It's Turkey Lurkey Time! Donna McKechnie Shares the Story Behind the Dance

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28 Nov 2013

Donna McKechnie
Donna McKechnie

Tony winner Donna McKechnie chats with Playbill.com about performing in the original cast of Promises, Promises, including the Act One closing number, "Turkey Lurkey Time."

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When asked to write a special Thanksgiving piece on the legendary showstopper "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises, Promises, I instinctively agreed. But as time passed, I began to have serious reservations about taking this on. This song is beloved by musical theatre fans across the world and its impact has extended beyond the Act One finale of Promises, Promises, including a memorable performance in the movie "Camp" and a recent mash-up with the Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have A Kiki" on "Glee."

"Turkey Lurkey Time" was a seminal achievement for choreographer and future director Michael Bennett and is hallowed ground, which I really don't want to desecrate. Who am I, someone who doesn't like dance, to write about "Turkey Lurkey Time"? No disrespect to the art — I understand that this is one of my limitations — but it seems 99% of the time, once the choreography starts, my eyes glaze over.

I pulled up the popular YouTube clip of Donna McKechnie leading the original Broadway cast of Promises, Promises in the number at the 1969 Tony Awards, closed the door to my office and sat quietly for a moment to clear my mind.

It's a 1960s office holiday party — very "Mad Men" — and three office "girls" are doing a little dance for everyone as they sing the song.

It's hard to take my eyes off Donna. There's something incredibly graceful and elegant, athletic and sensual about the way she bends backwards and extends her arms in what I'm thinking is a trademark of hers, although I actually have no idea if that's true. I've read about a lot about Bennett, and I grill my friend, choreographer Jason Wise (whose mentor is Tommy Tune, who, in turn, was mentored by Bennett), so I'm schooled to notice that Bennett doesn't bring the chorus in until the very end section, when everybody's repeating "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells." This technique highlights that moment and that step in a way that elicited an ovation before the song was finished and ended Act One of Promises, Promises in a rush of excitement. I watch for that, and it is as described. (Jason had also told me to look for the cute moment where Donna almost starts dancing with her drink in her hand and then turns around to get rid of it before assuming the first position.)

I start watching other versions of "Turkey Lurkey Time" to broaden my sense of the song. YouTube user "FabTV" has a good-quality video from the original Bennett production, but with a somewhat different cast, notably deficient in the Donna McKechnie department. The short clip I find of the City Center Encores! production is slick and sexy, but less compelling, and the footage from the recent Broadway revival recalls why the number made so little impact on me in the first place. I check out the "Glee" version and love Sarah Jessica Parker and Chris Colfer doing "Kiki," but there's barely any "Turkey Lurkey Time" at all. The "Camp" version is a fun homage to the original.

Michael Bennett

Then, I stumble upon a Youtube video posted by user "THEDOOMSDAYDIARIES." It's a young man (presumably THEDOOMSDAYDIARIES himself) lip-synching to a recording of "Turkey Lurkey Time" while dancing the original choreography, or his best approximation thereof. He's terrific, throwing himself into the moves with gusto and zeal.

And then, I get it. This is my "aha moment." Seeing the movement reduced to one man, a single guy in his apartment, I'm able finally to appreciate that this is all about a human being moving through space and time. I think all these years, the costumes and lights and scenery obscured my view, and all the dancers on stage at once blocked my vision. I couldn't see the forest for the knees.

Just watching THEDOOMSDAYDIARIES all by himself, I can relate to the person executing these difficult steps and leaps and twists and turns and bevels and bends, all so fast and furious and all so fabulously timed to the music. I can't do this number, not by a mile, but I now I can imagine myself trying, and I have a sense of wonder at the people who actually do.

I go back to the Donna video with newfound appreciation. She's a goddess. No, she's not a goddess, she's just a person, like THEDOOMSDAYDIARIES, like me — but look at her go. She flings and floats and flies. She's graceful and powerful and musical all at once. At last, I see the human being, the character, dancing, and it is magical. Musical theatre just opened up for me in a whole new way. I guess choreography always seemed to me like special effects. Belting, I understood. I can't do it well, but I can shout — sometimes even on pitch. Now, I get it! Donna McKechnie is the Patti LuPone of dancers.

I rush to set up a phone call with Donna McKechnie.

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."

McKechnie said she has "Turkey Lurkey Time" to thank for remaining in the cast of Promises, Promises.

"Lucky for me that we had worked together on (the TV variety show) 'Hullaballoo' so [Bennett] knew I was a dancer so he said, 'You can stay in the show," she added. "I had this little scene and he said, 'Okay, we'll connect the dots that way.' And so it became Baayork [Lee] and Margo [Sappington] and me.

"I was very grateful because I could have been out of the show, and that was an important show for me, too. And then as soon dancers were on the desk instead of these secretaries, then it stopped the show every night after that."

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 chorographers, 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."

I shared with her my awe at her athleticism in "Turkey Lurkey Time," which she described as like running a mile, adding, "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.'"