EVERY WEEK A NEW STAR! bragged Singular Sensations, composer/music director Glen Roven's series of intimate conversations and songs from "legendary" Broadway stars at the Village Theater [158 Bleecker between Sullivan and Thompson]. Dancer extraordinaire Donna McKechnie, Tony-winner for A Chorus Line, was be in the catbird seat this week [November 10-16, 2003]. She follows the unstoppable Carol Channing, appearing through Sunday. [Miss Channing is preparing to hit the road again -- No! Not in that show, but a one-woman revue she'll unveil soon in Las Vegas before taking to the road.]

Roven said he wanted to provide "the kind of warm setting which would allow the performers to explore in front of a live audience their journeys on the road to stardom. I want them to be themselves."
But they are stars! Can they ever just be themselves?

The format is scripted to a degree, but informal and anything can happen. The idea is for the stars to reveal candid moments and recollections of their past, vast experiences -- and, as McKechnie explains, "do a few songs and dances associated with our careers. There'll be reflections and stories about how things were put together on shows in the days of out-of-town tryouts. Not everything that was a success started out that way. Believe me!"

Her plan is to perform, among others, "A Secretary Is Not A Toy," from her Broadway debut, How To Succeed in Business..., choreographed by Bob Fosse and directed by Abe Burrows; "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" from Company; "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises, Promises; "Buddy's Eyes" from Follies; "Inside the Music," the first number that Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban wrote for ACL and which was cut; and a tribute to Gwen Verdon, one of her mentors.

But even in such relaxing circumstances, there's pressure. "How do you follow Carol Channing?" asks McKechnie. "That's going to be tough."

Well, somebody's got to do it and McKechnie is no rookie who just fell off the turnip truck. "Curtain up, light the lights," wrote Stephen Sondheim in Gypsy's showstopping "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "You got nothing to hit but the heights..." In fact, in theater, the journey to the heights can be fraught with trials, tribulations and reversals of fortune. Because of the vagaries of the business, even multiple Tony nominees and winners wonder what their next job will be. But show people, even in worst-case scenarios, have such resilience, no doubt or difficulty is so great that it cannot be overcome. A shining example is McKechnie, who left Chorus Line in 1977 a singular sensation but "fearing that I stayed too long as Cassie and would be forever identified with it." And new roles didn't materialize. Over the next two years, she says, "I had a litany of losses." Her father passed away, and her marriage to director/choreographer Michael Bennett not-so-surprisingly ended.
"I once said something to the effect that show business is second only to boxing and prostitution. It's a struggle all the time, even after you achieve some recognition. It can leave you beaten and broken." Somehow managing a laugh, she adds, "It got to the point where I didn't have a place to hang my hat." McKechnie, who'd worked steadily since the 60s, invested her earnings in advancing her career. "Instead of a condo or a country house, I was living in sublets, hotels and through the kindness of friends."

At first, there was denial, she says. "Because of stubborn willfulness, I wasn't paying attention. That led to immense doubt and stress, which manifested itself into a huge problem for a dancer: severe rheumatoid arthritis. Three doctors said she'd never walk again, much less dance. "Gwen Verdon," she recalls, "said a dancer dies twice -- when they can no longer dance and when they die. This was death!
"Finally, I woke to reality and told myself 'You're not taking one more step until you deal with this.' I was determined not to accept what the doctors said."

A one-hour, midnight visit, which cost $18, with a New Jersey doctor changed her life. "It was scary," laughs McKechnie. "He was 95, lived in this house of the seven gables and only saw patients 10 and 5. A.M.! Everyone said he was a quack, but I was desperate. He promised if I followed his regimen, I'd be dancing in a year."
Therapy consisted of a cleansing and dairy diet, eliminating tap water, mega vitamin doses and rebuilding her self-esteem. "I had to develop a new attitude," explains McKechnie, "start over taking baby steps. The emotional part was more difficult than the physical."

In 1986, she was able to repeat her role of Cassie in Japan and Paris, When she got back home, Joe Papp invited her to return to the Broadway cast of ACL. "It felt like a miracle," she gushes. "To think, I almost lost the most important gift I had." In addition to her one-woman show, which she performs around the country, McKechnie will open in the Spring in London in a new musical, Gypsy In My Soul.

*

The roster of stars in the Singular Sensations series was also to include:
Florence Henderson, November 17 - 23;
Kitty Carlisle Hart, November 24 - 30;
Lainie Kazan, December 1 - 7;
Elaine Paige, December 8 - 14;
James Naughton, December 15 - 21;
Shirley Jones, December 29 - January 4, 2004;
Betty Buckley, January 5 - 11,
Mickey Rooney, January 12 - 18;
Jane Powell, January 19 - 25;
Cy Coleman, January 26 - February 1;
and Sally Ann Howes, February 2 - 8.
Author's Note: Unfortunately, the series proved short-lived and folded after the week featuring Florence Henderson.

Series creator Roven, still in high school, began his Broadway career 20 years ago as a rehearsal pianist for Pippin. At 19, he was the youngest conductor in Broadway history as musical director of Sugar Babies. While attending college, he worked on such shows as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and A Party with Comden and Green. He's written, produced and conducted for such artists as Julie Andrews, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Placido Domingo, Aretha Franklin, Bob Hope, Patti LuPone, Shirley MacLaine, Bernadette Peters, Diana Ross, Nancy Wilson and our beloved Liza with a Z. In the process, he's taken home four Emmys.

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Key Subjects: 
Singular Sensations, Glen Roven, Carol Channing, Donna McKechnie
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline."
Date: 
November 2003
Subtitle: 
Glen Roven's Big Idea