Next story: Stagefright
by Anthony Chase
An Interview with a Broadway Legend
“I wanna know that I can find inside me anyone I need
I wanna be Donna McKechnie, Donna Summer, Donna Reed
I wanna be Margaret Sanger, Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Mead
I want it all!”
(From the Broadway musical Baby! by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Buffalo’s David Shire)
When A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in 1975, Donna McKechnie instantly became the epitome of everything anyone could ever hope to be. She was the original Cassie, the Broadway dancer who crossed over to leading roles, but now just wanted a job on the line.
McKechnie was the triple threat a generation had waited to see, the successor to Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. She could sing; she could act; and she could dance Michael Bennett’s gravity-defying whiplash choreography as if there were no tomorrow. Critics had already noticed her performing such iconic Broadway choreography as the “Tick Tock Dance” in Sondheim’s Company and “Turkey Lurkey Time” in Promises Promises, but now she was a star. Now, everybody knew her name.
McKechnie will return to Buffalo on December 3rd to perform one night only at 710 Main. And as if she were not attraction enough, the show, called 4 Girls 4, also features Andrea McArdle the original Annie; Faith Prince who won a Tony award for Guys and Dolls, and also starred in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Bells are Ringing and A Catered Affair; and recording star Maureen McGovern who starred as Marmee in Little Women on Broadway.
Without even knowing it, McKechnie is beloved in Buffalo—a town where children are enrolled in dance classes as if it were the law —for her connection to the great Broadway director-choreographer Michael Bennett who grew up here. Bennett staged A Chorus Line and McKechnie was the definitive interpreter of his vision. In fact, his most iconic choreography was created specifically for her. They were even married for a time.
Bennett, who died in 1987, was known here as Mickey DiFiglia and attended Hutch Tech High School. He is memorialized in the Plaza of Stars in front of 710 Main. Many a touring dancer has made the pilgrimage to be photographed with the poster celebrating his career that Artvoice placed in the alley that runs between Main and Washington Streets across from Shea’s. His portrait also hangs in the Shea’s lobby.
Despite Buffalo’s devotion to Bennett, his own relationship to his hometown was ambivalent to say the least. A Chorus Line contains the joke that “suicide in Buffalo is redundant,” and in his memoires Bennett expressed the wish that he had been born in a Broadway orchestra pit while the overture to an Ethel Merman musical was playing, rather than in Buffalo. McKechnie explains that his relationship to his hometown was complex.
“Of course, I knew Michael’s parents and his brother,” she says, “and I heard all of his stories of growing up in dance school in Buffalo. He and I we were very similar in that way. I was from the Midwest and went to dance class after school every day. It was a whole particular life where you had dreams of New York and you couldn’t wait to get out and start dancing. Last year when I was in Buffalo to do the Marvin Hamlisch show, ‘Singular Sensation,’ with the Buffalo Philharmonic there was a reception after the performance, and I met some of Michael’s cousins, and some people who had grown up with him—dance school friends. It was really a warm and wonderful experience to meet these people, very touching. So we shared a lot of similar feelings about it, but to meet the people, and to hear great stories about things Michael himself might not have remembered or thought about, but stories about how he had touched the lives of people in his hometown? That was just wonderful!”
How is this show different from the BPO show?
“The idea comes from the original 4 Girls 4 that was done about 25 years ago,” McKechnie explains. “Wayne Gmitter put our show together with Andrea, Faith, Maureen, and me, and now along with Matthew Lombardo we’re getting momentum going. It’s been wonderful, because we’re all girl friends. We really love each other. I know that sounds like press copy, but it really is such fun.”
The original 4 Girls 4 started its 12 year run in 1977; first with Rosemary Clooney, Helen O’Connell, Margaret Whiting, and Rose Marie. In the succeeding years, Kaye Ballard, Kay Starr, Martha Raye, and Barbara McNair rotated in but the act always had 4 women who were entertainment legends performing signature material.
“We’re performing in Palm Springs tonight,” continues McKechnie, “and Kaye Ballard, who is an old friend of mine is going to be in the audience. She doesn’t know it, but I’m going to introduce her from the stage. I remember when I told Kaye that I was going to do 4 Girls 4, she said to me, ‘Oh! You are going to have the best time! Touring with that show was one of the best times of my whole life!’ And it’s true. She was a little prophet there, because this has been fantastic.
“Tonight, we’ll be with Randy Graff [while Faith Prince is away], so it will be a little different. One of the great things about the show is that we are all able to do other things. We have a floating 4 Girls 4. And what is great about it is that it keeps it always interesting. These concerts are wonderful. Each person walks out with a different history, different music, and individual interpretive skill.”
This enticing disclosure invites the question, “What will the Donna McKechnie sequence feature?”
“Well,” says McKechnie, “My little storyboard is that a girl runs away from home to be a dancer in New York and ends up working in these wonderful shows with these wonderful people, learning along the way. That’s my arch. Of course, I have to tip my hat to the most wonderful group of people: Michael Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch, Gwen Verdon, and Bob Fosse. I do ‘Music and the Mirror,’ and at some shows I do ‘At the Ballet’ [from A Chorus Line]. I share with the audience that the real stories of the dancers became the songs written by Marvin. I try to give them a little background. Then I do Sondheim, if the show can be long enough, ‘Buddies Eyes’ from Follies. For Bob and Gwen, I explain that Bob was my first choreographer on Broadway. And Gwen was a great star but was acting as the dance captain and a few years later, he invited me to do [Sweet] Charity, and Gwen was the dance captain again, and she taught me her role. [Gwen Verdon was a Broadway megastar who created the roles of Lola in Damn Yankees; Charity in Sweet Charity; and Roxie in Chicago]. She took me by the hand and taught me every step and it was the great gift of my life, to have her tutor me that way, and to give me not just steps, but information that I now pass on to other dancers, actors, and singers. I do ‘Where Am I Going’ from Sweet Charity for Gwen.”
“Part of the joy of this whole thing is getting to know these women,” says McKechnie. “It’s been thrilling and funny, like an old 1940s movie. In one theater in New Jersey, we had one big dressing room with all of us in it with all our makeup and everything. It was like Stage Door, one of those great old movies of young actors going to New York and talking in the dressing room. It was making me laugh so much. We are more accustomed to going out, doing our own shows, and being alone. We’re all bunched in here and we’re liking it. I look forward to every performance.”
Certainly a tour with one-night engagements presents challenges?
“I like those challenges,” McKechnie insists. “You cannot be rigid. You have to draw on everything you’ve learned in every show you’ve ever done, in every cold damp theater and every slippery floor, and every hall where the spot can’t find you. Sometimes we have a crew and sometimes we don’t. It’s like doing vaudeville, I guess. We’re a small unit but we have good people working with us. We create the magic as well as we know how and there are no divas in this group. We have done this for a long time, we want to be there, and we want to go out there and bring this kind of theater magic to people across this country in this concert. Honestly, we’re looking forward to Buffalo and 710 Main, because it is a proper theater! That’s when the show is at its best!”
For tickets to 4 Girls 4, call Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000.
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