Across the street from Arena Stage, Donna McKechnie is having lunch at a table so cozy there’s barely enough room for two salads. Yet, for a brief moment, sitting there, she dances.
The chin drops. The left shoulder lifts. The torso twists slightly, and the shoulders work a quick combination. It’s over in three seconds — no music, just talking about dance. But while the rhythm lasts, it’s transporting.
McKechnie’s movements have been magical since she was a tempestuous teenager leaving her Michigan home to make her Broadway debut in 1961’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” She was director-choreographer Michael Bennett’s muse, the original Cassie in “A Chorus Line” and the poster child for Broadway dance when that singular-sensation show made Newsweek's cover in 1975.
No wonder the creative team of Arena Stage’s “Pajama Game,” which begins performances Oct. 27, is in awe at having McKechnie in the cast. The 1954 musical comedy, about a romance between a factory supervisor and a union leader, was Bob Fosse's breakthrough show, and McKechnie was Fosse’s lead in his 1987 “Sweet Charity” revival here at the National Theatre.
“It still hits me at times,” says Parker Esse, who is choreographing Arena’s revival. “The cast looks at me with huge grins. They know what I’m thinking. That doesn’t get old.”
McKechnie was recruited by director Alan Paul, who noticed that a supporting character named Mabel — a senior secretary in the factory’s executive office — had a notable soft-shoe number. Paul wanted someone who could bring style to the role, and when Esse spoke with McKechnie on the phone, “She asked that I not water down the choreography or hold back,” Esse recalls. “She said, ‘Make me dance. I want to dance.’ ”
“You can’t plan certain things,” McKechnie says, musing on how life has brought her to Arena, where she’ll turn 75 next month. She used to be more of a control freak; lightly taking on the salty tone of her “Company” castmate from 1970, she says, “Elaine Stritch said to me one time, ‘Just let life come to you for a minute and a half.’ I didn’t even know what that meant.”
She figured it out over a career that includes some of Broadway’s best-remembered 1960s and 1970s dance numbers. The first act of “Promises, Promises” climaxed with the delirious office holiday party song “Turkey Lurkey Time,” and on YouTube, you can still watch the swinging, rubbery McKechnie dancing to the Burt Bacharach melody at the 1969 Tony Awards. The hips shake, the neck bobs and the long legs kick like a ballerina’s — smooth, straight and high.
She also drove the “Tick Tock” romantic roundelay dance in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” — like “Promises,” a show choreographed by Bennett (they met dancing on the TV show “Hullabaloo”). Her next big musical was “A Chorus Line,” with McKechnie as Cassie, the former star who now just needs a job. Her explosive solo, “The Music and Mirror,” was the soul of the show, which swept the Tony Awards away from Fosse’s “Chicago” and earned McKechnie the leading actress Tony over “Chicago” stars Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon.
Is McKechnie among the last of a dying breed? This summer, Sylviane Gold wrote in Dance magazine, “Shows no longer produce marquee dancers, and it’s not just because AIDS robbed the theater of so much artistry. Apart from McKechnie and Tommy Tune, dancers have not become above-the-title performers.”
“The business has changed,” McKechnie acknowledges. If the 1960s and 1970s were dominated by Fosse and Bennett, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim, Broadway now is about blockbuster spinoffs, from “Frozen” and Harry Potter to the musical “Mean Girls,” trying out across town at the National Theatre.
“That’s just the CEOs up there talking,” McKechnie says, dismissively. And if they don’t make musicals for “people” anymore, as her dancer friend Juliet Prowse once groused to her, McKechnie is philosophical. “You’re not going to be able to sell the show unless you have a superstar. But then you look at shows like ‘Come From Away’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ So I don’t know if there’s a rule of thumb.”
“Come From Away” and “Dear Evan Hansen” are indeed hits without stars. They also don’t feature dancers. Again, McKechnie is optimistic. She loves the ballet crossover of Christopher Wheeldon’s “An American in Paris.” She touts the regional work of “Newsies” choreographer “Christopher Gattelli, who recruited her for the original “In Your Arms” at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2015. She insists that British director and choreographer Drew McOnie is going to be a star; she appeared in McOnie’s “The Wild Party” in London this year, and notes that he’s now in charge of the looming “King Kong” musical scheduled for Broadway next year. “Hamilton’s” Andy Blankenbuehler, London’s Stephen Mear, New York’s Lorin Latarro — “We’re going to be okay,” McKechnie says of the choreographic talent pool.
