Interview with A Chorus Line star Donna McKechnie about The Wild Party
Broadway icon Donna McKechnie has a long and established career on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed around the world in productions such as Company, Promises, Promises and of course, A Chorus Line. Having created the lead role of Cassie in Michael Bennett's original production back in 1975 it's a role that continues to introduce her to the next generation of musical theatre fans, from the now-iconic read dress to her immaculate seven minute solo show-stopper “The Music and the Mirror.”
Her next challenge comes in the form of Michael John LaChiusa's impressive yet fiendishly difficult musical The Wild Party which is receiving its professional London premiere later this month as it becomes the first show to reopen The Other Palace in Victoria, the new name for The St James Theatre under the new ownership of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show, which is based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March, originally ran on Broadway back in 2000 where it famously become the second musical that season to be based on the same source material. Whilst debate rages amongst theatre fans over their favourite Wild Party, LaChiusa's score is incredibly intricate and musically powerful.
“I love his music!”, Donna comments as we meet during the break of rehearsals in south London on a bitterly cold January afternoon. “You don't know how he got to where he did but it feels like it can't be any other way. It communicates things to me. Just to break down seven parts of harmony, you get a build, it's very theatrical. He does have buttons – it's very showbiz, it's a total joy.”
Sipping lemon tea and effusing a gentle and irresistible charm I have pages of questions for Ms McKechnie and with a career as expansive and interesting I'm fairly unsure where to even begin. I start by asking about her involvement in this exciting new production headed by Olivier Award-winner Drew McOnie who is both choreographing and directing, a skill with which McKechnie is obviously well acquainted.
“I was going to Steps in New York and I literally bumped into Frances Ruffelle who is playing Queenie. She told me that she was going back to London to do a show that she thought I would be right for. I kind of said 'okay call me when you get back!' It was one of those things where I had forgotten about it, and then I got a call a week later. I skyped for the very first time in my life – I actually skyped on my computer with Drew. I had googled him and I was so impressed by what he has done, but to meet him on Skype for the first time – his ideas were so wonderful and artistic. In thirty seconds I knew he was a little genius”.
Having worked extensively for theatrical geniuses throughout the ages from the incomparable director and choreographer Michael Bennett to director-producer Hal Prince and the Abominable Showman himself David Merrick, McKechnie is certainly qualified to recognise talent.
“I think he's creating a new language of movement with this kind of piece” she says of Drew. “It's beautiful, he uses motion that keeps the story moving but focuses on what they're doing. It's not just a style of Vaudeville, he takes it to a different level, I just love how he is putting it together. He's very wonderful about the individual, I love working this way, he's spontaneous and very organic. He allows everyone to contribute and bounce back and forth, it's my favourite way of working. That's how Michael Bennett worked, not everyone likes to work that way but I was very happy to see that he was okay with jumping in. He has a vision – I told him on the first day 'I'm here to serve your vision'. It's always a sensitive thing, how to collaborate and make it work.”
Anyone who has seen Drew's most recent work on shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Jekyll and Hyde and the new musical Strictly Ballroom will certainly attest to the fact that he's a unique and important talent and Donna could hardly hold in her praise for both his energy and style of working.
“I'm just mad for him and how he's working. What I love is that he is not precious, I've worked with wonderful choreographers who had to figure it all out and you just had to stand there and wait instead of jumping in and working with them to fix things. He's not precious about it, and that's what's good about a young artist – I consider everyone young from where I'm sitting! He has an intuitive sense, he's a dancer and a performer. I'm learning a lot.”
In terms of the collaborative process itself McKechnie's history of forming A Chorus Line alongside Bennett, Hamlisch, Kleban, Kirkwood and Dante as well as the original cast certainly has remained with her throughout her career. With new pieces of musical theatre commanding so much money, the development process is rarely as thorough or extensive, something McKechnie is quick to recognise.
“The process, the proper process is too quickly eliminated” she comments. “It's happened in the States over the years, all theatre and Broadway shows. They're so expensive now there's a lot put on the actor to just bring the work, you miss those certain steps of the process and holding it in each step of the way. It all comes together but I always think there's something lost. To be able to have ideas and exercise them, throw it out and try something else, I think that's what he's so smart about it. We have to put it together and get it up, then we'll go back and finesse. I fitted with that immediately and I'm very grateful.”
Donna's character in The Wild Party, Dolores is described in the original Moncure March poem as “a singer without a voice” who has a dagger lurking in each eye, walking with a slink “mixed with a swagger”. Originally created on Broadway by Eartha Kitt, it's a role that is certainly not without its vocal and dramatic demands, and I was keen to hear about how she was discovering this difficult figure.
“This is what we talked about – every character will find their own journey” she explains. “My character is fun, you first ask why am I here? What's the history that's not in the text? What has she been doing for the past forty years and what are her relationships, and why this particular night? There's a journey that she's been on before she gets there. I'm in a discovery mode as we go – all the things I project onto Queenie are really me, I see myself in her and I'm projecting a little bit. In order to face ourselves and say certain things that are hard for us, you kind of see it in other people and keep a distance.”
As a true ensemble show it's a difficult balance between the often overwhelming nature of the characters on display, their musical moments and managing the audience's own relationship with the narrative.
“Drew is very conscientious about focusing a character's colour along the way, crystallizing the human elements of each character so we don't get repetition and confusion about what's going on.” Donna explains. “It's daunting to tell this story with so many characters, it's very wordy – great language and really great writing.”
Returning to London as a performer is a natural journey for McKecknie and was an obvious draw for the production as a whole. “I was brought over by David Merrick to open Promises, Promises at the Prince of Wales in 1969” she remembers. “That was fantastic because I'd never been to Europe. That was the first time English audiences had seen contemporary choreography by Michael Bennett, a contemporary score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it was stunning in New York and they really flipped over here with the stage dancing. Every opportunity to come back and work over here I jumped at – it wasn't easy then. Hal Prince brought the entire American company of Company at Her Majesty's so that was theatre history in the making.”
I'm tentative about asking too much about A Chorus Line as I'm aware it's a topic that must have dominated McKechnie's life for over thirty years. I broach the subject by asking outright if she ever gets sick of talking about it.
“I used to!” she laughs immediately. “I used to call it the albatross around my neck. I started resenting it a little bit, not consciously. Long after I left the show, as an actor you want to keep reinventing yourself in many ways, but I got over that. It is the gift that keeps giving. I got off at one station the other day and this theatre musician came up to me and said 'thank you' for the show – he was over here doing musical theatre training. I guess what I'm saying is that the show is a gift, the star power of that show opens and keeps opening doors for me. The show has played in over 35 countries and it's always being done somewhere.”
With YouTube and social media providing easy and accessible routes for new fans to rediscover older shows and original fans able to re-watch classic moments of theatre history we agree it's a topic that is never going to die.
“Who would have thought – every Thanksgiving I see that video”, Donna laughs, referring to her performance of “Turkey Lurkey Time” at the Tony Awards which is constantly shared across the internet. “It's wonderful that people are doing all that choreography in their bedrooms.”
Despite being so much a part of theatre history McKechnie is certainly part of its future and she is aware of the significance of creating this bold show in the brand new The Other Palace Theatre.
“I call it the great unspoken in the piece and it's the great humanity” she explains, referring to the musical itself and what it can mean to a 2017 audience. “It starts in this wild party and it comes down to a place of real understanding – human experience and the human condition. It's a great entertainment, it's about a particular era of music and a time in New York City. It's about relationships and it's brilliantly written – it's a great total piece of musical theatre. It's highly entertaining and very, very funny.”
The Wild Party runs at The Other Palace from 11 February 2017.