It's Turkey Lurkey Time! Donna McKechnie Shares the Story Behind the Dance

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28 Nov 2013

Donna McKechnie
Donna McKechnie

Tony winner Donna McKechnie chats with about performing in the original cast of Promises, Promises, including the Act One closing number, "Turkey Lurkey Time."


When asked to write a special Thanksgiving piece on the legendary showstopper "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises, Promises, I instinctively agreed. But as time passed, I began to have serious reservations about taking this on. This song is beloved by musical theatre fans across the world and its impact has extended beyond the Act One finale of Promises, Promises, including a memorable performance in the movie "Camp" and a recent mash-up with the Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have A Kiki" on "Glee."

"Turkey Lurkey Time" was a seminal achievement for choreographer and future director Michael Bennett and is hallowed ground, which I really don't want to desecrate. Who am I, someone who doesn't like dance, to write about "Turkey Lurkey Time"? No disrespect to the art — I understand that this is one of my limitations — but it seems 99% of the time, once the choreography starts, my eyes glaze over.

I pulled up the popular YouTube clip of Donna McKechnie leading the original Broadway cast of Promises, Promises in the number at the 1969 Tony Awards, closed the door to my office and sat quietly for a moment to clear my mind.

It's a 1960s office holiday party — very "Mad Men" — and three office "girls" are doing a little dance for everyone as they sing the song.

It's hard to take my eyes off Donna. There's something incredibly graceful and elegant, athletic and sensual about the way she bends backwards and extends her arms in what I'm thinking is a trademark of hers, although I actually have no idea if that's true. I've read about a lot about Bennett, and I grill my friend, choreographer Jason Wise (whose mentor is Tommy Tune, who, in turn, was mentored by Bennett), so I'm schooled to notice that Bennett doesn't bring the chorus in until the very end section, when everybody's repeating "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells." This technique highlights that moment and that step in a way that elicited an ovation before the song was finished and ended Act One of Promises, Promises in a rush of excitement. I watch for that, and it is as described. (Jason had also told me to look for the cute moment where Donna almost starts dancing with her drink in her hand and then turns around to get rid of it before assuming the first position.)

I start watching other versions of "Turkey Lurkey Time" to broaden my sense of the song. YouTube user "FabTV" has a good-quality video from the original Bennett production, but with a somewhat different cast, notably deficient in the Donna McKechnie department. The short clip I find of the City Center Encores! production is slick and sexy, but less compelling, and the footage from the recent Broadway revival recalls why the number made so little impact on me in the first place. I check out the "Glee" version and love Sarah Jessica Parker and Chris Colfer doing "Kiki," but there's barely any "Turkey Lurkey Time" at all. The "Camp" version is a fun homage to the original.


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