“Acting comes first,” says singer-dancer Donna McKechnie, when asked what makes a great dancer. “I think any inspired performance grows from acting — that’s what I connect with. The first important dancer I ever saw was Alicia Alonso in ‘Swan Lake,’ and what impressed me most was the profound emotional life she brought to the role.” McKechnie, an energetic, ebullient woman of 64 who looks years younger, has been appearing in musicals since 1959 and is still doing so. At the time of this conversation, she was about to go to London to appear as one of the Andrews Sisters in a production of “Over Here,” which takes place during World War II.
In 1975, an unusual musical opened at the Newman, part of the Public Theater. Called “A Chorus Line,” it would become, at the time, the longest-running musical in Broadway history and made many careers, among them that of McKechnie. She won a Tony for it and married the show’s director-choreographer, her longtime friend Michael Bennett. This fall, McKechnie published her autobiography, written with Greg Lawrence, “Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life” (Simon & Schuster), which came out just in time to coincide with the revival of “A Chorus Line.”
Many of the experiences of Cassie, McKechnie’s “A Chorus Line” character, were based on her own, incorporated as part of the workshop method used to create the show. McKechnie attended the opening night of the revival but says that she can’t be objective about it. She kept seeing the people who originally played the roles onstage. She admits to particularly missing the two great talents who shaped her career: Bennett and Bob Fosse, both of whom died in the Eighties. She had met Bennett when they were dancing on the seminal Sixties TV music program, “Hullabaloo.” When she asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, famously, “a choreographer.” Collaborating on projects, McKechnie says, “We were finishing each other’s sentences in a choreographic way.” With the character of Cassie,
“He went out of his way to create a role for what my talent was.”
McKechnie says she has enjoyed the roles she has done in subsequent years, most of them not on Broadway. “I loved doing ‘Annie Oakley,’ Mama Rose [in “Gypsy’], ‘A Little Night Music’ all over, that was great. To be able to be in first-rate productions.” Her one-woman shows, “Inside the Music” and “Gypsy in My Soul,” have also been hits.
Along the way, the performer was stricken with an illness that, for a dancer, could hardly have been worse: rheumatoid arthritis. After many rounds with conventional medicine, she tried a strict diet and psychotherapy, which she claims enabled her to overcome it. “I really want people to go out there and not take no for an answer,” she says. “There’s always hope, I guess.”
McKechnie is delighted by the Democrats’ recent sweep of Congress, and “euphoric” about the women taking on leading political roles, particularly House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi. Her London project, “Over Here,” is a spoof that features the Andrews Sisters looking for a new “sister” to join the act. “I said, ‘I want a big swing number. I want to be sweating and out of breath.’ Me and my big mouth!” she says. And there is indeed a major dance number. As for the future, she optimistically cites the long career of actress Lillian Gish. “I see myself continuing as a healthy person and growing into parts, so I see no end.”