BWW Interview: Baayork Lee - A CHORUS LINE Original Still Stepping Up to the Line
To any A CHORUS LINE aficionado, the mere mention of Baayork Lee will conjure up vivid memories of the original Connie Wong - the youthful-looking, 4'10" Asian-American, perky dynamo who repeatedly evaded revealing her biological age to Zach, the interviewing choreographer. The original A CHORUS LINE opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre July 25, 1975. Now in 2016, Baayork will be choreographing and directing her most recent production of A CHORUS LINE at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
With an abbreviated rehearsal period of just five days, it helps that nine of the Hollywood Bowl cast have worked with Baayork before.
Baayork clarifies, "I say five days, because on the 6th or 7th day, we have a designer's run-thru and they need to see a show."
When the cast comes together for their first group rehearsal, "Everyone's going to be on the same page. I've written out a schedule. They know what's expected of them. They'll all come through."
Reprising their roles from the 2006 revival: Mara Davi as Maggie Winslow, Jason Tam as Paul San Marco, J. Elaine Marcos as Connie Wong and Mario Lopez as Zach. From the 2008 U.S. Touring company: Denis Lambert as Gregory Gardner and Ian Liberto as Bob Mills III. And from this year's Klagenfurt, Austria production: Sarah Bowden performing again as Cassie Ferguson. Playing different roles from the ones they played in the 2006 revival: Krysta Rodriguez who played Bebe will now perform DiAna Morales, and Courtney Lopez (who as Courtney Laine Mazza was Swing) will be playing Kristine Ulrich.
When Mario joined the cast on later in the 2006 run, he had not previously been on the boards. "We worked with him. Trained him in New York and he closed our revival on Broadway." (Fun fact: A CHORUS LINE was where Mario and Courtney initially met before eventually becoming Mr. & Mrs.)
Asked if Baayork has established some form of short-hand in directing her former dancers: "Absolutely, absolutely! I've taught them the show. Once you learn the show, it's in your DNA."
The original production from the creative genius of mastermind Michael Bennett generated quite a lot of buzz with his innovative use of minimal sets (except for the mirrors), minimal costumes (except for the finalé's gold top hat and tails) and the absence of marquee names in the cast.
Since the original production, Baayork has choreographed and/or directed over 40 productions of A CHORUS LINE - averaging at least one a year. Mentored by Michael Bennett, she follows his ground plan as "exactly what Michael did for us. And that is to really teach the show and make everyone knowledgeable of why he choreographed this step or why those lines were written. I think that's the thing that really stays with everybody, the basic foundation. 'Cause anybody can teach you the steps. I was there when Michael and Bob (Avian) were creating all of this. I can really pass that on first-hand."
The last time Baayork came to Los Angeles for A CHORUS LINE, she choreographed the touring company that played at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2008. Questioned specifically about her touring cast: "What do I remember about that company? I loved that company. Bob and I put that one together. Bob directed, I choreographed. We love the cast. It's all about the cast. The foundation is there. The show is there. The lights, the costumes are there. But it's about the cast. What they bring to the role. What they bring of themselves to the roles. Direction is set, but how an actor puts themselves in the role; that's why the audition process is so long and tedious. We need to see what is in your personality that can come out and make this role blossom."
A CHORUS LINE has the distinction of being the sixth longest running show on Broadway with 6,137 performances. On September 29, 1983; Michael Bennett invited all 457 of A CHORUS LINE alumni to perform for its gala 3,389th performance (when it surpassed GREASE's 3,388th). Baayork has crystal-clear reminiscences of that historic night. "How can I forget that night! They had to brace the stage so when we did our last kick, it wouldn't cave in. The Shuberts gave a huge party. Shubert Alley was closed off. It was so exciting. The original company hadn't been together since 1977. We were called back to do that. Michael invented an incredible show where he had every company - international company, Chicago company, Los Angeles company - all participating in creating the show again. We had a girl singing 'Nothing' in Japanese. It was quite wonderful. Michael had me direct the alternative scenes. We had a girl who had done the company in Spain; a boy who did Australia; an Italian boy; and they all spoke in their language. Zach spoke in English, but everyone else in their language."
