By David Hutchings
October 20, 1986 12:00 PM

It is near midnight and A Chorus Line, the longest-running musical in Broadway history, has just rung down the curtain on its 4,609th performance. A small party is in progress. An hour earlier, the guest of honor had stopped the show with her virtuoso dancing, singing and acting. Donna McKechnie, 43, had reopened in a role she originated 11 years before. Back then she prompted the same thunderous welcome, went on to win a Tony Award for Best Actress and married the musical’s director, Michael Bennett. But two years later, she disappeared—from Broadway, from Bennett’s life and, it seemed to some, from the face of the earth. There were those who wondered if she would ever come back, and tonight—playing out her role as the out-of-work dancer who failed her chance at Hollywood and returned to Broadway to beg her ex-lover for a berth in the chorus—her performance took some of its power from the parallels to her troubled life.

She’s not sure what went wrong. “I’m not trying to be evasive, but I don’t know what happened,” she says of her marriage. “All I know is, going through a divorce is a terrible thing for someone who believes in commitment.” She harbors no resentment toward Bennett. Their marriage ended after one year. “I think we’re friends,” she says tentatively. “I read in a San Francisco paper that Michael said we were.” Thinking of those times, Donna says, “I didn’t know how to be personal in an intimate way. All I knew was how to work.”

After two years in A Chorus Line, Donna’s work life foundered as well. Casting agents typed her as a dancer, and she was rejected for most dramatic roles; a club act earned mainly blistering reviews. Then, one morning in 1979, Donna woke up to find she couldn’t move. “All of my joints were swollen,” she says. “I felt like I had been hit by a sledgehammer.” The diagnosis was rheumatoid arthritis, a dancer’s archenemy. Her savior, she says, was a New York nutritionist who put her on a diet of vitamins and raw vegetables, promising that she would exercise in six months and dance in a year. She did—and now believes that some of her physical ailments were stress related, caused by marital and career problems.

She moved to L.A. in 1981 and did some local theater and a few guest shots on TV (Fame, Cheers), but when happiness remained elusive, Donna turned for help to analysis, one hour every day of the week for three years. “I decided to do some hard work on myself,” she says. “I identified with what I did instead of who I was.”

It was a flaw bred early. A native of Pontiac, Mich., Donna took her first ballet class at 7. At 13, she was teaching her own class at home. “I was terrifyingly shy,” she says, “but I was always in harmony when I was dancing.” Against her parents’ wishes, she dropped out of school at 15 and moved to New York City, where she soon landed a tour in West Side Story. Though she appeared on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Donna caged herself in TV’s Hullabaloo dance series from 1965 to 1966. “There I was with all my ballet training doing the pony in my Gidget flip. I took the jerk to new heights.”

While on Hullabaloo, Donna met a fellow teen dancer, Michael Bennett, now 43, thus starting a friendship that was interrupted only by a failed first marriage in 1965 that “seemed like 10 minutes.” It was Bennett, she explains, who made her “respect dancing again” by offering her that star-making role in A Chorus Line.

She admits that returning to the show worried her, despite her desire to dance again. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who come back and aren’t as good as they used to be,” she says. Another factor was getting into shape. “I thought I’d die,” says Donna, who found herself crawling to the door during the first week of seven-hour daily rehearsals. “There is an omnipotence when you are in your 20s that you just don’t have when you’re older.”

Her problems proved surmountable. She feels more personally secure. And there’s a new man in her life, a Canadian who works for the government. “I’m taking my time this time,” says Donna, “but I think I’m ready for a family life.” As for her painful past, she’s made a virtue of it. “With all this rich history behind me,” she says, “I think I’m better.” To cast members, indeed, she seems more than ever to personify the bittersweet triumph of every chorus line. As the time comes for her to take her place onstage again tonight, a young dancer, Bradley Jones, confides: “It’s so exciting standing next to Donna McKechnie on the line. She was my inspiration.”