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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews


By Jessica Branch

  TIME STEPS: My Musical Comedy Life By Donna McKechnie with Greg Lawrence (Simon & Schuster, 289 pp., $25)

Why isn't Donna McKechnie a cult idol? After all, her life is the stuff of showbiz legend, as her new autobiography copiously reveals. Raised in the heartland, McKechnie fell in love with dancing, dropped out of high school, and ran away to New York to follow her dream. In short order she developed a passion for musical theater and honed her acting and singing skills to become a genuine triple threat: She was in the Broadway launch of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" at the tender age of 18; featured as Kathy in "Company"'s Broadway premiere; and, in her career highlight, gave a Tony-winning performance as Cassie in the original production of "A Chorus Line" to rave reviews. Along the way, she rubbed elbows with scores of theater greats (think Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, Stephen Sondheim); racked up a couple of short-lived marriages - most notably to bisexual director/choreographer Michael Bennett - and overcame debilitating arthritis. The woman even starred in "Dark Shadows." And, with major Broadway revivals of both "Company" and "A Chorus Line" set to open this season, McKechnie's timing is impeccable, as always.

So why isn't McKechnie getting her iconic due in the collective consciousness? Her detailed 275-page, autobiography doesn't overtly offer an answer. It doesn't even posit the question - and therein the explanation may lie. McKechnie, now and throughout the book, casts herself not as a diva but as a perpetually freshfaced ingénue, always earnest, always plucky, always gosh-darn nice. Though she has plenty of legendary names to drop - Abe Burrows, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, and many more - she serves up no dish whatsoever. Evidently, she's never met a trouper she didn't like and she's met quite a few: In yet another good-girl move, she spends pages singing the praises of many lesser-knowns. Even the climactic mystery that should provide one of the book's strongest throughlines - why did Bennett and McKechnie, his muse and collaborator, actually marry? - derails through McKechnie's unwillingness to judge anyone but herself. She faithfully transcribes Bennett's fickleness and temperament, but never really out-and-out faults him, however damning the facts may seem.

But facts are just what McKechnie seems determined to offer up, with a side of self-analysis and no presumptions about others' motives. At its best, her approach provides a fascinating slice of Broadway history (especially for "A Chorus Line" fans, who get a real taste of the show's development) and a real-life psychological study of what heights ambition and low self-esteem can drive a young actress to scale. But McKechnie's careful refusal to dramatize her past, worthy though it is, also deglamorizes her tale. Interspersed with the showstopping highlights are months of disciplined hard work, bouts of depression, and the endless gypsy grind of finding somewhere to live, some show to work in, some way to pay for dance classes and therapy sessions. In the face of the grueling reality, McKechnie's resolute determination to stay grounded may not have made her a legend, but does suggest how she's been able to survive.

McKechnie still performs frequently, often in one of her autobiographical one-woman shows: See http://www.donnamckechnie/ for upcoming performances.


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