It’s 30 years since director and choreographer Michael Bennett, the man behind Broadway classic A Chorus Line, died aged 44. Donna McKechnie, a star of the show who went on to marry Bennett, recalls the unusual way he created the musical – and how it breathed life back into Broadway.
Still an admired Broadway dancer, McKechnie has been in London singing and dancing in the musical The Wild Party. She’s delighting audiences at an age when her contemporaries have swapped dancewear for something more comfortable.
Asked to recall the very beginnings of A Chorus Line under director Michael Bennett, she laughs.
“Michael said he wanted to do a show about dancers. I told him he needed to hurry and get the thing done if I was going to be in it – my career wasn’t going to last forever and I didn’t want to be on a walking cane! At the time I was around 32.”
McKechnie was involved in A Chorus Line from the beginning. “And if it isn’t quite like any other show, that’s because the way we developed it was so original. And ‘we’ means Michael and the dancers: it was always totally a dancers’ show.”
McKechnie and Bennett married in 1976, the year after A Chorus Line opened to huge acclaim and box office success. Although the marriage didn’t last, she still talks of him with affection and huge admiration for his talent.
“Michael knew he wanted to be in charge. A Chorus Line was his big directorial project, taking a realistic look at the dancer’s life he knew so well.
“Originally it was based on two extraordinary sessions of interviews with dancers all recorded on an old-fashioned tape-recorder. Those sessions changed all our lives.”
A Chorus Line is high-energy on stage but McKechnie recalls its unglamorous origins. The first of the late-night recordings were made at an exercise studio on 3rd Avenue Manhattan.
“We sat around in a circle and we talked about our lives, starting with Michael. There were three essential questions: say your name, say where you were born and why did you start dancing? And that set everybody off on their stories.”
Some of McKechnie’s own explanation of how she became a dancer is still in the show in the song The Music And The Mirror.
“When I hear it performed now I still recognise things I said more than 40 years ago. My father had been away in the military and at home as a young girl I used to dance around with my arms in the air as I thought of him.
“I used to envision dancing with an Indian chief and my mother saw me and decided to send me to dance class to be a ballerina. I loved it: Detroit wasn’t exactly full of culture so those classes saved my life I think.”
McKechnie says she didn’t find taping the interviews difficult. “For anyone like me who’d been in analysis it felt quite familiar.
“I’d undertaken group therapy and in a way the whole thing was therapeutic. In fact when I went along I didn’t expect to participate. I thought I was just there to help Michael feel comfortable.
“But as we all started to talk it was so exciting. I realised we didn’t know the half of what friends were holding inside or dealing with.
“And the amazing thing is that Michael then took the tapes to the Public Theater in New York to see if the boss Joe Papp thought we had a show. And after he’d heard only a few minutes Joe said yes. It really fit his agenda for the theatre – and he smelt a hit.”
Michael Riedel is theatre columnist for the New York Post. When he wrote about Broadway history in his book Razzle Dazzle he listened to some of the original Chorus Line tapes.
“At the start you hear Michael Bennett say he didn’t yet know if the project would be a play or a movie or a TV series. But even then he had the title A Chorus Line – which actually was the discarded name of a play he directed earlier.”
Riedel says Bennett’s show came at a crucial time for New York. “By the mid-1970s Broadway was starting to flounder and so was the city.
“The 1960s rock revolution had changed everything and new musicals were mostly doing mediocre business or they simply tanked. Times Square had become the preserve of pimps and prostitutes and drug-pushers.
“Many theatres were dark and the Shubert Organisation, which dominated the industry, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then this huge hit – which eventually ran 15 years – emerged from a small non-commercial theatre downtown.
“Somehow it caught the moment and when it transferred to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway people started to flock back to Times Square. It was the Hamilton of its day. I don’t think any show has ever been so vital to the New York economy.”
‘Choked with emotion’
McKechnie says in rehearsal the atmosphere remained intense. “Everybody on stage just gave and gave and gave. We were like siblings: there was a lot of resistance and a lot of competition, with Michael shaping and guiding.
“Even people who’d been in the workshops had to audition for Joe Papp and for the composer Marvin Hamlisch. Some of us were reading back our own lines so that was a strange moment!
“So finally we come to the first preview and the audience is faced with a very confessional show on a bare stage with just one white line across. It’s only at the end that the incredible lighting and the thrilling music created an irresistible climax as big hidden mirrors emerged from black velour.
“At the end there was near silence from the audience and we all thought they hated us. But they were choked with emotion and suddenly they just exploded.
“The show was hard to play both physically and emotionally: it was like running a marathon. There’s a line in the script which came from one of Michael’s original questions – what would you do if you can’t dance any more?
“No-one had an answer because most dancers are in denial about that and just don’t want to go there.
“It was an amazing thing to be part of but it became Chorus Line fever after a while and I knew I needed to get out and do something else.”
After the marriage break-up, McKechnie was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which threatened to end her career. She struggled back to health and in 1986 even rejoined the cast of A Chorus Line. She considers that her greatest personal victory.
The following year Bennett died of Aids. He’d been widely seen as the great Broadway choreographer of his generation and McKechnie thinks he could have gone on to even greater things.
“But I learned on Chorus Line to relish the moment you’re in as a performer because it can end any moment – especially for a dancer.
“I’ve done good shows before and since but to have been intimately involved in creating a classic and to have performed in it night after night – that’s what the little girl in Detroit, Michigan dreamed of.”
The Wild Party is on a The Other Place, London until 1 April.