Broadway Luminary Donna McKechnie on Why She's Still Dancing in Her 70s
Triple threat Donna McKechnie is cherished for her Tony Award–winning portrayal of Cassie in the 1975 musical
A Chorus Line. Her featured number, “The Music and the Mirror,” sheds a spotlight on the hopes and dreams of a struggling dancer, willing to return to the chorus for a job doing what she loves. McKechnie has spent her more than 50-year career doing what she loves—dancing, singing and acting. The Broadway darling has grown up onstage, from her first gig as a teen to her latest: Starting October 27 she plays Mabel in Arena Stage’s production of The Pajama Game in Washington, DC.
Have you done
Pajama Game before?
This is my first. I love the show and was thrilled when choreographer Parker Esse called me. I see connections with my career generationally in the script. When I came to New York, Bob Fosse was my first choreographer. I was in shows that original writer/director George Abbott directed.
Will you be dancing?
I play Mabel, the secretary and mother hen, but Parker said he was going to expand the dancing. I’ll be 75 this month and I’m proud of it. I want to be a living example for people to keep dancing and moving. I take ballet class five times a week—if you don’t, you lose it. I do the whole barre. If you do a ballet barre correctly, I can’t think of anything harder.
A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett had a group of show dancers tell their life stories. Are you Cassie?
Cassie was the most fictionalized character of them all. Michael used the experience of a dancer he knew who went to Hollywood and didn’t get much work. She came back to audition for Michael in the chorus. He told her, “I can’t have you in rehearsal. Looking at you I see failure.”
The solo is Cassie’s journey. It’s about someone trying to find her dance identity again, find her confidence, her spirit, a reason to go on. The dance is very static because when you walk into a studio and haven’t danced in a while, you have to try something. You look at your line in the mirror. It’s very narcissistic: You’re invisible if you don’t see yourself in the mirror.
A Chorus Line is about a group of dancers auditioning. Tell us about your first audition.
It was for winter stock. They were doing The King and I, Bitter Sweet and Guys and Dolls. I remember going to the Cass Theatre in Detroit when I was in my senior year of high school with one of my dancing girlfriends. I said, “I don’t want to audition, but I want to see what it’s like.” We got there and she gave me a leotard and, not having any idea what I was doing, I went up and learned the combination.
I discovered that I loved this kind of choreography on my body. And being the snooty little ballerina, it was all so different. When the director called me and asked me to do a little dance tour in the South—one-night stands—starting with a four-week rehearsal in New York, I asked my parents and they said no. I had my first teenage fight with them. I really thought it was a life-or-death situation. There would never be another opportunity. I ran away from home, literally. Then my father came and brought me back. One of my teachers spoke to my parents and said, “Let her go. She’ll find out how hard it is and come home.”