BWW Exclusive: Inside the National Asian Artists Project Gala with Baayork Lee and More!
The 2018 Inaugural NAAP (National Asian Artists Project) Gala took place on December 2nd celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Rodgers & Hammerstein's groundbreaking musical "Flower Drum Song". Cast members from numerous productions including the original 1958 Broadway company, tours, the 1961 film and the 2002 Broadway revival took over the Golden Unicorn Restaurant in the heart of Chinatown for a magical evening that included a spectacular eight course Chinese banquet and a sensational show.
Performers included the NAAP Broadway Community Chorus, The Award winning Theatre Club from P.S. 124, Alumni, NAAP Kids and special performances by Alvin Ing, Jose Llana and Yuka Takara. The festivities were staged by Richard Jay-Alexander and Baayork Lee. NAAP honored Alvin Ing, for his work in the theatre, film and television industries and for helping to push the boundaries for the Asian American community. He has also performed in 'Flower Drum Song' more than any other actor. They also honored Yuriko, who is the world's most respected American Japanese pioneer of Modern Dance. In 1943 she moved to New York City and joined the Martha Graham Dance Company where she danced, choreographed, directed and taught for 50 years. This glorious sold out event was truly where "The Corner of Chinatown and Broadway" met.
Baayork Lee (Co-Founder and Executive Artistic Director):
"Well this is a dream come true. This is something I visualized for such a long time. I've been to so many galas and I never thought that NAAP would have their own, so I get very emotional because National Asian Artists Project is my life, my DNA. It's something I feel I have to give back to the community. We have programs for our after school kids at P.S. 124 and their going to sing tonight and I have my choir, The National Asian Artists Broadway Community Chorus and that is students from Pace and NYU and working Asian actors and non -union Asian actors and anyone who wants to sing and be a part of the theatre."
"Wow! the 60th Anniversary of 'Flower Drum Song'. I was just a mere kid. We have Pat Suzuki here tonight along with so many others from the original company and the revival and other productions. We are honoring Yuriko who is 98 years old and she has been a big part of the Asian community and helping us and we have been standing on her shoulders as we have with our other honoree Alvin Ing. He has done so many productions of 'Flower Drum Song' including the revival and tonight he will be singing a song that was taken out of the show but put back in for the revival. All I can say is, dreams do come true and if you visualize long enough and your heart is full, it will happen."
"'Flower Drum Song', up until 'Allegiance' in 2016, was the only Broadway show in existence about the lives of Asian Americans. There are a fair number of shows set in Asia, but in terms of Asian Americans, 'Flower Drum Song' was it, and by the time we get to the late 90's, it has kind of fallen off the face of the earth for various reasons and I felt the opportunity to bring this material back and put it back in front of people and the Asian American story was genius work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. What's extraordinary is that when we did the revival back in 2002 there was a sense that we could bring together three generations of Asian American performers. Those that were in the original production, my generation and than, the kids that were in the show that we did. And at that point, we have 4 or 5 generations, so the influence of 'Flower Drum Song' does not fade over the decades."
Baayork is a pioneer. She is an amazing artist, and she keeps the family together. If 'Flower Drum Song' is a family, if Asian American performers are a family, than Baayork is the mother figure that makes us all want to support and be together."
Alvin Ing (Honoree and performer in more productions of 'Flower Drum Song' than any other actor):
"I get very emotional. It means the world to me because 'Flower Drum Song' was my whole world. Some people think that I am a pioneer. You have to understand, that back when I started, I would be the only Asian at an audition and I would be typed out right away, so finally when 'Flower Drum Song' came along they still didn't hire an Asian for Wan Ta, they hired Ed Kenny who was a friend of mine from Honolulu. But, when we went on tour, I became the understudy for Wan Ta and that's how I learned my craft. I was on tour for 14 months. Tonight, I am singing a song that was originally written for Keye Luke who played the father. And in the song, Wan Ta the young man, is having love problems and he is torn between the fascination of Linda Low and an attraction of Mai Le. So, he comes to me Uncle Chin for advice and in the song 'My Best Love', I am advising him of what he should do. The song came about because one day at rehearsal, when I was doing the revival on Broadway, Ted Chapin, the head of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization said to me, 'I have the perfect song for you' and I thought, 'he was kidding, but it turned out to be 'My Best Love'.
