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ALL EYES ON BAAYORK LEE: Richard Jay-Alexander Talks to the Award-Winning Legend About This Sunday's WICKED In Concert on PBS and Her Extraordinary Career

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The special will air on Sunday, August 29, 2021 at 9pm ET (check local listings) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video App.

Wicked
Posing with Kristin Chenoweth on set
and her new shoe - via
LaDuca Dance Shoes

Baayork Lee is on a roll! There's just no other way to describe what is happening in her orbit right now. The legendary "peanut on pointe" has gone from the "high" of opening the Antonio Banderas led production of A CHORUS LINE at his new theatre in Malaga and starting the tour in Barcelona, only to close 2 weeks later due to covid, coming home and holing up in her New York City apartment, not venturing out or allowing anyone to see her on ZOOM, to being so "in demand" that she has decided to live her life to the absolute fullest and work, entering many new adventures ... AND, yes, stay healthy. Of course, there's plenty of story along the way, but this girl's energy is flying and so are her spirits, excited about all the things that are coming up, as the calendar marches on and the theatre business slowly comes back to life.

This Sunday finds the diminutive talent wearing yet another new hat, as Director for Sunday night's airing of Wicked In Concert, celebrating the score of the iconic, long-running musical, with an exciting cast. The PBS cast of performers includes Mario Cantone, Gavin Creel, Ariana DeBose, Cynthia Erivo, Stephanie Hsu, Rita Moreno, Jennifer Nettles, Alex Newell, Isaac Powell, Amber Riley, Gabrielle Ruiz and Ali Stroker.

Wicked
Front Row (Left to Right): Cassey Kivnick, Rita Moreno, Baayork Lee, Tara Young Back Row (Left to Right): Evan Rogers, Carlton Carrington, Ambrose Davis, Jesse Kissel, Zach Blane, Alex Green, Brendan Warner, Barry Benowitz

And the original Galinda and Elphaba, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, are presiding over the affair, to the delight of fans everywhere. But especially to the delight of Baayork, herself, who never could have seen this coming and is thrilled for everyone to see it. It was Robert Pullen, who she knew from The Kennedy Center, that pitched her to PBS for the job and, from all reports, our girl delivered ... BIG TIME!

Wicked
With Michael Bennett,
preparing for A CHORUS LINE's
record breaking performance

Baayork Lee is in heavy rotation on PBS right now, as Rick McKay's BROADWAY: Beyond The Golden Age started airing a couple of weeks ago and her phone hasn't stopped ringing off the hook. Neither have the texts or e-mails. You see, she almost tops and tails the doc film, since she was in the Original Broadway Cast of THE KING AND I and, of course, became a right hand to Michael Bennett and Bob Avian for A CHORUS LINE, in which she was Connie, based on her own life. The footage of the cast members and rehearsals from that original production are breathtaking and it took her right back to remembering, in particular, how hard her heart was pounding on the night of the legendary Anniversary performance that was staged to celebrate the longevity of the show and the myriad of cast members from all the companies. Michael Bennett had actually outdone himself and Baayork helped stage some of the crucial sections. There's one scene captured on film that is hilarious, when she throws him out of the room, all in good fun.

The LOVE splashed all over these filmed segments is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Baayork remembers spending 12 hours with Rick, doing the interview. She couldn't go home because there was such a huge snowstorm and they talked about everything.

Wicked
THE KING AND I

I first met Baayork at a party in McKay's apartment and later going to Auburn, New York, with Donna McKechnie to perform for a fund-raiser in the memory of their A CHORUS LINE friend, Thommie Walsh. We had a blast! It was also moving. But the laughter over those few days was non-stop and I still marvel that I know these two remarkable theatre legends and can call them my friends. While watching BROADWAY: Beyond The Golden Age, I actually wrote to both of them and expressing just that, in all sincerity.

Wicked
Backstage with Stephanie Hsu

Anyone who has ever done a long run of a musical will understand just how you truly become a family, and that never goes away or dies. Seeing the casts reunite, in Rick's remarkable film, does not allow for a dry eye. So few musicals reach this iconic standing, in history.

At the start of summer, Baayork Lee had a LaDuca shoe designed in her honor, named THE ONE. It instantly became a best-seller and the limited run shoes are being delivered to the happy dancers, as of the writing of this column. BroadwayWorld's Nicole Rosky wrote about in in June.

