francisco. All was going swimmingly during the performance as usual, and then the fog rolled in so quickly and slowly covering the stage and then continued filling the stage and moving up. At first it looked like we were all walking on clouds (very dreamlike), and then we were without legs. Truly, the oddest thing I ever experienced. I think by the end one could make out the kick line, but barely.
A Chorus Line National Tour, memory 2
On the same tour we were performing in Kansas City in a big park with an outdoor stage next to the zoo. Again, everything was going very well until (we found this out later) a couple of sea lions fell in love, and started booming out their love sounds as they mated...very long, drawn-out scary sounds. It went through the audience and then onstage during the very quiet part of “At the Ballet.” That was a real challenge, not to laugh, although I did notice some shoulder shaking from some on the line. Too funny!
In the early '80s, I did a tour of Annie Get Your Gun, playing Annie Oakley. Our last stop was Palm Beach at the Poinciana Playhouse. It had been a wonderful run with a great cast. I was very proud of all of us, and even though the show was closing that night, I was very happy to appreciate this chapter and feel good about everything. Then the cherry on top that I never expected. As we took our last curtain call, we were interrupted by an announcement from the stage manager. “Ladies and gentlemen, our Annie Oakley, Ms. McKechnie, is celebrating her birthday today. Will you please join us in wishing her a happy birthday?”
Then house lights up, the conductor starts the orchestra with the first chords of “Happy Birthday,” and then I was serenaded by the cast onstage and the whole audience in the theatre. My vision clouded up with happy tears...everyone should have this happen at least once in their life. I am writing these memories today, ironically on my birthday, and I'm having a great day, but that birthday in Palm Beach “takes the cake!”