DONNA MARIE ASBURY: TWENTY HAPPY YEARS IN CHICAGO By Peter Filichia
The performer who’s played June for more than twenty Junes decided to leave this June.
On the third of the month, Donna Marie Asbury abdicated her role in the Broadway production of CHICAGO. She’d spent most of the last two decades as June, the accused killer in “Cell Block Tango” who insists her husband was responsible for his own death because “he ran into my knife ten times.”
Tell that to the judge – and to over 6,000 audiences at the Shubert and then at the Ambassador.
But June wasn’t her only assignment in the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.
“I went on about a thousand times for Velma Kelly,” she says, citing the show’s second most famous anti-heroine. That includes the time when Brenda Braxton was playing Velma. “She threw out her back,” Asbury recalls, “and I had to go right on, do ‘Class’ and ‘Nowadays’ with no time to even change into the right wig.”
Asbury knew Velma, for she had played it on the national tour for two years before joining the Broadway company in March, 1999.
“How I enjoyed Velma’s elevator entrance at the start of the show, doing ‘Cell Block Tango,’ ‘Hot Honey Rag’ and of course ‘All That Jazz.’”
And yet, one of her favorite numbers didn’t much involve her. “I love ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ so much that I wish we could have done it twice at every performance.”
In addition, Asbury has gone on a hundred-plus times as “the keeper of the keys, the countess of the clink, this mistress of Murderer’s Row” Mama Morton. The grand total resulted in more than 7,700 performances of CHICAGO on Broadway and on the road.
Doing the same thing over and over – and over – could be likened to a recurring nightmare, but Asbury saw it differently. “Because (producers) Barry and Fran Weissler are so brilliant at casting, we’ve had so many new people come in that always kept it fresh. It actually becomes a stronger show when new people come in.”
Asbury also pointed that unlike many musicals, CHICAGO – done as a vaudeville – can accommodate many different types of performers. “Kevin Richardson of The Back Street Boys, Usher (Raymond) and George Hamilton would probably never be up for the same part in a movie, and yet, they were all cast – and did well as – Billy Flynn,” she says, referring to “the silver-tongued prince of the courtroom” who eventually sees that the guilty-as-sin Roxie and Velma get off.
Better still, although Brooke Shields and Brandy Norwood did short-term stints in the show, they and Asbury have forged long-term friendships.
Being in a Kander and Ebb musical hit the spot, for Asbury had for years been auditioning with one of their songs: “Yes” from 70, GIRLS, 70. That’s when she was still Donna Marie Elio who, ironically enough, didn’t care to see the original production of CHICAGO during its 1975-1977 run.
“I was strictly a CHORUS LINE girl all the way,” she says, “If I could now give the young Donna a piece of advice, I’ll tell her to rush out and see that original CHICAGO. I love watching this FOSSE/VERDON TV series and see how the show began.”
Despite her devotion to A CHORUS LINE, she never performed in it. “I did audition for Michael Bennett,” she says, citing the show’s auteur. “He didn’t cast me, maybe because I was only seventeen and too young for any of the parts. I never came back.”
Bennett had to be impressed with Elio’s resume, for she already had a Broadway credit. In the 1974 revival of GYPSY, she was “The Balloon Girl” who’s auditioning for Uncle Jocko – until Rose literally bursts her balloons.
Rose was Angela Lansbury, en route to her third Tony as Best Actress in a Musical. The character may have been a terror in real life, but Asbury reports that Lansbury certainly wasn’t.
“She was so nice to us kids – and when you’re young and the star is good to you, that means everything,” she says. “When we played Los Angeles, she even treated us to a day at Disneyland. I truly believe that if she weren’t nice to us and had been terrible to be around, I would have quit the theater.”
Donna Marie Elio never expected to be part of it when she was a little girl. “Nobody in my family was in the business,” she says. “We were just this family in West Paterson, New Jersey. My father, worked in a Ford plant in Mahwah.”
However, like Maggie in her beloved A CHORUS LINE, she “used to dance around the living room” so much that her father happened to mention how good she was to one of his co-workers. “And he knew someone who knew someone in the business, and suddenly I was in GYPSY.”
She understudied Baby June and Baby Louise. “I went on for Baby Louise, but never Baby June, who was played by Bonnie Langford. Eventually she came in to do Roxie in our CHICAGO, and at the performances where I played Velma, Baby June and Baby Louise were together again after all those years!”
A big thrill came in 1981 when she was cast in what had to be the hit of the season. It had book by George Furth, who’d provided the libretto of that instant classic COMPANY; a score by one of the greatest Broadway songsmiths in history (you know we mean Stephen Sondheim) and a director who was already a legend who’d won eighteen Tonys for directing and/or producing (Hal Prince, of course).
“None of us thought that MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG could possibly fail,” she says mournfully. “And then those reviews! In Jersey, more people read the Post than the Times and Clive Barnes of the Post loved MERRILY, so we thought we had a chance. In fact, they even tried to run his piece in the Times and hope it’d pass for a review.”
And who knows what might have happened if Times readers had read Barnes’ assessment that “It is far too good a musical to be judged by those twin kangaroo courts of word-of-mouth and critical consensus”?
“So,” she says, “during the second official week of the run, we knew Hal was calling us on stage to say we were closing. At least we got to do the cast album the day after we’d closed. We were emotionally drained, but we did it. It’s probably the main reason why MERRILY keeps getting done.”
And there was a better consolation still. Prince was impressed enough with Elio to have her play the alternate Evita Peron, which had her taking that rainbow tour on the national tour.
In 1989, Elio was part of the original cast of JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY. You might be surprised to hear that she had a rather innocuous time with the notorious director-choreographer.
“I was a singer, not a dancer, so I didn’t have as many opportunities to feel the wrath,” she says. “I watched it, though. We learned early on that he had low blood sugar so when he got crabby we always had a chocolate bar around.”
In a way, it turned out to be her most significant job and not because she sang in “America,” “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and “On a Sunday by the Sea.” Here’s where she met Cleve Asbury, who came into the show as a replacement. Although he was playing a Jet and she a Shark Girl, they got married during the run and have been together ever since.
When asked to give one word to describe her two decades with CHICAGO, she wavers between “stability” and “gratitude.” Then she adds “I know more talented people who don’t work. I’ve never had to take a day job and for that, I’m very grateful.”
Needless to say, twenty years takes its toll on a body. “As time went on, I did wake up with new aches and pains,” she concedes, “but I still could do it. However, I wanted to leave while I still could.”
So the longtime Jersey residents will now move to Henderson, Nevada – “partly,” she says, “so we’ll be a little closer to our daughter who lives in California.”
However, Henderson is only sixteen miles from Las Vegas, where a new company of CHICAGO can’t ever be ruled out. When asked if she’d be interested, she gives a smile and a shrug that frankly says yes. We’ll see if, to paraphrase a “Cell Block Tango” lyric, she has it comin’.