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Donna McKechnie

Donna McKechnie

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: November 16, 1942 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Pontiac, Michigan, USA Profession: dancer, singer, actor, dance teacher, choreographer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

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...

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?"

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
2.
 Twirl (1981) Louise Jordan
3.
 Little Prince, The (1974) Rose
8.
 Little Mermaid, The (1987) Anemone
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Raised in Detroit, Michigan
:
As a teenager, ran away from what she terms a "dysfunctional family" and moved to NYC to join the ballet
:
Hired for the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre
:
Appeared in holiday stage shows at Radio City Music Hall in NYC
:
Toured as a chorus dancer in "West Side Story"
1961:
Broadway debut as dancer in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"; first experience working with Bob Fosse (who choreographed) and Gwen Verdon (who served as dance captain)
1963:
Toured as Philia in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"
1965:
Credited as choreography assistant on the feature "Billie", starring Patty Duke
:
Was a regular dancer on "Hullaballo" (NBC); first meeting with Michael Bennett who was one of the male dancers on the show
1966:
Hired by choreographer Bennett as a chorus dancer for the musical "A Joyful Noise"; fired when Dore Schary replaced the original director during the out-of-town tryout
1967:
Appeared on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In"
1968:
Had featured role in the short-lived George Abbott-directed musical "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N"
1968:
Was a featured dancer in the hit musical "Promises, Promises", choreographed by Bennett; was one of a trio of dancers featured in the Act One closing number "Turkey Lurkey Time"
:
Toured in "Call Me Madam", starring Ethel Merman; played the Princess
1969:
Had recurring role on the popular Gothic ABC daytime serial "Dark Shadows"
1970:
Played Kathy in the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical "Company"; had featured solo "Tick Tock" choreographed by Bennett; also appeared in Los Angeles production
1971:
Co-starred as Ivy Smith ("Miss Turnstiles") in a revival of "On the Town", featuring Bernadette Peters, Phyllis Newman and Remark Ramsay
1972:
London stage debut reprising Kathy in "Company"
1973:
Appeared in and choreographed the one-night only benefit production "Sondheim: A Musical Tribute"
:
Assisted Bob Avian and Michael Bennett in taping dancers' recollections and stories that would eventually form the basis for "A Chorus Line"
1974:
Portrayed the Rose in the film version of "The Little Prince", directed by Stanley Donen
1975:
Created signature role of Cassie, a chorus dancer who had enjoyed some success as a featured player and is now back on the audition circuit, in the long-running, award-winning "A Chorus Line"; won Tony Award
1976:
Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis; revealed condition in a 1986 interview with <i>The New York Times</i> after she had recovered from it by altering her diet and seeing a psychologist
1979:
Had rare non-musical stage role in "Wine Untouched"
1981:
Acted in the satiric TV-movie "Twirl" (NBC)
1982:
Made guest appearance on "Cheers" (NBC)
:
Had recurring role on the syndicated series "Fame"
1986:
Returned to "A Chorus Line" on Broadway and once again essayed role of Cassie; also played role in Japan
1987:
Headlined a tour "Sweet Charity", directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse
:
Played Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun"; performed in California and in Florida
:
Performed in "Can-Can" in London between gigs as Annie Oakley
1993:
Reunited with most of the original cast for a concert staging of "Company" in Long Beach, California and in NYC
1993:
Appeared in the ill-fated "Annie Warbucks", a sequel to the 1977 hit "Annie", based on the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie"
:
Debuted one-person stage show "Inside the Music"
:
Played Phyllis Stone in a BBC radio production of "Follies"
:
Toured in and then co-starred on Broadway in stage musical version of "State Fair"
1998:
Garnered praise for portrayal of Sally Durant Plummer in the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of "Follies"
2000:
Appeared as Lela McGrath in the stage musical "Ginger", a biography of Ginger Rogers; reprised role in London workshop in fall 2001
2000:
Played Desiree Armfeldt in Massachusetts staging of "A Little Night Music"
2000:
Cast as Lotte in the L.A. Reprise! production of "Mack and Mabel"
2001:
Played Mama Rose in "Gypsy" at the Great Lakes Theater Festival
2001:
Performed in "An Evening With Donna McKechnie: My Musical Comedy Life", a version of her one-woman show at Arci's Place in NYC
2001:
Starred in the stage musical "Sheba", based on "Come Back, Little Sheba", performed at Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre & Museum
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

HB Studio: New York , New York -

Notes

Some sources list 1940 as the year of Ms. McKechnie's birth.

In response to an query about the best advice she'd ever receieved, Donna McKechnie replied:

"Bob Fosse told me never to compete with anybody else ... just yourself. Always ask yourself if you can do better and if you can, then do it and not just as a performer as a person also. Keep trying to be better in every way -- and then he said 'Save your Money!'" --From Playbill.com, September 1995.

"I don't leap as high, and I don't do as many turns," she concedes, "but I'd like to think I've more than made up for that with the wisdom and experience I've gained along the way." --Donna McKechnie quoted in The Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 2001.

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Michael Bennett. Director, choreographer. Married in December 1976; divorced in 1977; had worked with him on numerous shows, including "A Chorus Line"; married him despite knowing he was bisexual; became reacquainted in 1983 after six years of not speaking; he died of complications from AIDS in 1987.
companion:
Fred Astaire. Dancer, singer, actor. "dated" a couple of times while she was appearing in "A Chorus Line" in L.A.

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