Wicked
Posing with Alex Newell

On Sunday night, (check your local listings), the score of Wicked takes center stage and perfectly timed, as Broadway starts to reload ... slowly and safely. The blockbuster is returning to Broadway in the coming weeks and this will certainly whet the audience's appetite to see it or re-visit it again. Broadway has been dark for a year and ½ and anything that can get us closer to it and its return, is always welcome. Baayork was there, in both Washington, D.C. and New York City, with her assistant Cassey Kivnick and her Associate Director, Tara Young, who people will know from her work with Susan Stroman. Kivnick, of course, has been a major force in NAAP (National Asian Artists Project) and has assisted Jerry Mitchell. Baayork has been somewhat tight-lipped about the show or its content, so I, myself, am quite looking forward to seeing it, with all of America, on Sunday evening.

WickedJuly found Baayork in Pittsburgh, directing and choreographing the 75th Anniversary Celebration of Pittsburgh's CLO with a live AND virtual presentation of SUMMER UNDER THE STARS, at Heinz Field, with yet another great cast that included Robbie Fairchild, Norm Lewis, Max von Essen, Jackie Burns among them and hosted by AMERICAN IDOL alumni, Clay Aiken.

Wicked
Directing for CLO at Heinz Field

Baayork Lee, for those of you who don't know, was born in New York City's Chinatown. Her mom was Indian and her father Chinese. Her father opened one of the most famous restaurants in history, WO HOP. Baayork started dancing very early on and her list of credits since the original production of THE KING AND I with Yul Brynner, in 1951, would only go on and on and on to include FLOWER DRUM SONG, George Balanchine's original production of THE NUTCRACKER, MR. PRESIDENT, GOLDEN BOY, HERE'S LOVE, A JOYFUL NOISE, HENRY, SWEET HENRY, PROMISES, PROMISES, .... Well, you get the picture.

Talking to Baayork, I always learn so much, but I had no idea of this tidbit she shared with me. During the workshop of ACL at The Public, Joseph Papp noticed her and when she didn't have a job, he hired her as the Resident Choreographer of The Public Theater. Hearing her say, "Yes, he was my Uncle Joe!" simply made my heart skip a beat. She worked on a show for him called APPLE PIE and another production that starred Ellen Greene (not THE THREEPENNY OPERA).

Wicked
In the Shubert Theatre basement
during A CHORUS LINE

Through all those years and productions, she watched and learned from the best, honing her own set of skills and style. She is truly a legend and beloved and respected by the entire industry. All of her accomplishments through the years, led to her receiving the prestigious Isabelle Stevenson TONY Award in 2017, recognizing her extraordinary commitment to the Asian Community (creating NAAP in 2004, with Steven Eng and Zoie Lam) and assuring their inclusion in the performing arts industry. I have worked with Baayork and her National Asian Artists Project and what she does there, with, oh, so many other wonderfully committed people, is truly a marvel to behold. She also works with the youngest kids from P.S. 124 straight through to the pros in our business and no one gets left behind or receives less than her full attention. Baayork told me, "My roots are still in Chinatown, where I was born and raised."

Wicked
Gabrielle Ruiz, Baayork Lee and Amber Riley

During the pandemic, she watched work disappear like WEST SIDE STORY in Atlanta, A CHORUS LINE in Pittsburgh, a trip to China, etc., .... but kept NAAP activities rolling, even while reaching a low point, emotionally. When COVID-19 brought our world to a halt, Baayork shared with me, "I was in shock. I was devastated. My entire life stopped and I have not stopped since I was 5 years old. I needed time to absorb everything that was happening. I could not concentrate, I could not read, I could not focus. I think I was depressed, but I don't know what depression is because I never had time to be depressed. I might have even had COVID, but don't know. I could not move my body and, like everyone else, ate plenty."

That darkness has since passed, feeing today, "I am in great shape. I say to myself, Get Yourself Out, Put Your Mask On and Get To Work!" She continues, "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die working!"

Wicked
with Antonio Banderas, seeing Barbra
Streisand in Concert in London's Hyde Park

Baayork leaves for Madrid next week, where she will be re-mounting the Spanish production of A CHORUS LINE. And, man, is she ready! It opens October 14th and she has 12 new cast members to rehearse. Ah ... to be on THAT LINE!

Whenever I close these pieces, I ask the subject to name some of their favorite YouTube videos (of themselves) that they enjoy watching.

Here are Baayork's:


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