The story of Donna McKechnie’s life reads like the script for a dramatic musical. A star of one of the most celebrated shows in the history of the American musical theater — “A Chorus Line” — she went from a Tony Award to a medical diagnosis that threatened to cancel her career. Her life is the focus of her cabaret show, “My Musical Comedy Life,” which she is bringing to South Bend’s Palais Royale at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 for its Midwest debut. Not only will the evening include the showtunes most associated with Ms. McKechnie but also her own story of battling rheumatoid arthritis — and winning the battle.
Born in Pontiac, Mich., she began ballet classes at age 5, dropped out of high school at 16 against her parents’ objections and went to New York to pursue a career, no easy decision for a teenager in the mid-1950s. “Running away just wasn’t done,” she said. “It was a horrible experience for my parents. My father came to New York and brought me back home but my dance teacher said ‘Let her go and do this. She’s responsible.’ My mom was always my champion.” She headed back to Manhattan and, within five years, was on Broadway in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” where she met choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife, dancer/actress Gwen Verdon, who was the dance captain. “My show is entertainment,” said the award-winning performer during a recent telephone call from her home in New York. “It also is a way to show the audience the people I have been luck to work with who are not here anymore.” Among these undoubtedly are Fosse and Verdon and Michael Bennett, creator and director of “A Chorus Line” who was a guiding force in her life and career and, briefly, her husband. Musical theater fans may be aware that the characters in “A Chorus Line” were compiled from stories shared by dancers during intense hours of group interactions with Bennett. Was McKechnie’s Cassie a mirror of her own life? “There are at least six lines in the show that came from me,” she said with a laugh. Stressing the importance of having workshopped the show several times in advance of the final product, something not usual today because of the cost, she noted “Michael tried many things and allowed us the luxury of making mistakes and going on. It was a unique experience of having so many people working together.” Four years after her 1976 triple win (Tony, Drama Desk and Theater World Awards) as Cassie, McKechnie was disagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and told she would never walk again, let alone dance. “Arthritis doctors didn’t think you could cure it,” McKechnie recalled. “I couldn’t bear the idea of drugs and nurses so I found a nutritionist and, with kind of an holistic approach, through food and behavior, I walked standing upright after six months and, in two years, was dancing again.” Since then, she has never stopped, with productions of “Follies,” “Company,” “Promises, Promises,” “State Fair” (which she played in the South Bend Morris Auditorium) and many others, some musical, some not, some old and some new. “You never know if something is going to land,” she said, referring to projects that may or may not be headed to production. “I can’t live with the frustration, I have to move forward. My show has been my mainstay since last October.” Success in London and Australia was important in knowing it would work. “I have learned not to count on anything,” said the talented performer. “I just want to put the show up and have a wonderful time.”
“MY MUSICAL COMEDY LIFE” will feature highlights from Ms. McKechnie’s career including “The Music and The Mirror” from “A Chorus Line.” She will do a meet-and-greet autograph session after the show and her autobiography, “Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life,” will be available for sale. Tickets are $30; $25 for students and senior citizens. Call 235-1910.