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In the theater, a journeyman dancer is referred to as a gypsy. If there ever was a candidate for queen of those gypsies, Donna McKechnie could certainly fill the bill. The petite brunette has had the distinction of being directed by several of the stage's most prominent dance masters (notably Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, to whom she was briefly married). She has made her mark in groundbreaking musicals and earned high praise for her acting and singing in revivals of classic shows. While she may not be well-known outside of select audiences, those who have been privileged to see her perform won't soon forget her sparkling theatricality and dynamic moves. In a career that has spanned more than 40 years, McKechnie remains at the top of her game.
Raised in Detroit, Michigan, Donna McKechnie had what she terms a typically dysfunctional upbringing. To escape her unhappy home life, the youngster sought refuge at the movie theatres. Like many young women, she was impressed by the film "The Red Shoes" (1948) and decided to pursue a career in dance. As a teenager, she fled to NYC and auditioned for the American Ballet Theatre, landing a spot in the corps de ballet. Work in holiday shows at Radio City Music Hall helped to pay the bills until McKechnie landed a spot in the chorus of a touring company of "West Side Story." In 1961, she was tapped for her first chorus role on Broadway in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," choreographed by Bob Fosse. Following a national tour of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (in which she had the ingenue role of Philia), McKechnie landed in Los Angeles and a job as a choreographic assistant on the Patty Duke vehicle "Billie" (1965). She then became one of the featured dancers on the NBC variety series "Hullabaloo" where she met a man who would be an important influence in her life and career -- Michael Bennett. Moving away from a career as a dancer, Bennett was hired to choreograph the Broadway musical "A Joyful Noise" (1966) and hired McKechnie as one of the chorus dancers. When the production acquired a new director during out-of-town tryouts, McKechnie was dismissed. She bounced back landing a role in the short-lived musical "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N" (1968). Bennett once again tapped her for a prominent spot in "Promises, Promises" (also 1968), which gave the dancer-actress her first real featured spot in the Act One closing number called "Turkey Lurkey Time."
Now garnering attention for her stage work, McKechnie branched out to accept a role on the popular Gothic daytime serial "Dark Shadows," essaying the recurring roles of Amanda Harris and Olivia Corey in 1969. Dancing remained her strongest suit, so when Bennett once again tapped her for a featured spot in the landmark concept musical "Company" (1970), she quickly accepted. Although there were initial difficulties in finding the right tone for her dance solo ("Tick Tock"), it eventually gelled and McKechnie became part of theater history in the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical about contemporary relationships. She moved on to portray Ivy Smith ("Miss Turnstiles") in a short-lived revival of "On the Town" (1971) and then had her sole feature role (to date), as the Rose in the uneven musical adaptation of "The Little Prince" (1974).
McKechnie aided Bennett and his assistant Bob Avian in getting various chorus dancers to open up about their lives and experiences. The sessions were taped and the material was eventually shaped by librettists Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood into the award-winning hit musical "A Chorus Line" (1975). Although she claims that most of her story is reflected in the character of Maggie (whose parents are unhappily married), McKechnie was cast as Cassie, the former gypsy who had enjoyed some success as a featured player. It was not hard to miss the parallels between the careers of her onstage character and her own life, though. In a stunning showstopping number -- "The Music and the Mirror" -- McKechnie's Cassie makes her plea to be hired for the job. Her bravura performance earned that year's Tony Award as Lead Actress in a Musical (one of nine total earned by the show) and had the effect of vaulting the performer out of the chorus forever.
While she never became a full-fledged star, McKechnie did make attempts to parlay her newfound status. She made guest appearances on TV series like "Cheers" and "Fame" and acted in the satirical telefilm "Twirl" (NBC, 1981), but by 1986, she was back playing Cassie on Broadway. Bob Fosse tapped her for the lead in the national tour of "Sweet Charity" (during which he collapsed and died) and McKechnie went on to star in regional productions of "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Can-Can." There was also a 1993 concert reunion of the original cast of "Company," a brief stint in the Off-Broadway musical "Annie Warbucks," and a return to Broadway in a stage version of "State Fair" in 1995. In between, McKechnie began honing a one-woman show, "Inside the Music," which was a sort of autobiographical musical journey.
Scoring a personal triumph, McKechnie portrayed Sally Durant Plummer, one of the dancers returning for a once-in-a-lifetime reunion, in the Paper Mill Playhouse staging of "Follies" in 1998. Although there were rumors, the show did not transfer to Broadway as expected. The singer-dancer remained busy, though, appearing in various venues throughout the USA and tackling several of the key musical theater roles (e.g., Desiree in "A Little Night Music," Mama Rose in "Gypsy") all the while working on her own one-person show. Appearing in an abbreviated version of "Inside the Music" at an NYC nightclub, McKechnie received rapturous reviews, including one from Rex Reed in The New York Observer (August 6, 2001) who posed the unanswerable question: "Why do producers of Broadway musicals still post open-call audition notices in Back Stage that scream 'Wanted: a Donna McKechnie type!' when the real thing is right under their noses-here, now and better than ever?"
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