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Oh, Donna! The evergreen “A Chorus Line” legend at 54 Below

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Tony award winner Donna McKechnie. | CAROL ROSEGG
Tony award winner Donna McKechnie. | CAROL ROSEGG

BY DAVID NOH | With all the white hot fever surrounding the Broadway opening of “Hamilton,” I can’t help flashing back to another monster hit that made this same journey from the Public Theater — “A Chorus Line.”

In 1976, there was no hotter ticket and no hotter performer than Donna McKechnie, who made the cover of Newsweek and won the Tony for Cassie, the role that made her a theater legend at 34. She is coming to 54 Below in her show, “Same Place: Another Time,” on August 6 and 9, and I chatted with her at Hudson Diner, one of the few remaining coffee shops in the Village.

I met Donna years ago at one of the marvelous parties hosted by the late actress and writer Lila Khan in her Upper West Side apartment. I recall how astonishingly warm and candid the actress was, talking about her former husband and choreographer, the great Michael Bennett, within minutes of being introduced.

“Oh my god, what did I say?” she asked of that earlier conversation before launching into a description of her show. “When I first walked into 54 Below, I had this kind of déjà vu experience and tried to imagine what this was like back in the day when I would come here at night after doing ‘A Chorus Line.’ I thought it would be interesting to do a show like a musical déjà vu and go back to the 1970s and find another personal level.”

The “musical déjà vu celebrating the scintillating 70’s in New York City” includes the work of Peter Allen, Jim Croce, Stephen Sondheim, and Marvin Hamlisch, with a Josh McDaniel arrangement of “At the Ballet” that is unlike the original from “A Chorus Line.” McKechnie also keeps the revue personal.

“It’s not really about a place, but an affair of the heart, so I talk about when my first apartment was on 54th and 9th Avenue, three flights up, with revolving roommates, when Hell’s Kitchen was really rough and scary,” she said. “I put my therapy session on stage.”

McKechnie, I’m proud to say, is a Facebook friend and made me even prouder when she told me how she often agrees with my posts, which are not always in tune with the general opinion, especially theater-wise. People like her and the geniuses she worked with set the artistic bar so high for me that it makes it that much more difficult to accept mediocrity, however commercially (or even critically) successful it may be.

“I was so lucky to be around people like Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse, who set the bar so high for me,” she said. “‘A Chorus Line’ never dies, it just keeps opening doors and giving back to me — but there was a time when I considered it an albatross around my neck. Enough already, I’m a funny person, not this dramatic actress! I love it now, and I loved Michael. A complicated person, I loved working with him, and that was the saddest part, to lose a friend. A marriage — that’s in and out — but losing him as a friend was terrible.”

In a highly competitive year, which also saw the opening of “Chicago,” it seems that McKechnie was the only person who didn’t feel a Tony award was in the bag for her.

“When I heard my name, what a shock,” she said. “And I remember talking to myself as I’m walking to the stage, ‘Just breathe. Do not fall, whatever you do, just get up there.’ I thought about a couple of things I might say, if it should happen, and was kind of like on automatic pilot. I looked in the wings and saw our cast, because it was in our theater and they were in their finale costumes. I was able to verbalize that, and share it with them, and before I left the podium, I was clear enough to say to myself, ‘Just look and see everything, because this may never happen again. Take this moment in, so you have the experience.’”

Fosse was the other great man of the dance who was a beloved mentor.

“So very different from Bennett, and I loved him, too,” McKechnie said. “Michael was my heart and soul, but Fosse did my first show [‘How to Succeed in Business’] and [his wife] Gwen Verdon was even higher than that, a goddess to me. I have her star with her name on it from her ‘Sweet Charity’ dressing room door. He was just brilliant and shy and very cute and scary, always smoking, he was adorable.”

When rehearsing “Sweet Charity” with Verdon in the Minskoff Studio, she would offer McKechnie the Chita Rivera version, the Annie Reinking version, or the Debbie Allen version of the dance steps. Fosse would come in and watch saying, “Just ignore me.” Verdon and Fosse would eventually spar over the choreography.

“Oh my god, I’m with my parents again,” McKechnie said recalling those disputes. “And she’d be in back of him, mouthing ‘My way!’ And I’d say, ‘Your way, of course, Bobby.’ He was so kind and complimentary, told me he never saw anyone get better like I did. I’m a slow starter and then kind of build and grow. Gwen said, ‘Once he sees a show and it leaves town, that’s usually it,’ but he came to all our cities.”

Fosse and Bennett died within three months of each other in 1987, deaths that devastated Broadway and the theater world. She was rehearsing in Toronto when she learned of Bennett’s death.

“I was getting ready for the tech and they came in and said, ‘You don’t have to do this.’ I said, ‘I can’t not do it,’” McKechnie recalled. She heard about Fosse’s death while in Washington.

“That was the last thing I expected to hear, and I could hear the dancers were crying, he was so loved,” McKechnie said. “I remember how before he left the theater, Gwen knew something was wrong because he never left a rehearsal. As soon as he went out of the house, she followed him, and that’s when it happened. He had a heart attack on the street in front of his hotel.”

One more legend McKechnie worked with was Ethel Merman. They met during a production of “Call Me Madam” in St. Louis.

“I was so scared of her,” McKechnie said. “They cast me because they were looking for a principal who could dance, and she didn’t like that. I met her when I was in rehearsal and had just finished the ‘Dance to the Music of the Ocarina’ with a big ta-da! finish. She said, in this laser voice from across the room, ‘Who did she have to fuck to get two dance numbers?’ The dancer holding me kind of lowered me down and nobody knew whether to laugh and I’m going, ‘Oh dear! Hello Ethel!’”

Merman and McKechnie eventually made an uneasy peace, and McKechnie understood that the singer’s daughter, the last person to play her role, had taken her life just three months earlier.

“She liked me, but could never tell me, and now I understand that her daughter…had committed suicide three months before,” McKechnie said. “Ethel never went on tour. I think she took the tour because she was grieving and didn’t know what else to do with herself. I had great admiration for her, but she would never speak to me, just go right into her dressing room.”

On McKechnie’s last night on the tour, Merman began making clucking noises and crossing her eyes.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, she’s having a stroke!’ McKechnie said. “I went to the stage manager and said, ‘I think something’s wrong with Miss Merman.’ He said, ‘No, she’s just trying to break you up because it’s your last night.’ ‘Oh, um, thanks! I never got the note!’ Isn’t that funny?”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com, follow him on Twitter @In_the_Noh, and check out his blog at nohway.wordpress.com.

Updated 8:15 pm, August 29, 2018
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