Broadway icon. Award-winning star of stage and screen. Legendary leading lady Donna McKechnie has thrilled audiences worldwide in a sensational musical theatre career.
Now, her latest role has brought her to Glasgow for the very first time. And she’s here to pass the baton to the next generation.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in June when Donna McKechnie arrives at the city’s Central Station from her Manhattan apartment, via her friend’s home in London. As passengers pile off the train and on to the platform, she appears in the throng, pulling her suitcase alongside her, wearing a striking monochrome scarf and a warm, wide smile.
The reason for her trip? To launch a new musical theatre scholarship in her name at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which will support students as they pursue their dreams.
Through the Donna McKechnie Musical Theatre Scholarship, students across Performance, Production and Musical Directing pathways can fulfil their promise, and continue Donna’s legacy of producing outstanding work across the musical theatre genre.
From starring in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line – which earned her a Tony award — to a string of smash-hit musicals, the internationally renowned performer has spent almost sixty years in the spotlight.
“I’m so excited and honoured to be here,” she says, as she makes her way on to Hope Street and marvels at the city’s architecture which reminds her of New York City, her home since her teens when she was enticed by the bright lights of Broadway.
And what better way to launch the scholarship than with a special, one-off performance with just-about-to-graduate Musical Theatre students. Tomorrow evening, Donna will meet six students – David Healy, Michelle James, Harry Mills, Anna-Mili Rich, Sam Stevenson and Alyson Tharp – to start rehearsals for the intimate review performance that they’ll take to famous London cabaret spot, Crazy Coqs.
The production will share insights into how Donna and her peers created A Chorus Line with the celebrated choreographer Michael Bennett. It will be interspersed with the personal stories of the students, who are just weeks away from embarking on their own professional careers.
Donna made her Broadway debut in 1961 in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, dancing Bob Fosse’s choreography. She soon won acclaim as a triple threat who could sing, dance and act. Through the scholarship, she wants to help as many young performers as possible reach their full potential.
“I’m a Broadway baby, I’ve been doing it for many years,” she smiles.
“These talented young people are our future so I’m doing whatever I can, as much as I can, to help that.”
And she’s ‘over the moon’ to have a scholarship in her name: “I have the highest regard for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and all of the great work that it does. If young artists have the talent, passion and drive needed to succeed in this glorious, tough and life-affirming world of musical theatre, lack of finances shouldn’t derail them. I’m committed not just to pass the baton but to be able to continue inspiring, encouraging and being a positive influence for this new generation of performing artists.”
Later, Donna, the students, musical director and RCS graduate Ryan MacKenzie and Andrew Panton, RCS Visiting Professor and director of the Crazy Coqs performance, quickly get down to work.
“To have a Broadway legend like Donna McKechnie associated with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is really fantastic,” says Andrew. “Working with Donna and the graduating Musical Theatre students is a real privilege because we can see that baton being passed on. All the knowledge that Donna brings from her career is being experienced by the students. The atmosphere in the room is completely electric.”
A Chorus Line opened in 1975 and revolved around the lives of 17 dancers as they auditioned for the chorus line of a Broadway production. It was instant box office gold and swept the board at the 1976 Tony Awards, as well as clinching the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. For her portrayal of Cassie, Donna took home the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical as well as a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical.
After a weekend of rehearsals, the ensemble heads to London for the launch in the atmospheric Crazy Coqs, part of Brasserie Zédel, in Soho. There’s a buzz in the air as the audience of industry figures, friends and supporters of the Royal Conservatoire take their seats, the lights low, red lanterns flickering on tables.
With music from A Chorus Line reimagined and rearranged, the students share what drew them to the stage and the challenges they’ve faced, while Donna inspires with tales from her own stellar life in show business. They deliver a dazzling, and often moving, performance to an enrapt crowd and, when the final note rings out, everyone is on their feet.
“Working with the students was pure pleasure for me,” says Donna, talking after the performance. “Under the superb direction of Andrew Panton, they more than met the challenge of putting a fully staged, twenty-minute musical presentation together in less than three days.
“It was a wonderful performance, showing us all how ready they are to follow their dreams with a career in the performing arts.”
How You Can Support
Every donation to The Donna McKechnie Musical Theatre Scholarship will be used to support professionals-in-training to realise their potential. Visit our Scholarship page to find out more.