Why Bob Fosse Held a 20-Year Grudge Against Donna McKechnie | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky Why Bob Fosse Held a 20-Year Grudge Against Donna McKechnie

Plus, which parts of Donna's life inspired A Chorus Line and what happened when she stood up to Hal Prince.

Bob Fosse and Donna McKechnie

I’m on my way to San Francisco for a show deconstructing 70s variety shows. Holy cow, there are so many to choose from! Here’s an amuse bouche from The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. Enjoy!

@sethrudetsky I’m deconstructing 70s Variety Shows Thurs/Friday at Feinstein’s in San Francisco #feinsteinssf #SethRudetsky #BradyBunch ♬ original sound - Seth Rudetsky

Listen, if you want to see Hal Linden disco dancing, Carol Brady's devastation because Mike might be cheating with Charo, and their reconciliation, during which he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” please come to Feinstein’s at the Nikko Thursday and Friday night! Tickets are available here.

Right after San Francisco, I fly back to Provincetown for shows with Chita Rivera, Rachel Bay Jones, and Lillias White. Tickets for those shows are here. Speaking of Ptown, I had the best time in my shows with Donna McKechnie last weekend. Talk about still got it! Her voice was incredible.

Seth,Rudetsky, Donna McKechnie, and Mark Cortale

We first talked about her childhood, how she moved to New York when she was still a teenager, and how she got her first Broadway show before she was 20! Donna was in the original cast of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Donna’s first Broadway show won the Pulitzer price and ran for four years on Broadway. That's such a contrast to how her A Chorus Line castmate, Priscilla Lopez, began her Broadway career. Priscilla was cast in three Broadway shows: Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Her First Roman, and Henry, Sweet Henry. Priscilla told me that after being in all those shows, she only performed on Broadway a total of two and a half months!

Anyway, Donna remembers rehearsing the song “Paris Original” for three days with choreographer Hugh Lambert. Day after day, it wasn’t getting any better. The next thing she knew, Hugh was out, and they had a new choreographer. Bob Fosse! Fosse kept one of Hugh’s dances in the show so Hugh was able to keep his credit as choreographer and get paid. Fosse's credit was for “musical staging." Donna thought that was very kind of Fosse and I also say brava!

Donna was also so impressed with how Fosse treated the dancers. He told them that even though they didn’t have official character names, they needed to be characters. Each dancer had to write a biography with their background and who they were as people. When they came onstage, they had to know from where they had come. When they left, they had to know where they were going. While this was Acting 101, it was not how dancers were normally trained. Under Fosse, they weren’t just there for sassy dance moves!

As the show began performances, Donna began to see that the people who could act and sing could have more longevity on Broadway. She thought that if she took acting and singing lessons, she could perform on the Great White Way longer than a typical Broadway dancer. She started studying, and Fosse soon called her to join the new musical Pleasures and Palaces. Donna told him she was hoping to start getting principle roles and wasn’t available to join the chorus. Fosse called her again to join Sweet Charity and, again, she said no. This second phone call happened in 1965. Well, Fosse did not call again until 1986 when he asked her to play Charity in the national tour. It only took him twenty years to forgive Donna for saying no twice. Also, he only called again after seeing Donna play Cassie in A Chorus Line five times. Fosse said wanted to make sure she had the stamina. She did!

Donna also remembers that when she was in How To Succeed, Fosse’s assistant was Gwen Verdon. When Donna played Charity twenty years later, Gwen was the one to teach her the role. Donna loved learning every nuance, subtext, and dance move. I showed her the following video of her performing with Bebe Neuwirth. Donna loved this video, saying she had never seen it! Watching, she told me she was able to see everything Gwen taught her.  Bebe won the Tony Award for playing Nickie in 1986. She also understudied both Debbie Allen and Chita Rivera, who each played Charity on the national tour in the 60s. Here are Donna and Bebe! 

Donna’s acting and singing classes paid off! She soon was cast in two national tours: A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To The Forum (as Philia) and Call Me Madam. Amazingly, the Call Me Madam tour starred the original star, Ethel Merman! Donna told us that they gave Donna's character an extra dance number because Donna could dance. As she was rehearsing, Merman, who Donna had not yet met, walked in, looked at Donna rehearsing the new choreography and said, “Who’d she have to f*ck to get two numbers?”

Nice to meet you, Ms. Merman?

When performances first began, Donna remembers the stage manager coming backstage with a note from Ms. Merman. Donna was so excited. She would do anything to please Ethel. The note read, “Don’t sweat so much. It’s distracting”. Okay

We also talked about the TV show Hullabaloo, the first TV variety show to feature contemporary music. Watch!

It is so the definition of groovy, and it's also where Donna first met Michael Bennett. Michael was also a dancer on the show, but he dreamed of being a choreographer. When he told people he was going to become a choreographer, everyone believed him because he was so charismatic. 

Donna was then cast in the Bacharach & David musical Promises, Promises in a small featured role as one of the secretaries. When the show began out-of-town tryouts, the director had to cut at least a half hour. Her fellow secretaries were fired, one by one. Donna felt she was the next to go as this all coincided with the Act One finale, “Turkey Lurkey,” laying an egg. The number takes place at an office Christmas party where the slightly drunk secretaries do a dance they make up on the spot. 

Donna says that Michael always came from a truthful place and had choreographed the number as if real-life, untalented, secretaries had really made up their own dance. Donna remembered that as they did the less-than-good choreography, the audience member's faces resembled those in the audience during “Springtime For Hitler.” However, as the song bombed, Michael ran around the back of the audience saying, “I can fix this! I can fix this!” That night, he and Bob Avian stood in front of their hotel mirror and choreographed a new version. Donna, whose job was on the line, suddenly found herself in the center of the number. 

