A 12½-year prison sentence has never been as sweet as Donna Marie Asbury's in the Cook County Jail. The fictional Cook County Jail, that is, in Chicago, where she has been playing "merry murderess" June (whose jealous husband ran into her knife ten times) since March 1999. She's currently the longest-running member of the cast of Chicago, which celebrated its 15th anniversary on Broadway this Monday.
If you count the time Asbury did Chicago on tour prior to Broadway, it's been a nearly 14-year sentence. She joined the first national tour in December 1997, playing June and understudying Jasmine Guy as Velma. She later had the role of Velma for a time after Guy left the show. Then she took over briefly as Velma from Khandi Alexander on the L.A.-based second national tour, before settling into the role of Mona, another of the merry murderesses, in that company.
In her 12-plus years as June on Broadway, Asbury has never been out of the show for long, taking only an occasional personal day off. And she's gone on in all three main female roles—Velma, Roxie and Mama Morton. In addition to frequently covering Velma over the years, she had the role to herself for about three months back in 2001-02. She's played Roxie only once and volunteered to give up understudying it, as she feels more comfortable as Velma, having done it so much. (Though she liked getting "to sit on Taye Diggs' lap" when she played Roxie and he was Billy Flynn, performing "We Both Reached for the Gun.") She's still one of the Mama Morton understudies, and describes her interpretation of that part as "Snooki's mom."
Née Donna Marie Elio, Asbury is an Italian-American Jersey girl. Her surname was Elio in all her Broadway shows before Chicago, as they took place before her marriage to fellow gypsy Cleve Asbury, who's currently in the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. They have a 15-year-old daughter named Jacqueline, and Donna Marie says her lengthy tenure in Chicago has "afforded me somewhat of a normal existence as far as my marriage and my daughter is concerned. The thought of being in a rehearsal hall from 10 to 6—being away from my daughter more—it's not attractive to me at all."
Nonetheless, Asbury says, "If you had told me I'd be in the show for this long, I'd have laughed in your face. Never, ever, ever did I think, first of all, that it would last this long, or that I'd be able to do it this long." And it's not every show that would keep a performer fulfilled after so long. But Chicago is special—as a musical in general, and for the chorus in particular. "In the ensemble of Chicago, we each get our moment to shine, especially the women with 'Cell Block Tango,'" Asbury explains. "It is the only Broadway show where the ensemble gets their own individual bows. Because there is so much improv, you can change it up from night to night. As long as you're not messing anybody else up, you can do different things.
"You never get the same audience twice," she continues. "They've never seen the show, or maybe they've seen it eight times. But our job as a performer is to perform it as if it's the first time. It actually helps you to do a long run if you approach it like that." Chicago's revolving door of Hollywood celebrities coming in as Roxie or Billy has also kept things fresh. "Because Chicago has had so many different people in it who are not used to doing theater, we are on our toes all the time," says Asbury. "I feel the ensemble is the glue that keeps the show together."
She adds: "There are some times in your career where you have to take a job because you need the money; you don't think this is going to advance your career. I've never felt that way about Chicago." The Kander/Ebb musical is not only one of Broadway's all-time most popular shows but one of its all-around greatest, according to Asbury. "I think it's one of the best scores ever written. It's one of those pieces where everything comes together...a wonderful piece of theater."
It's thanks in part to Cleve—to whom she's been married for 20 years—that Asbury's even in Chicago. Jacqueline was born the same year the production opened on Broadway. "I almost didn't go for the audition," Donna Marie says, "because I thought it was God's cruel joke: A year ago I'd had a baby, and I was like, I can't dance this show!" Her husband and agent persuaded her to go ahead with the audition. Cleve tried out for the show too but was not cast. They both auditioned for the Chicago movie as well, and that one he got and she didn't.