I’ll go to hell for ya, Or Philadelphia!”
That rhymed couplet is from “Any Old Place With You,” the first song ever published by the team of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz “Larry” Hart. They were just Columbia University students then, but five years later, in 1925, they hit it big on Broadway with another light-hearted song, “Manhattan”:
“I’ll take Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island, too.”
You won’t have to choose between cities, though, when “Ten Cents a Dance” goes into previews at McCarter Theater on Friday, September 9. Opening night is Friday, September 16. Director John Doyle has selected a moody, romantic, bittersweet tone for his unusual version of a jukebox musical, and that can only mean one thing: a New York state of mind.
The show is set in a closed-up nightclub, the kind of place that was the setting for “Pal Joey,” the 1940 Rodgers & Hart musical based on stories by one-time Princeton resident John O’Hara. A man enters, sits down at the piano, and taps out a tune. And five women of various ages and styles file in. They are all Miss Jones.
“Have You Met Miss Jones?” was written by Rodgers & Hart in 1937, and each of these women represents a phase in the romantic life of this man and a woman. Rodgers & Hart’s sophisticated, tender songs fill the air. “Blue Moon,” “Isn’t It Romantic?,” “Where or When,” “Falling in Love With Love,” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” are all included, not to mention “There’s a Small Hotel,” inspired by the Stockton Inn on the Delaware River. And of course, the title song, “Ten Cents a Dance,” the pathetic, cynical, weary plaint of a Depression-era taxi dancer.
The show had a workshop in the United Kingdom in 2002 and was extensively reworked before it opened at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts in August. It will continue to be revised right up until the Princeton opening. Writing in the New York Times on Monday, August 15, critic Ben Brantley raved about “Ten Cents a Dance,” calling it a “beautiful, brooding collage,” much to the credit of Miss Jones No. 5, the Tony-Award winning performer Donna McKechnie.
“That was really very nice,” McKechnie says in a phone interview from Williamstown. “I’m really happy for everyone. Because it’s a different piece, very unconventional, and we had to keep reminding ourselves in rehearsal and in performance that we have to do our best to bring people into the world of what we’re doing.”
There is no one better equipped to discuss musical theater than Donna McKechnie. She is one of the rare breed known in theatrical circles as a triple-threat: she can dance, sing, and act. Especially dance. She made her Broadway debut in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” She stopped the show with a dance number called “Turkey-Lurkey Time” in 1968’s “Promises, Promises.” She was in the original cast of the Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince show “Company,” and capped it all off with a Tony for Best Actress In a Musical for her role as Cassie in 1975’s blockbuster “A Chorus Line,” which was based partially on her own theatrical experiences.
Since then, she has performed on Broadway, in London, and in the national company of “Sweet Charity,” and, more recently, has toured extensively in two different one-woman shows. Not bad for a girl who ran away from Troy, Michigan, at the age of 15 to pursue a dancing career, as she relates in her 2006 autobiography, “Time Steps.”
This is McKechnie’s first time working with director Doyle, and she says, “I’m loving it, it’s fantastic. It’s a rare experience to be able to work this way anymore. Because of the constraints of time and money, the process is cut in half sometimes, and you lose a lot in the creative department, especially with something so new and different conceptually. So to have that freedom of creativity, guided with his expertise — it didn’t take me long to realize what a rare thing it was.”
The process took her back to another theatrical experience, the ground-breaking “A Chorus Line,” working with her director and later husband Michael Bennett, using the real life stories of Broadway gypsies to create a show. “I got that tone, that feeling again,” she says. “Except that John already had this well plotted out with all the numbers. Still, the amount of input the actors had threw me at first. At first I said, ‘What do I do?’ and he said, “Well, just do,” and I said, ‘Well, what is my point of view?” I started with the questions, and then I realized, ‘Oh my God. He’s saying ‘Just find your impulses, just go with it, and I’ll tell you when it’s not appropriate.’’ That was a great feeling. Now I’m spoiled, I don’t want to do it any other way.”
Doyle, it should be noted, is one of the hottest directors around. He won a 2006 Best Director Tony for a revival of “Sweeney Todd,” and his production of “Company” won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical in 2007. He has become famous both for his lean, sparse adaptations of musicals (his Best Director effort was affectionately referred to as “Teeney Todd”) and his fondness for having the performers provide their own musical accompaniment. That’s a first for McKechnie, who is used to making music with her voice and feet.
“I got so excited,” she recalls, “and then I thought, ‘Can I do it?’ But they sent me to Juilliard with this wonderful teacher. Now, the other women (in the cast) are like goddesses to me, because they each play about five or six instruments already, and they’re very good. It was a challenge; I learned to play the fundamentals of the alto sax. Mary Mitchell Campbell, our brilliant musical director, who wrote these lovely arrangements, found a way I can do it by rote. Listen, just blowing into that instrument is not easy. It’s not just lungs, it’s the way you hold your throat. But it’s great fun. I’m going to be really perfect by the time we hit New Jersey.
“And I play the viola a little bit, and a simplified version of the drums,” she adds. “I’m a dancer, so I can do that — and the triangle, which is not always easy, because I sometimes do miss it if I’m not looking. Oh, and the vibes, I can’t leave that out. Can you tell how proud I am about doing all of this?”
As well-regarded as they are in musical comedy circles, Rodgers & Hart have became somewhat obscured by time, possibly because they never had that one monster hit show, the kind of success that Richard Rodgers enjoyed after Hart’s death when he teamed up with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein on shows like “Oklahoma” and “The Sound of Music.”
Hammerstein was a much different type of lyric writer than Larry Hart; infinitely more sentimental and much more interested in uplifting, inspiring types of songs. But McKechnie, who has worked with some of Broadway’s greatest songwriters — Stephen Sondheim, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields — puts Rodgers & Hart right at the top of the heap.
“Theirs was my music when I first came to New York and was studying acting and voice. I got into Rodgers & Hart because I was a light soprano and that’s what they wrote all those songs for, that kind of voice. I loved them when I was in my 20s, but it has even more depth for me now, because they had so much character, so much passion and yearning and lost love.
“Everything we do and say in this show — and there is only one spoken line — is from Larry Hart. He found ways to say things that were so specific, so unique, and so sophisticated. It stands apart from Cole Porter, who has his own kind of sophistication, but Larry Hart’s heart was on his sleeve. And the range is just incredible. I love his poetry, the metaphors.”
McKechnie notes that although Rodgers & Hart’s shows don’t get revived much, singers like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra always kept their songs in their repertoire.
Perhaps John Doyle has found a way to bring Richard Rodgers & Larry Hart back into vogue. McKechnie says: “I really believe that John has found a powerful way to connect all the dots and leave the audience to take their own journey. It’s very abstract, like beautiful choreography. It’s not clearly delineated. I think a lot that I am in a musical dream. The songs that I have aren’t in any logical order, but, as a through line, I feel like I’ve connected with that dream-like side.”
Maybe Larry Hart put it best in “Where or When”:
“And so it seems that we have met before, And laughed before, and loved before. But who knows where or when.”
“Ten Cents a Dance,” McCarter Theater (Berlind), 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews begin Friday, September 9. Opening night is Friday, Septemer 16. Runs through Sunday, October 9. Rodgers and Hart music directed by John Doyle with the cast doubling as the orchestra. $20 and up. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.