The new number was a showstopper and it saved her job! Their performance on the Tony Awards is so fantastic to the untrained eye, but Donna says it nearly ended in disaster. Turns out, the stage on which the number was performed was polished. Donna said it’s a number where you really have to bear down and find your balance, but the polish made that impossible. Everyone was on the verge of slipping and she said the tempo was slightly fast! She told us to pay special attention to the end where everyone weaves in and out of each other. She remembers passing people who all had terrified, wide eyes. It’s one of the most thrilling Tony Award performances ever! Watch.

Donna McKechnie and Seth Rudetsky watching Turkey Lurkey Time

A little while after Promises, Promises, Donna got quite the thrill when Hal Prince called her to his office. She brought her audition songbook and got her hands on the script of the show Hal was about to direct and produce, Company. When she got to his office, he didn’t have her read or sing right away. Instead, he started describing the show. He talked about “Steve” Sondheim, who was writing the score. He told her Boris Aronson was designing the set, and showed her the model, pointing out where the elevators were. Donna was getting more and more anxious, so she asked if she could get to the actual audition. Hal said, “Audition? You have the job!”

Donna was thrilled to finally be offered a role, but then found out there was a catch. You see, Hal really wanted Michael to choreograph and there were no dancers yet in the cast. Donna said she learned she was the bait to get Michael to say yes. It worked! However, her number did not work. 

In Act Two, Bobby and April spend a night in bed and Kathy dances while they making love. Donna said the dance was to some funky music which completely clanked. The number was definitely going to be cut. Donna really wanted it to stay, so she started pitching ideas. She told Sondheim that instead of a funky song, could they use one of the songs already in the show like “Someone is Waiting?” Donna still can’t believe she pitched Sondheim an idea for his own show. Sondheim decidedly told her, “No reprises in this show!” Well, that didn’t stop her. She continued, “It’s not really a reprise because there won’t be any sung words. It could be the melody alone played by the orchestra.” Hal and Sondheim were not convinced. Hal sent Donna to her dressing room because it was half hour, but Donna refused. She said she wasn’t leaving the stage until they promised they would make it work. Amazingly, Hal told her he would. They did indeed make it work, and the number became a showstopper!

Donna then told us that the entire Company cast was invited to “Steve’s” house to hear his new show. They all sat around while Sondheim played the piano and sang entire score to Follies! How cool is that? Years later, Donna played Sally and got incredible reviews. Here she is with Kaye Ballard discussing that magical production.

Of course, we discussed the brilliant A Chorus Line. Donna remembers the first presentation of the show running four hours long. Apparently, it was so depressing. She remembers each dancer trying to prove that they had the worst childhood. Eventually, the show got better and better and finally became the gem we know today. 

What many people don’t know is that the role of Cassie isn’t really based on Donna. Yes, like Cassie, Donna stopped two shows cold (Promises, Promises and Company), but she didn’t go to L.A. to make it as an actress. Donna did say there was someone like that who Michael knew, a dancer who made a film that didn’t do well. When this dancer was back in NY, she auditioned for The Milliken Breakfast Show. This show was in an industrial factory for a fabric company and would feature big production numbers with lots of Broadway chorus dancers. Even though she was good, Michael did not cast her. He said that if he did, every time he would look at her, he would see failure. This wasn't to say that she was a failure, but that she would represent trying to achieve something and not obtaining it. Michael’s real life decision coincided with what happened to Cassie in the original version of A Chorus Line. At the end of the show, Cassie isn't cast. As Donna told us, Michael always came from truth and, in real life, he didn’t cast “Cassie.” 

The show started performances and, although audiences loved it, there was no standing ovation. One night, Neil Simon came with his wife Marsha Mason. They told Michael that Cassie had to be cast. If she’s not cast at the end of the show, then nobody wins. The next night, Cassie became one of the dancers cast and A Chorus Line got a standing ovation! 

P.S. Just because the role of Cassie wasn’t really based on Donna's life, that doesn’t mean her story isn’t in the show in some way. Donna has some real quotes from tape sessions that inspired the Montages. A lot of what Maggie says and sings is what Donna said in those tape sessions. One example is a lyric in "Montage: Mother." It goes, "Listen to your mother, those stage and movie people got there because they’re special!" 

As for the number “The Music & The Mirror,” when it was first being done, it tanked. Donna told me she realized that her experience with Michael always was that the first version of any dance never worked. After the first version, he would figure out how to do it much better. When “The Music & The Mirror” was first performed, Donna both sang and dance alongside so did a bunch of boys. It was like a Vegas number! Even though it wasn’t working, it stayed in the show. Michael really wanted her to have a featured number, but it was not well-received. Donna told him he was "killing [her] with kindness," meaning while he was trying so hard to feature her, he was making her perform in a number that was a clunk! Finally, Michael got rid of the boys and it became the solo we all know. 

At the end of the seven-minute number, Donna has to do a bunch of double pirouettes. She asked Michael why those moves were at the end as she was so tired by that point. Quite frankly, Donna didn’t know if she could make it through them. Michael told her, “That’s what I want. I want the audience to be nervous for you.” 

I guess he wanted to show how determined Cassie was by making her continue dancing on the brink of a breakdown. Brava? Of course, Donna’s brink of a breakdown is called incredible dancing.

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