BWW Interview: Tony Award Recipient Baayork Lee Talks Collaboration, Broadway, and More with SOUTH PACIFIC at City Springs Theatre Company
This weekend when SOUTH PACIFIC opens at City Springs Theatre Company, audiences will get the rare privilege of seeing the handiwork of Broadway royalty.
The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about love, wartime, and race is directed and choreographed by Tony Award recipient Baayork Lee, best known to Broadway audiences as the original Connie in A CHORUS LINE. Since debuting on Broadway at age five in THE KING AND I, Lee has led a prolific career across the theatre landscape for decades. She is currently involved in multiple performance companies, and this year alone she has also helmed projects in China, Japan, and Spain. To say her dance card is full is an understatement.
So how did our Atlanta theatre community land such a high profile artist for a few weeks? Lee reveals the simple answer in the conversation below as she shares what it has been like to revisit the classic musical, recalls performing across the street from the original Broadway production of SOUTH PACIFIC, and more!
So how has SOUTH PACIFIC been going so far?
It's been moving along beautifully. What a great cast! I work pretty fast, and in the first week, we almost got the entire first act on its feet. Our leading man William Michals is phenomenal! Just to come and hear him sing "Some Enchanted Evening" is worth the price of the ticket. We're lucky to have him because he did the Lincoln Center production. But not just him, all the actors that we chose are just incredible. I think we have the cream of the crop.
Mr. Brandt [Blocker], certainly knows the people in this town, and I relied on him a lot because I don't know the people here. Actors would come in, and besides what's on their resume, Brandt had worked with them or seen them in a show and they were good, and he'd consider them because of that.
I have to tell you, coming down here and working for City Springs Theatre, they are so together! They even had the set for me already at the beginning of rehearsals! I've been working on the set! And that has made it easier for me to do my job. I haven't had to worry, "Well what does that look like? How big is that?" It's right there in front of me. What a luxury. And every day I would tell them what I wanted to work on, and the pieces were out there, everything was already set up. They're so nice. My assistant David Gilrod and I are so happy to be here.
I'm so glad! So how did we get lucky enough to have you directing and choreographing for us in Atlanta?
Well Brandt just called me! It's almost a year ago that we started talking about this, and you know, my dance card is totally full. But I had already choreographed this at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Molly Smith had directed it. I'm familiar with the piece, so when Brandt mentioned it, even though I didn't know anything about his Atlanta theatre, I wanted to do this piece again. I wanted to revisit this.
So what is it like revisiting this piece and adding on directing as well?
Well, it's a lot of homework, reading the source material, TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC by James A. Michener again, as well as calling up friends who had done the show, getting the packet again to read the history of what was going on in the South Pacific at that time, the natives on the island, exactly where they think these islands were. I was revisiting all the things, the officers, their roles in the war, the Seabees, the ensigns who were the nurses, everything. And this is truly a love story, so [my homework] was also getting that script in my hand, revisiting Emile and Nellie's relationship and dissecting all these words they're talking about, and then of course choreographing the numbers.
Wow, that sounds like a packed year since saying yes to this project!
Yes, and just before I started SOUTH PACIFIC rehearsals, I was in Shanghai. We opened A CHORUS LINE there. It's the first time it's been played in China. So I went from Shanghai to Osaka, and two days later, I'm singing "There's Nothing Like a Dame." But you know, that's what keeps me young, I think, young and vibrant and wanting to give back to young people. I do that with my energy, with my knowledge. It's important that I give back, and that's why I started my company and went to the school in Chinatown for the kids. You gotta give back.
There has been so much going on, organizing all of that and juggling all of that. I think that's part of my excitement about still being in the theatre. From starting at five years old and just loving the theatre and wanting to not just be on the outside looking in, but truly be a part of it, and then doing so many shows and meeting Michael Bennett, all of that whole life has brought me to where I am, to Brandt and to City Springs. I have so much I've learned that's important, and I'm hoping that with SOUTH PACIFIC, all of the actors here will have not only a good time, but that this show will mean something to them.
And what do you feel like SOUTH PACIFIC particularly means to you?
It's special because when I was in [the original Broadway production of] THE KING AND I at the St. James Theatre very, very young, right across the street was SOUTH PACIFIC, and sometimes they would let us go and see the show. When SOUTH PACIFIC's original girl who played Ngana got too tall and big, they brought her over to THE KING AND I, so we would be singing the SOUTH PACIFIC songs she taught us, and we knew them because they were kids and we were kids, so we would interact.
What a special connection. I love that!
Yes, it is a special connection, and I still keep in touch with her. Her name is Barbara Luna, and she went on to represent the Asian community in television and film. She was on STAR TREK a lot.
Just picturing the children from THE KING AND I and SOUTH PACIFIC hanging out together is so amazing. So what aspects have you enjoyed in revisiting SOUTH PACIFIC?
I love scene work. I love to be able to sit down with the actors I'm working with and dissect the scene, listen to their ideas. I love learning more because William has done several productions, and he brings his knowledge. And then we have actors who have never done it who have created their world, and to bring them together just to sit and talk in our scene studies is wonderful. It's so exciting and informative and enriches the production.
That's so great! I love how you talked about giving back, but you're also learning from them as well.
I am so very honored and pleased to be able to be here working with the City Springs Theater Company. One of the reasons why I wanted to come down to Atlanta was to be able to work with the Asian Theatre community. I am hoping in the future with City Springs I will be able to work more with these artists as it is very important for them to be present in the American Theater. My company, National Asian Artists Project's (NAAP) mission is to give the Asian artists a platform to show their talents. Hopefully Sandy Springs will continue to support a diverse theater community.
SOUTH PACIFIC plays the Byers Theatre at The Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center (1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs) March 8 - 17, 2019. Tickets are $30 - $62, with discounts for seniors, students, groups, and active and retired military personnel. Visit www.CitySpringsTheatre.com or call 404-477-4365 for more information.
Come away to a lush, remote island in the South Pacific during World War II where U.S. Navy officers, Seabees, and nurses discover and embrace unfamiliar people and cultures in a place so very far from home. Cockeyed optimist Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, falls deeply in love with Frenchman Emile De Becque, a widowed plantation owner who has lived on the island for many years. Ivy League hero Lt. Joseph Cable must face his own moral compass when he becomes enraptured with Liat, a beautifully frail island girl. SOUTH PACIFIC is studded with the most unforgettable songs of all time, including "Some Enchanted Evening," "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Younger Than Springtime," and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair."