DIVA TALK: Celebrating Sondheim with Tony Winner Donna McKechnie

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Donna McKechnie
Donna McKechnie

This month we celebrate the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim by speaking with several of the women most associated with the work of the award-winning composer-lyricist. This week we chat with A Chorus Line Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie, who created the role of Kathy in the groundbreaking musical Company and later starred as Sally in a critically praised production of Follies at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse.

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Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company was a landmark musical in 1970, but it also was a turning point in a different way for one of its stars, Tony winner Donna McKechnie, who played the role of Kathy and garnered much buzz for her "Tick Tock" dance.

"I went to [director] Hal Prince's office — I was invited to come up there," McKechnie recently told me by phone. "I thought I was going to audition and went into his office, and it was gorgeous, and I was very nervous. He showed me the set, the Boris Aronson [model] that was on his desk. And, I was so nervous, I said, 'Hal, can I read now?' And he goes, 'Read? No, I'm offering you the role.' So that was the first time I got a job without an audition, and I just thought, 'This is the way it should be!'"

McKechnie, who would eventually win her Tony for her acclaimed performance as Cassie in the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Chorus Line, said she first met Sondheim during an audition for the national tour of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in 1963 (she would play the role of Philia in that tour). "When I did Company," she recalls, "he was very delightful in making a joke, because everyone was making a big deal about the ['Tick Tock'] dance, and he said, [referencing her Forum stint], 'I met her first when she was a singer.'"

Donna McKechnie (center, standing) with Elaine Stritch (seated), Larry Kert (foreground) and the Company company.
photo by Joseph Abeles/ Sy Friedman

But it was Company, which featured direction by Prince and musical staging by the late Michael Bennett, that marked a significant change for McKechnie. "I was coming out of shows where they had singing boys, dancing boys, singing girls, dancing girls," she explains, "and this was an ensemble piece, and I felt like a grown-up for the first time on stage, because we were adults and we were talking about adult themes and relationships. This was the first adult-themed musical about contemporary relationships in New York City." And, McKechnie says she and the cast knew they were involved in something special even if some critics were somewhat tepid in their initial response to the marriage-themed musical. "When we heard [Sondheim's] score for the first time, we all just knew that it was this rare thing, this kind of cutting-edge [work]. I mean, everything was there. Everything was in place for the most part, and very exciting. . . . Is there anything more beautiful than 'Being Alive' or melodic as 'Someone Is Waiting' or 'Sorry-Grateful?' These gorgeous, heartbreaking melodies fit so perfectly to the character… "The criticisms were things that, even then, we knew were kind of ridiculous. They would say, 'Where are the melodies? ' … because in the early days, [composers] would have their stock songs [that] they would try to make hits. I'm not talking about Rodgers [and] Hammerstein as much [but] … even Frank Loesser had his stock songs. If it didn't work for one musical, he'd put it into another. And, Jerome Kern would have a song in this show, a song in that show. Well, Sondheim was the complete artist in that he didn't have the stock songs. They were so specifically written for the character, for the story, for the emotional condition of that moment. It was so exciting as an actor and a singer to do his material because you knew that he would be writing it from the point of view of the character.

Donna McKechnie (second from right, standing) and the original cast of Company.
photo by Martha Swope

"There's a general feeling that in acting you're as good as your choices," McKechnie adds, "meaning that that's where your talent is — [in] the choices and how specific you make them. And for him to be able to get into each character that completely and make the most important and very specific and clear choices, I think that's what makes his music really define the art form of musical theatre because that's what it all about." If some New York critics were a bit slow to see the genius of Sondheim, McKechnie says the London critics embraced Company with open arms, and "Clive Barnes came back and re-reviewed it a year later because it was such a hit in London. You know, [marriage] is a touchy subject, and maybe people writing about it got involved in it a little bit too much, but [Barnes] re-wrote a great review a year later."

Donna McKechnie (second from left) in Follies.

