A Merry Murderess Hangs Up Her ‘Chicago’ Fishnets
Yet one of their most enduring works has been a Broadway staple for 23 years, so much a part of the local entertainment furniture that it’s easy to take it for granted: the 1996 revival of the 1975 musical “Chicago,” originally directed and choreographed by Fosse, and in which Verdon starred as the vaudevillian murderess Roxie Hart.
Donna Marie Asbury, 56, has been with the revival almost from the beginning: She joined the first national tour in December 1997 and the Broadway company in March 1999. On Monday, she gave her last performance as June, one of the Cook County Jail tenants.
At the curtain call, the producer Fran Weissler, reading a letter from the director Walter Bobbie, said, “You made putting on fishnets look like a class act.” Afterward, the cast presented her with a chicken-shaped cake that alluded to the circumstances of June’s crime — she was carving the poultry when her husband “ran into my knife.”
Ms. Asbury — who also understudied Velma Kelly (Roxie’s prison pal) and the warden Mama Morton — made her Broadway debut at 11 in the Angela Lansbury revival of “Gypsy” in 1974. Other credits include the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s cult flop “Merrily We Roll Along” and Eva Perón in a 1990s tour of “Evita.”
Her next step will be a solo concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below on June 19, in which she’ll retrace her career up to her stint in “Chicago” — a two-decade-long engagement that almost completely overlapped with the life of her daughter, Jacqueline, now 23.
The young woman is planning to be a writer or director. “She doesn’t want to wear a vinyl bra like her mother, which is really good,” Ms. Asbury said, laughing, during a chat in the empty Ambassador Theater. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Had you done Fosse before joining “Chicago”?
Never. I have actually always thought of myself as a singer first, but how lucky that this style came very easily to me. I love doing it and it looks good on my body, thank God. People think it’s easy because you’re not leaping and this and that, but it’s very precise.
What did you think of the TV series?
Wasn’t Michelle Williams brilliant [as Verdon]? I thought her dancing was fine — they made her look very good. I didn’t gasp: She held her own. I was so impressed by her.
One issue the series raised was the diverging impact of aging on men’s and women’s careers. Was that a factor in your decision to leave?
I wanted to leave on my terms and I wanted to leave feeling good about what I was still doing on the stage. And honestly, the cast members keep getting younger and younger. They hired this 23-year-old boy and I could be his mother.
To a certain extent you know you can feel good and you look good, but I stopped doing promotional things because I didn’t want to stand next to 23-, 25-, 27-year olds. I didn’t feel as good without the costume and the wig and the makeup. I thought, “If people saw this, they’d be like, ‘Why are you in that show?’”
It does play with your mind, especially as an older woman in the business — an older woman in general. But I don’t think there’s any other show out there where you can start in your 30s and still do it, and probably do it better, in your 50s. With this show, you need life under your belt, challenges to bring an edge to the piece.
What have you learned doing the show so long?
Gratitude — just being grateful for making a living doing what I absolutely love. I’ve never had any side jobs, it’s just been theater. I’ve been here with so many celebrities in and out, huge people, and you see that the hustle never stops: They’re always planning the next thing or what will keep them in the news on social media. It can wear you down.
Did anything in particular make you want to leave?
Bebe Neuwirth [the revival’s initial Velma Kelly] came to the theater yesterday and said, “I was just wondering, like at 15 years, did you say, ‘I’m going to go 20?’” I said to my husband, “20 does seem like a good number.” I could probably do it a few years longer but I want to walk, I want my body to be able to function. If I stayed much longer, I would be risking injuries I could not get back from. I wake up every morning with pain, but you’re like an athlete, you do what you do to keep your body in shape and in tune. Aleve is a wonderful thing [laughs].
The show has such strong bones. Do you feel that it carried you sometimes?
Honestly, even when I’m tired, I hear the conductor say “5, 6, 7, 8” and I still feel the excitement. I feel so proud to represent. In this business sometimes you take jobs you aren’t particularly proud of because you got to work. Never with this job. Never.