Book Reviews


Times Steps: My Musical Comedy Life
by Donna McKechnie with Greg Lawrence
and
I Could Have Sung All Night
by Marni Nixon with Stephen Cole

Book Reviews by George Reddick

Times Steps
I Could Have Sung All Night
When Barrington Stage produced Stephen Sondheim's Follies in the summer of 2005, two of its cast members, both alums of previous productions of the musical, each brought with her a lifetime's worth of show business ups and downs. Both had won awards and acclaim in a variety of roles, both were victims of terrible illness, both had been through several relationships and divorce, and both had proved their ability to come out on top in the face of extreme adversity.

When Donna McKechnie, as Carlotta, sang that anthem of show biz survival, "I'm Still Here," it could hardly have been more fitting for this survivor not only of over forty years in show business, but for the victim of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease so debilitating that this dancer was told she would never walk again, let alone dance. But dance again she did, coming back to star on Broadway in her Tony Award winning role of Cassie in A Chorus Line a decade after she created it, not to mention performing many other significant dancing roles over the years. And when Marni Nixon, as Heidi Schiller, dueted with a ghost of her younger self in the haunting, "One More Kiss" (a song she'd sung nightly on Broadway four years earlier), the ghosts that play such a seminal role in Follies were a particularly apt symbol for this former Hollywood "ghost voice."

Follies took advantage of both McKechnie and Nixon's status as musical legends and now, the remarkable lives and careers of both of these extraordinary women are the subjects of two of the month's most anticipated musical theatre-related books, McKechnie's memoir: Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life (from Simon & Schuster, written with Greg Lawrence) and Nixon's I Could Have Sung All Night (from Billboard Books, written with Stephen Cole, foreword by Nixon's lifelong friend and colleague, Marilyn Horne).

In Time Steps, McKechnie does not shy away from the darker moments of her life, nor does she spend undue time rehashing overly familiar stories. The creative process by which A Chorus Line was created, for instance, which has been discussed in detail in several other books, is given a brief but interesting new perspective. However, McKechnie manages to cover a very busy career with a surprising amount of detail, such as her work in the chorus of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, playing Philia in the national tour of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and on to her famed collaborations with Michael Bennett in Promises, Promises, Company, and the seminal A Chorus Line. On a more personal side, she also covers running away from home in her teens, her famous short marriage to Bennett, and her battle with rheumatoid arthritis. McKechnie's fresh, determined personality is apparent throughout her narrative which is written in her frank, warm voice.

In discussing one's accomplishments, it must be difficult to appear not falsely modest and also not self-congratulatory, but McKechnie manages it with seeming ease. She has been through some rigorous psychoanalysis in the last few decades which inform her discussion of her life choices; she now recognizes a tendency to hide her feelings and, to a certain degree, she thinks this tendency to bottle things up may have contributed to her falling into ill health in the early 1980s. Her victory over the condition may be in part due to her growing ability to accept and express her feelings at the time. McKechnie is a major success story for victims of rheumatoid arthritis, and her discussion of the holistic approach she took to recovery may offer inspiration to anyone afflicted with the condition.

McKechnie includes plenty of fun stories about some of her more famous performances. She describes her battle to keep "Tick Tock," her solo dance number, in Company when director Hal Prince wanted to cut it, she covers what it was like to work with dancing legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon's on Fosse's last project before his untimely death, the 1987 touring production of Sweet Charity in which she had starred. As McKechnie had always been a Michael Bennett dancer, she felt particularly happy that she finally got a chance to work with Fosse, the other great choreographer of her generation.

The King and I
As Anna, wearing Deborah Kerr's costume, in The King and I, with Renato Cibelli as the King, at San Bernardino Civic Light Opera, California, 1958.
Photo Neale Adair
Marni Nixon, though known to most musical theatre fans primarily as the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in the The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and, perhaps most famously, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, has had an extraordinarily diverse and successful career. She has worked personally with Igor Stravinsky, was chosen as a concert soloist for Leonard Bernstein (before the dub job on West Side Story), performed on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights, won four Emmy Awards for the children's program Boomerang, and has sung with a host of great orchestras around the world and played such opera roles as Violetta in La Traviata and Musetta in La Bohème. She has also played both Anna in The King and I (in which she wore Deborah Kerr's actual costumes from the film) and Eliza in My Fair Lady, the latter of which was the first New York revival at City Center in 1964 and was performed after she had recorded Hepburn's songs, but before the film was released.

Nixon's affiliation with major composers was even reflected in her nineteen-year marriage to film composer Ernest Gold, with whom she had three children. Though Nixon and Gold spent some early years of their marriage in New York, the majority of Nixon's life has been on the west coast. As a child in California, she earned money for voice lessons by performing as an extra and in bit parts in many Hollywood movies of the 1940s. In 1946, she did her first dubbing job when she was asked to sing a song for Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden.

Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon
Deborah Kerr and Marni on the set of An Affair to Remember, 1956.
© 1965 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.
Only a few chapters of this life story cover "the dubbing years," but Nixon does reveal some interesting facts about those processes, particularly the extraordinary give-and-take she was allowed in her work with Kerr on The King and I in which she actually learned some of Kerr's staging so they could work together to create one seamless performance. She also reveals that, in addition to her songs, she was brought in to loop some of Natalie Wood's dialogue in West Side Story, including Wood's final "Te adoro Anton."

Nixon's personal life was never free from turmoil as she dealt with Gold's infidelity, the shocking suicide of her sister-in-law, her own perfectionism and several tempestuous relationships. Through it all, she seems to have kept her sense of humor and always managed to land on her feet. During her second marriage, she was diagnosed with cancer, and today she attributes much of her survival to what she terms her "Angel Network" the group of friends and family who gathered around to support and help her through that time. When she relapsed and had to go into chemotherapy years later while appearing on Broadway in James Joyce's The Dead, she proved, once again, that she would always deliver, even in the toughest of circumstances.

I Could Have Sung All Night makes use of some slightly fussy narrative devices such as jumps forward and backward in time and has some minor errors (such as when she mistakenly says "We Kiss in a Shadow" was dropped from The King and I film), but both Nixon's story and McKechnie's Time Steps are direct and straight-forward stories of extraordinary careers. They should be fascinating reads for anyone interested in music, theatre, dance or show business.



Images from I Could Have Sung All Night: A Memoirby Marni Nixon with Stephen Cole. Published by Billboard Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of VNU Business Media. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Available where books are sold.


Time StepsTime Steps: My Musical Comedy Life
By Donna McKechnie with Greg Lawrence
Hardcover. 304 pages
Simon & Schuster
Publishing date: September 2006
List Price: $25.00
ISBN: # 0743255208


I Could Have Sung All NightI Could Have Sung All Night: My Story
By Marni Nixon with Stephen Cole
Hardcover. 306 pages
Billboard Books
Publishing date: September 2006
List Price: $24.05
ISBN: # 0823083659