Book Reviews by George Reddick
Book Reviews by George Reddick
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.
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.
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.