GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Donna Marie Asbury of 'Chicago'
Back to the Article
by Adrienne Onofri
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.
Donna Marie's career has been a textbook case of all the potential ups and downs of working in theater. On the one hand, she's been in huge hits (Chicago, Evita, Beauty and the Beast) and worked with the biggest legends of musical theater (Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Angela Lansbury among them). On the other hand, more than once she was in a hotly anticipated show created by some major names that flopped enormously and quickly. First, there was 1981's Merrily We Roll Along, written by Sondheim, directed by Prince—their follow-up to the magnificent Sweeney Todd. Theatergoers were confounded by the backward storytelling, barebones design and youthful, unknown cast of Merrily, and though its score is now considered a treasure, the show got a dreadful review in the Times and closed after 16 performances. "We never thought it was going to fail. We were talking during rehearsal about what we were going to do on the Tony Awards," Asbury recalls. "It was a big reality check when the curtain would come up for the second act and half the audience was gone."
Five years later Asbury was back on Broadway in the new musical Smile, scored by Academy Award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch (who'd done well with his last two Broadway outings, A Chorus Line and They're Playing Our Song). It was pummeled by critics and lasted just over a month. That experience differed from Merrily in that audiences seemed to enjoy Smile. "We were getting standing ovations," says Asbury, "so when we got bad reviews, we're like: What show are they seeing? Twelve hundred people a night can't be wrong." Having gone through the Merrily disappointment and grown "a little older and a little wiser" since then, she was not as shocked by Smile's failure. "But it certainly was just as heartbreaking," she says.
In yet another example of the reversals of fortune that Asbury has experienced in her career, both flops led to other, coveted jobs. For a couple of years following Smile, she toured with Marvin Hamlisch as the featured vocalist when he performed with symphony orchestras around the country. After Merrily We Roll Along, Hal Prince had invited her to audition for the national tour of Evita. At 19, she began to understudy the formidable title role, eventually becoming the Evita alternate (playing the role twice a week). "That was my college," Asbury remarks. About a decade later, she joined another Evita tour as the alternate (three performances a week), ultimately taking over the role when the regular, Valerie Perri, left. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done," Asbury says of portraying the musicalized Eva Peron. "You have no life, because you have to shut up [off stage] because that score is so hard to sing."
Asbury has had her Equity card since she was 11 and in the Broadway revival of Gypsy starring Angela Lansbury. Born and raised in West Patterson, N.J. (about half an hour outside Manhattan), Donna Marie had been performing every summer from the age of 4 in an amateur talent show in Atlantic City called "Tony Grant's Stars of Tomorrow" and taking dance classes since age 3 at a studio in Hawthorne, N.J., run by a friend of her mother. A friend of her father connected Donna Marie and her parents with a talent manager he knew in NYC, and the first audition the manager sent her on was for Gypsy. She played the Balloon Girl and understudied both Baby June and Baby Louise at first but moved into the Baby Louise role partway through the 1974-75 run on Broadway and for the subsequent tour.
"If I had had a bad experience, I don't think I would be doing this today," she says of Gypsy. "I probably would have said, 'Hmm, I don't think this is for me.'" She credits Lansbury for making it such a good experience: "She was one of a kind." But Asbury didn't remain a professional child performer. Her mother wanted her to have a "normal" life, and a classic "awkward phase" of adolescence—i.e., braces—didn't make her easily employable anyway. She did a summer tour of Bye Bye Birdie as a teen but otherwise stayed close to home and school in New Jersey.
She was cast in Merrily We Roll Along just as she was graduating from high school and afterward went right onto the Evita tour, skipping college completely. "I was hardheaded: What do I need college for? I'm going to work!" Asbury says of her thinking then. "Thank God it worked out. It could have been a very different scenario." She doesn't necessarily recommend bypassing higher education to aspiring performers. In fact, one of her prime pieces of advice for youngsters and newbies is "Study, study, study. Going to school is really important."
Asked for further advice, she comments: "Auditioning is an art in itself; practice that. Even if you know you're not right for something, go audition." Also: Steel yourself for disappointment. "You can't be a gentle soul in this business," Asbury says. "There's a lot of rejection along with the jobs you might get. It's a hard life." Even amid a rabid success like Chicago, there can be unexpected bumps. In late August of this year, the show was nearing its 6,138th performance, which would make it the longest-running American play ever on Broadway (surpassing Chorus Line; the three shows with longer runs, Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Misérables, were all British imports). But the celebration had to be put off: That 6,138th performance was set for August 27, the day all Broadway performances were canceled due to Hurricane Irene. They couldn't cut the cake until August 29.
Earlier this year, in March, Chicago had surpassed Oh, Calcutta! to become the fifth longest-running show in Broadway history and its longest-running revival ever. It's also the longest-running revival and longest-running American show ever in London's West End. Its business was, apparently, not hurt at all by the release—and success (a Best Picture Oscar)—of the 2002 film version. On the contrary, Asbury believes the movie helped the stage show's box office by sparking interest in the source material. And instead of becoming dated in the 15 years since the revival opened—or in the 30-plus years since the original ran on Broadway—Chicago has actually gotten more timely. "When it opened in '76, it was ahead of its time," Asbury says. "There was no O.J. Simpson or Menendez brothers. It's so relevant to what's going on in the world today—how the media can make you a star when you do horrible things. Think Lindsay Lohan or Kim Kardashian."