“A Chorus Line” so linked Mc-Kechnie and Bennett that they married in 1976 . . . and divorced, unhappily, in 1977. Bennett was bisexual — gay is actually the dominant view — and the lavish “Chorus Line” success that would catapult him to the ultra-glam showbiz drama “Dreamgirls” was something he wore flamboyantly, spending big during the brief marriage but driving a hard bargain in the divorce. “We had fears about personal intimacy,” McKechnie told the Miami Herald in 2011, “and we used each other as a fortress.” It was the second and final marriage for McKechnie, who never had children (and who still lives in Manhattan).
By 1978, McKechnie developed career-threatening rheumatoid arthritis. Getting out of bed was a chore, the pain was nearly unendurable and doctors unhelpfully recommended nothing but drugs for pain management. “People were saying, ‘It’s over. Forget it,’ ” McKechnie says. “I said it’s over when I kill myself maybe. But it’s not over.”
She found salvation through a 95-year-old doctor in New Jersey who saw patients only in the middle of the night and laid down strict dietary laws, an odyssey she details in her 2006 autobiography “Time Steps.” “The bottom line for me was — and still is — never let anyone dictate your destiny,” she says. “If I had listened to those doctors to take drugs, it would have been over. Over.”
McKechnie performed internationally in “A Chorus Line” until she was nearly 50, and then had a fallow period when work was hard to come by. As performers do, she put together a solo piece. “It terrified me,” McKechnie says. “I didn’t come to New York to be in a one-woman show. I came to do theater. But now I’m kind of spoiled.” She laughs. Playing a character in a musical, not just herself, she explains, “I can’t flirt with the audience.”
McKechnie’s charm is not diva-brand bedazzlement; it’s Midwestern sincerity and chorus line work ethic. Paul describes her as low-key, upbeat and collaborative. Esse reports that her dedication is an everyday lesson to a new generation of performers.
“She’s up for anything,” Esse says. “I know she’s in her apartment rehearsing these steps, because she comes in with them polished and ready, and with ideas about every detail.”
“Pajama Game” gives McKechnie another way to look at how dance’s role has changed. “When you had six weeks of rehearsal — and there was no air conditioning — you had boy dancers and girl dancers, boy singers and girl singers. So you had a lot in the chorus. And you had the stars, and the character roles. Jump to now, and look at our cast: It’s an ensemble. They have to have people who can do everything. That’s the big difference.” It’s true: The 1954 Broadway “Pajama Game” lists 38 people in the cast, including a dozen credited as “singer” and another dozen (including Shirley MacLaine) as “dancer.” Arena’s cast has 22 performers. The 2006 Broadway revival had 21.
McKechnie did not expect to be dancing in musicals at this stage of her life.
“I would have thought I’d be off spending summers in Europe, going with my girlfriends through river cruises or something,” McKechnie says. “But when I turned 70, everything started getting really busy. Work begets work.”
Dancers get dinged, and McKechnie has a bandaged right shoulder. “I’m gonna have to not raise my arm above my head for three days,” she says. “After 35, it’s all maintenance. After 65, it’s definitely all maintenance.”
But dancers soldier on. McKechnie describes Rivera, now 84 and touring with fellow Broadway legend Tommy Tune, 78. Audiences still crave a taste of Chita as Anita from “West Side Story.”
“So she does, ‘I like to be in Amer-i-ca,’ McKechnie says. “And she does a little shoulder, a little hip, a cha-cha-cha. And that’s it. And you were satisfied! You didn’t want to see her killing herself. I learned how to do that from watching her.” McKechnie has done the same with her “Chorus Line” signature, “The Music and the Mirror.” “A couple hips, a turn, and people say, ‘You brought it back to me.’” She laughs, delighted. “And I did.”
The Pajama Game, Oct. 27-Dec. 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Ave. SW. Tickets $50-$120, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.