'I know of two Asian American performers that have been really helpful to their community One is George Takai, and the other is Baayork Lee, and I am so happy that this is a benefit for her organization because she has done really good work with her experience, her power and her talent and that is wonderful."
Ali Ewoldt (Christine from Broadway's "The Phantom of the Opera"):
"I am so thrilled to be here tonight. Baayork Lee is such an inspiration and has been such a champion for the Asian American community and the Broadway community. She has given me some amazing opportunities and to get to celebrate her is really special. It's so wonderful what NAAP does because I got to do the all Asian production of 'Carousel'. I got to play Carrie and it was such a blast because it was so exiting to get to play this part that I had wanted to play forever and she created this amazing opportunity for us. I'm just really grateful for it."
Adam Jacobs (Aladdin from Broadways' "Aladdin"):
"I have always admired the work that Baayork has done and she has opened the doors for so many Asian American artists including myself." Baayork Lee and NAAP provides so many different opportunities in many different ways whether it's through education or going to schools and supporting young artists there. I have so much respect for what she has been able to do."
Jose Llana (Ta from the Broadway revival of 'Flower Drum Song'):
"I am very excited to be here. I have always felt it has been an honor to be a part of the legacy that 'Flower Drum Song' has let me be a part of. And to give thanks and to honor those who came before us. That is the whole message of 'Flower Drum Song'. As an Asian American actor, I always have to acknowledge that my life is a whole lot easier and I'm able to do what I do because actors like Baayork and her counterparts, from the original 'Flower Drum Song', paved the way for us. The young Asian American actors today have no understanding of how difficult it was to be an Asian American actor in America 50 years ago. Just the blatant racism people would say to your face, and that they wanted to hire an American to play a Chinese person in a part that you should be able to play. They all have battle wounds, and thankfully it has gotten a lot easier, I have my own battle wounds from working for the past 20 years, but hopefully it will be even easier for the generation after me. It's because of the legacy that the actors that we are honoring here today, have given to us."
"Being a part of Flower Drum Song, It's the specificity of the facts in the show. I have played the King in 'The King and I', and I've played other Asian roles. There are very few stories that are specific to the Asian American experience. What it means to be someone from an Asian country, whose family is still trying to hold on to those traditions from your birth country, but still trying desperately to fit in as an American. And that, in itself, is a very specific emotion and a very specific experience, and 'Flower Drum Song' addresses that head on. It's hard to even try to name another musical that does that. We need to make more of those shows, and that's why I think David Henry Hwang was so inspired to revamp it in 2002, and there are so many other stories to tell that are specific to the Asian American experience and we have to get those stories onstage. What's empowering, is that now there are Asian American writers and even writers in general, that are writing the Asian American experience, and we are finally getting the embrace of that today.""Baayork Lee is such an inspiration. She teaches that with the success, that if you are lucky to have in your career, is to pass that on and to be a stepping stone for other people to pave the way for them. And she is such an example of that."
Richard Jay-Alexander (Co-Director of the NAAP Gala):
"This is pretty exciting. I have never done a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. So were inventing a new corner where Broadway Meets Chinatown and its going to be fantastic. This is where Baayork grew up. These past few days being at P.S. 124 rehearsing with the kids, going to Wo Hop which is her family's restaurant. It has been wild. Tonight in between the show, the awards and the speeches for the National Asian Artists Project, these people are having an 8 course traditional Chinese banquet. The room looks like a movie set from 'Flower Drunm Song'. It's pretty fantastic."
"First of all, NAAP is pretty spectacular. It's overwhelming. This was Baayork's idea. The answers are always in your own backyard. Chinatown is her beat. Walking through Chinatown with Baayork Lee is like walking with the unofficial queen of the town. It's really unbelievable what Baayork has done with NAAP. And when I see the kids, you understand why she was given that special Tony Award. That was not a gift. She's the real deal. I could tell after rehearsal yesterday that she was really tired, but she got up at 2am in the morning, because she had so many things on her mind and checks to write. It so amazing. And tonight, being in the bathroom with her, helping her fix her hair, and fluffing the shoulder feathers on her gown, these are things you can only dream about when you are growing up. These young kids tonight will be performing to the people who are majestic in our business. David Henry Hwang, Ted Chapin, Jack Viertel and lots of donors. In these times, when the arts are being raped fiscally for not for profit organizations, these people in this room are so important to us. I'm humbled by this. I've done some pretty big and splashy things but there is nothing like showing up and having kids appreciate you and they know who you are because they are fans of the business were in and to have Donna McKechnie here tonight. Wow, I met Baayork through Donna. We could pinch ourselves to be in this business."
