Donna McKechnie
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Donna McKechnie
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Donna McKechnie certainly has had a life worth writing about: She left her dysfunctional Detroit home at age 16, made her Broadway debut at age 19 in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, became one of the Great White Way's premier dancers in the landmark musicals Promises, Promises and Company -- in signature pieces choreographed by her friend and future husband, Michael Bennett -- and helped to create the autobiographically inspired role of Cassie in Bennett's A Chorus Line, which earned her the Tony Award for Best Actress. But life hasn't been all statuettes and glitter for McKechnie; there was her painful divorce from Bennett in 1977 and his untimely death in 1983, coupled with a career that saw more downs and up for almost two decades until her return to Broadway in the revival of State Fair and her spectacular performance as Sally in the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies.

Not surprisingly, writing her just-released memoir Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life with co-author Greg Lawrence (Simon & Schuster) was not an easy task for the veteran star. "The hardest thing for me was to remember accurately the feelings I had at different times," she says. "Not only do memories change, but in order to move forward, we unconsciously change things in order to resolve them. But coming face-to-face with these old wounds is like scratching a sore that's disguised but still tender. I also wanted to communicate my story without telling the reader how to feel. When I read the book finally, I thought, 'Oh my God, how did I survive all that?' I talked to one woman recently who told me she's giving the book to her daughter, who is a dancer, and I have the feeling she thinks it's a cautionary tale. But that's all right."

McKechnie says that working with Lawrence on the book was invaluable. "He was great in making sure I had all the facts and dates straight; sometimes, I thought I did something one year and it turned out to be another. Now I know what I was doing every year of my life. I am someone who never looks back -- I'm always running ahead -- but now that I see the sequence, it's very interesting to see these patterns in my life and recall all my accomplishments." Unfortunately, despite the scrutiny of McKechnie and Lawrence, one typographical error made it into the book's initial printing: "When I describe this story from my childhood about my fantasy of my dad being an Indian chief -- which became Maggie's monologue in A Chorus Line -- it came out that I was the Indian chief, which makes no sense. It took me a day to get over that, but they are going to fix it."

The star will be devoting much of the next few weeks to promoting the book. There will be an official launch party at the National Arts Club on September 7, followed by public signings at New York's Drama Book Shop on Tuesday, September 12 and the Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center on Friday, October 6. But the appearance she's most excited about is the one slated for Saturday, September 16 at the Barnes & Noble in Rochester, Michigan -- near her hometown of Pontiac -- which coincides with her benefit performance of her outstanding cabaret act Gypsy in My Soul at Rochester's Meadow Brook Theatre on September 15. Says McKechnie, "A friend of mine from high school called me and wanted to bring me back home -- she's the one who keeps all of us together -- and this was the perfect opportunity. The Meadow Brook was my first connection with professional theater. It's a gorgeous, open-air space, but it's struggling to stay alive. Barnes & Noble has even agreed to donate a portion of the book sales that day to the theater."

It's hardly coincidental that the book is arriving at the same time that an eagerly anticipated revival of A Chorus Line -- directed by original co-creator Bob Avian, with Bennett's original choreographed restaged by McKechnie's close friend and original ACL co-star Baayork Lee -- hits Broadway. McKechnie will finally get to see the show on its official opening night, October 5 -- the producers have invited the original cast to attend -- and there will be a reunion dinner the previous evening. "It's a very classy thing for the producers to do," she says. "I am so excited for Baayork. She's the one who has kept the flame alive all these years, recreating Michael's choreography. I'm so proud of the show, but it can be hard to see it; there are all those ghost images lurking. But I think can be objective."

How does McKechnie feel about Charlotte d'Amboise taking on her role? "I'm excited for her. It's a great role for her, and I think she's ripe and ready for it. I spoke to her briefly, just when she was leaving Chicago, and I take it as a compliment that she called me. I told her that I would be there if she needed any information. In theater, this is what we do: We pass the torch. But I also think the most important thing is that Cassie has to become her. The choreography doesn't have to be exactly the same; Michael did it to my strengths. Things can be changed. I am not a purist."

So, does this mean that mean McKechnie doesn't object to the fact that the key of Cassie's big solo "The Music and the Mirror" has been transposed down for d'Amboise -- a development that has outraged some of the theater world's chatterati? "Oh, please," she says in exasperation, adding that she hadn't heard about the online discussion. "I should have had Marvin Hamlisch change the key back then. It was much too high. In my mind, I was trying to be a soprano. No matter who it was, it would bother me if someone sang in that key and it didn't suit her voice. Charlotte's voice is much lower than mine."

McKechnie will have little time to reflect on A Chorus Line or to bask in the success of her book. On October 7, she flies to London to begin rehearsals for a new production of Over Here, the 1974 Broadway musical that starred singing sisters Patty and Maxene Andrews (and a young star-to-be named John Travolta). McKechnie had originally agreed to play the title role in the Barrington Stage Company production of Mame around the same time, but this offer was too good to pass up: "I saw the show originally and I loved it. It's this wonderful spoof of a more innocent time in the 1940s, and I'm surprised it's never been revived. It will be so great to play Patty's part and have that big band onstage with me. I was a 'war baby,' so I always loved the music of the Andrews Sisters. In fact, 'You Could Drive a Person Crazy' from Company was a really a tribute to them."

The actress is no stranger to London; in fact, she considers the British capital her second home. "I feel quite honored being the only American in the cast, which is an affirmation that I have a career there," she says. "I first went over in 1969, when David Merrick sent me there with Promises, Promises, and I think I unknowingly set a precedent. Back then, it was very difficult for Americans to work in London. I just had dinner with Tony Roberts, and we had such a great time reminiscing; that was when he met his wife. I loved writing about that time in the book. As for Over Here, if it's a hit, I'll be there at least six months. And it would be a dream come true if I could bring it back to Broadway."