A version of this article was originally published November 2014.
"Turkey Lurkey Time" was a seminal achievement for choreographer and future director Michael Bennett. The scene: A 1960s office holiday party—very Mad Men—and three office gals perform a little dance for everyone as they sing the song.
It's hard to take your eyes off Donna McKechnie during this number. Graceful and elegant, athletic and sensual, every movement exudes intention and fun. She flings and floats and flies. It’s worth noticing 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 1 of Promises, Promises in a rush of excitement.
McKechnie 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' [from The Producers]? 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."
McKechnie 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.
Performing "Turkey Lurkey Time" requires the actors to loosen up, 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. 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, they 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."
But the routine was still a workout. "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," 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.'"