Before Asbury joined the Broadway cast of Chicago, she and her family had been living in Los Angeles for seven years. Both she and Cleve were in the L.A. production of Beauty and the Beast in 1995-96, playing ensemble roles and understudying principals. She got pregnant with Jacqueline during that run, and even went on as Belle while pregnant (but not showing). Once, she covered Belle at the same performance that Cleve went on as Lumiere. "I've often said it was the one night that Belle had a crush on Lumiere, instead of the Beast," she says.
Her role in Broadway's Chicago brought them back to New York, but Cleve got into a Broadway show around the same time—the Bernadette Peters-starring revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Before How to Succeed opened in March, Cleve had not performed on Broadway since 2005's Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life. In the intervening years, he had opened Broadway Performing Arts, a theater school in Bloomfield, N.J. (where they live). He's still running the school but not teaching there.
Their daughter has taken tap classes at the school and she's a fine dancer, singer and actress, according to her mom, but right now Jacqueline's interests lie elsewhere: She wants to be a film director and screenwriter. But she has started performing in school musicals, doing Grease last year and getting ready to audition next week for Jesus Christ Superstar. Donna Marie says being in a school play enlightened Jacqueline about her parents' work. She's always seen their shows but until a couple of years ago regarded them merely as "Mommy and Daddy singing and dancing." More recently, though, she has watched Asbury play Velma and truly appreciated the talent on stage and all that goes into creating a great production. Jacqueline has already seen How to Succeed three times but plans to go again when Darren Criss replaces Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. "She loves him," Asbury says of Glee star Criss, adding with proper motherly oversight, "but he's too old for her."
Asbury met her husband when they were in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. "I only dated dark, brooding men," she relates. "I remember telling my mom, 'I think this guy has a crush on me, but I don't know if I can date him because he has red hair.'" They weren't dance partners in Jerome Robbins' Broadway but were next to each other on stage during its sequence from Fiddler on the Roof. "We'd be crouching and hiding, and he would always make me laugh," she says. "I think that's the one way to anybody's heart."
As for working with Jerome Robbins himself—an experience not likely to make anyone laugh—Asbury acknowledges, "He's an absolute taskmaster, but so brilliant." She had a singer rather than dancer track in the show, "so I never got the wrath of Jerome Robbins. I was one of the lucky ones. I certainly saw a lot of it, but it was never directed at me."
In Chicago, she's doing the choreography of another icon, Bob Fosse. "In a lot of ways," she says of Fosse dancing, "it's a lot more difficult to do [than other choreography] because it's so contained: With just a little hand gesture or you move your hip, it says so much. It was hard not to, like, kick [up to] your face every chance you get, because you want to show what you can do. It's very sexy, but you're not trying to be sexy."
Speaking of Chicago's sex appeal, there are those costumes—with their black mesh and exposed legs and midriffs (and chests, among the men). How does Asbury stay in shape? "Well, wearing lingerie nightly is a really good motivator," she says. "You can turn down that second helping of pasta really easily!" She goes to gym at least three times a week and gets as much other physical activity as she can, like walking the dog.
Perhaps what Chicago's best known for—and perhaps what's been a key to its longevity—is its so-called stunt casting of film, TV and pop stars. This has not rankled the stage-trained regulars in the cast but rather provided some pleasant encounters, says Asbury. "I think doing a Broadway show is a very humbling experience for a lot of people who are not used to it. It's such hard work, they're usually out of their comfort zone, so they're very grateful for the support that we give them. Either everybody's been on their best behavior, or we've just been really lucky to have wonderful people come into the show." She remembers, for example, Brooke Shields as "a hard worker and a lovely woman" and Melanie Griffith as "a lot of fun...so generous to me whenever I went on with her."
Working with some stage veterans who have been in the cast over the years has also been a highlight of Asbury's Chicago experience. "Having Jennifer Holliday come in as Mama Morton and sing that song ['When You're Good to Mama'] night after night—she sort of took us all to church at the end of the song. And when I got to go on as Velma and sing 'Class' with her, I thought I was just about going to die," she says. There was also the time she played Velma while Roxie was being played by Bonnie Langford—who had played Baby June to her Baby Louise in Gypsy some 35 years earlier.
"I grew up wanting to sing and dance. I never wanted to be a star, I just wanted to do what I love to do," reflects Asbury. "I am so blessed, and I know that every single day."
Photos of Donna Marie, from top: as June in Chicago; as Velma Kelly; in Merrily We Roll Along in 1981, with Marc Moritz (with hat), David Cady and Gary Stevens (in back); playing Baby Louise alongside Angela Lansbury as Rose in Gypsy in the 1970s; with her husband, Cleve; backstage at Chicago with her daughter, Jacqueline; bottom left, rehearsing Jerome Robbins' Broadway with Jerome Robbins and (from left) Alexia Hess, Leslie Trayer and Kelly Patterson in 1989.