Virginia Wing ( Played Mei Li in the tour of 'Flower Drum Song")
"I toured in 'Flower Drum Song' as Mei Li opposite Helen Gallagher. It was great, and it was my first musical that I had ever done. I was born and raised in Mississippi so I thought, 'How am I going to do this accent?' Than I thought, 'I will just copy Miyoshi Umeki who is not Chinese, but Japanese, but in Mississippi, I had never met anyone who was Chinese or Japanese. I remember the first performance we did was in Cleveland, Ohio. It seems that in the breakup scene, which is a very poignant moment, when I say, 'The minute I saw you, I knew I loved you. I wanted to be your wife and now, I don't love you anymore', and it came out with the strongest southern accent and when I came off stage the entire cast was on the floor laughing their heads off."
Pat Suzuki (Linda Low from the original 1958 Broadway production of 'Flower Drum Song"):
"This is just amazing! I am seeing some of the original cast again and it's a wonderful trip back. I cannot believe it's been 60 years. It feels more like 100! It was such an adventure. So exciting. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were just so lovely and so nice. I was totally new to show business. They were the papas of the business. You have to remember, I was from the west coast, so Broadway, really just meant long playing records to me. So being on Broadway and 'Flower Drum Song', I loved it. It was just so exciting. It was really a dream now that I think about it. It was lovely. What Baayork and NAAP does is probably the most encouraging thing that I can think of. It's very brave of her and it's just right in this day and age."
Robert Longbottom (Director/ Choreographer of the 2002 Broadway Revival of 'Flower Drum Song"):
"I miss our production of 'Flower Drum Song' so much. It's making my heart so full to see this generational group of people here from the original production and our production. There's a family connection that I wanted to create with the revival that David Henry Hwang was so intent on making happen and I think we did.
It was a huge responsibility for me. Gene Kelly had directed the original, so I was really lucky to be following that. David had a real point of view of what it meant to be an immigrant coming to this country. We opened the show at The Mark Taper Forum the week after 911 and we became a hit. I think on the back of 'A Hundred Million Miracles' that we all needed to look at one another and embrace that. We all have a dream and that coming to the Americas, we can find one. I wanted everyone in the audience, if they were Asian or not, to feel included. To know they had a past, whether they came over on the Mayflower, or by any means that got you to America to fulfill or to find your dream. That's really what it was about for me and I adore the score. It's was such a joy.
Baayork is a force of nature. She taught me 'A Chorus Line'. I owe her so much in my life. Because of her, I became a choreographer. I'm so proud of her with what she has done with NAAP and giving this group of people their own opportunity to do 'Into The Woods' and 'Sweeney Todd', which they should be able to do without a special arrangement and she made sure that was going to happen. And that's pretty great."
Ted Chapin (President and Executive Director of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company):
"Tonight underscores not only the importance of Rodgers and Hammerstein and what they were in their time, but what vision and impressions they had about the future. Baayork said, 'To have done a musical in 1958 that was about Chinese Americans, not Chinese, was so extraordinary.' I think Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote 'Flower Drum Song' because they loved the story and they found characters that interested them as they always did. And when we look at it, we realize what a world they were depicting and what resonance it has. Look at these people that are in this room tonight. Its full of people from the original production, the revival and some who have done tours. It's like a drug that everyone in this room has taken and having a communal high over it. Everyone of Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows have emotional depth and importance. To see all these people here tonight celebrating all of this is just the best."
Jack Viertel (Producer and Encores! Artistic Director):
"'Flower Drum Song' was one of my earliest Broadway experiences - I was 9 or 10 - so it has always had a very special place in my heart. Getting to work on it and trying to help (though I was only slightly involved) in trying to help it speak to an audience all those years later was very special, and David Hwang, who wrote the first Broadway show I ever was really involved with 'M. Butterfly', made it even better.
Being here for the NAAP Gala I found it thrilling - the organization is so much in the forefront of bringing true diversity to all of our stages, and the generational progress that has been made is so gratifying that taking an evening to both celebrate that and be clear about how much further there is to go was a unique experience."