As wonderful an experience as Company was, McKechnie says it's another Sondheim musical that was the highlight of her life: the 1998 production of Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. "That I was able to work with Sondheim on that particular musical in the way that we did [was thrilling]. He came in to approve it, but then, because he loves the work so much and it matters to him that it works, he stayed and worked with us. That was a highlight for me because he and James Goldman got together for the first time, I think, in . . . 20 years or so. And that show, that Follies at Paper Mill, brought them together to work on the piece. That was as exciting as anything to me, to have the original writers together and contributing to our rehearsals and reshaping the script at the end." McKechnie says that it was actually Sondheim who helped her open a door into the character of former Follies girl Sally Durant Plummer. [AUDIO-LEFT]"In rehearsal," she says, "I was making my entrance as Sally when she comes on and she sees the place where, when she was young, all of her passions and her dreams were. . . . All of these years later, she walks in, and she's trying to find something. And, the reaction to that moment – I wasn't quite getting it — I was afraid, unconsciously, I was holding back. I was afraid to go to that discovery moment. And he whispered in my ear, 'This is your moment. You've come back.' And hearing him say, kind of, 'It's okay. You know, really see it. Really be there. Really be in this place' — it was like a little key unlocked, and, you know, everything followed that."

Although she would end up offering a performance that this writer felt was as vocally powerful as it was emotionally riveting, McKechnie says she was intimidated by the material at first. "It's not always fair to put people on a pedestal when you're working with them," McKechnie says. "It kind of can be frustrating, I mean, for the person put on the pedestal," she laughs. "And [Sondheim] was very generous with me and very kind and maybe felt I was feeling out of my comfort zone. He just was very generous and said, 'You know, this is not easy. It's not easy, and it's difficult to sing.' And in that way, I was able to relax and find my voice . . . and to receive the highest compliment from him. One night he said, 'Tonight I saw the actress and the character come together.' And that's the highest compliment coming from him.

"I admire him, of course, because of his artistry and the wealth of material and work that he's given us, but also because he respects the work so much and the process. Those little private, behind-the-scenes or rehearsal interactions are very meaningful for me. I will take them with me through everything I do. But that was hard — I had to find a way to relax. . . . I really do think this is true, that because of the way he writes for the character and for the singer, you really can improve as a singer. Some material you do, you have to vocalize and reach the beat prepared for that particular song or material, and it's just hard-hitting. And with his material, you grow in it, and it makes you better. It makes you a better singer and a better actor."

McKechnie is equally fond of Sondheim, the person: "I think he's a great person. I really do. The thing I respect about him as an artist, the respect he has for the work, he has that respect for other people, and he's very warm. He may be shy. I like the fact that he would come into rehearsal and make no bones about the way he felt, if he wanted to be there or didn't want to be there," she laughs. "You know, he's honest. I experienced him, especially at that time, day after day, that he's a very generous, deep-feeling person and very warm."

Donna McKechnie in Follies.

And, what does McKechnie think Sondheim's legacy will be? "Well, he brought the art form [of] musical theatre, which is our American, unique art form to another level, to a level that everyone works for," she answers. "You're not going to work that hard if it's something that is easily accomplished. But to be so thorough as an artist... He understands the human condition in such a way that we all relate to it, whether we're in the audience or on stage, we relate to the dilemma and the frailty of the human ego and the need and the yearnings and the passions of people. He understands this, and not only that, he's able to write in such a way that it takes us to another level. He just takes us to a higher place." McKechnie, too, has been taking audiences to higher places for years. She is the epitome of the triple-threat, and this admirer hopes she returns to the Broadway stage soon. When asked what other Sondheim roles she would like to tackle, McKechnie says, "Well, I've done Little Night Music a couple times, and I loved it. I keep thinking that eventually I'll be doing all the adult females in Follies. Some day I'll be singing 'One More Kiss'," she laughs.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(l.-r.) Susan Browning, Donna McKechnie and Pamela Myers in the original production of <i>Company</i>
(l.-r.) Susan Browning, Donna McKechnie and Pamela Myers in the original production of Company (Photo by Martha Swope)