Baayork first met Michael Bennett taking summer dance classes with Sevilla Forte. But they didn't get a chance to really bond until performing together in Meredith Willson's HERE'S LOVE (also at the Shubert) in October 1963. Then, when Michael began choreographing, he included Baayork in his crew of dancers. "In the 50s, 60s and beginning of the 70s, you had choreographers and directors that had their own camp. You worked for a choreographer. There were Jerome Robbins dancers. There were Fosse dancers. There were Peter Gennaro dancers. You were looking for a home so that you could work all the time. When you had your choreographer or a director, you did everything that they did. You did television. You did commercials. Anything that that choreographer did; you knew you had a job, because you were on their team. So when Michael started to choreograph and direct, I became a Bennett dancer. And that was really something, to be a part of somebody's team. So if he did television, I did it. If he did commercials, I did it. I knew that I was going to be working."
To celebrate A CHORUS LINE's 40th anniversary last year, The Public Theatre (founded by Joseph Papp, then originally known as the New York Shakespeare Festival) arranged for the original cast to all come into New York for a reunion luncheon. The Public Theatre (who produced both HAMILTON and the original A CHORUS LINE) also gifted the A CHORUS LINE cast with tickets for the performance of HAMILTON that night. "So exciting, so very exciting! First of all, I hadn't seen my fellow Brothers and Sisters in a long time."
Unbeknownst beforehand to any of the reunited A CHORUS LINE cast, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his HAMILTON troupe, in their curtain call, would pay tribute to A CHORUS LINE holding their glossy 8x10s in front of their faces singing the familiar lyrics "Who Am I anyway? Am I my resume..." from "I Hope I Get It." After also singing "What I Did For Love," Lin-Manuel invited the original A CHORUS LINE cast to join them onstage. Lin-Manuel had help staging this tribute from one of his ensemble - Carleigh Bettiol who had played Baayork's Cassie in Japan.
"It was just mind-blowing! Oh, my gosh! We were so touched. To see on stage what we created. Because we created the term 'triple threat.' There had never been that before. To watch the show and see the results of 40 years later of what we started was quite thrilling. They followed in our footsteps. We created A CHORUS LINE at the New York Shakespeare Festival the way they did. They re-opened Downtown and went to Broadway. We are the parents of HAMILTON." (Proudly beaming!)
The Public Theatre's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis that night described both A CHORUS LINE and HAMILTON as ground-breakers. Baayork totally agrees. "Absolutely, absolutely! There's more diversity now. It's really breaking ground."
The original cast of HAMILTON is now receiving profit-sharing compensation having workshopped its development. Pressed if it was true that the original A CHORUS LINE workshop participants sold their stories to Michael Bennett for $1 each? Baayork sheepishly admitted, "Yes!" Equity eventually came in and "made a rule that if you participated in creating a show, you would get a percentage." Even before the Equity ruling, "Michael offered us some of what he was getting." BTW, talking about stories, Baayork concurred that the stories of Connie Wong are 100% Baayork Lee's while Michael Bennett's have been incorporated into the Don Kerr character.
A show other than A CHORUS LINE that has resonating importance in Baayork's career has been KING & I. She made her Broadway debut in the original 1951 production at the age of five playing Princess Ying Yawolak to Yul Brynner as the original King. Later in 2004, Baayork directed the national tour of KING & I. Toward the end of this tour, Baayork realized her mostly fellow Asian cast would be facing scant performing opportunities, while waiting for the next productions of KING & I or MISS SAIGON. This realization motivated her to form the National Asian Artists Project (naaproject.org) to provide training and opportunity for Asian-American theatre artists. The NAAP has already started musical theatre schools at PS124 (The Yung Wing School) in New York's Chinatown; as well as; in Seoul, Korea and Tokyo, Japan.
Baayork will always remember her King, Yul Brynner's advice to her five-year-old self: "Look left. Look right. Look front. Never look back."
Drawing from her four decades-plus experience in the theatrical arts, Baayork's advice for all performers: "Follow your dreams. Don't give up."
Baayork is constantly striving to preserve Michael Bennett's vision. "His legacy - for the generations to come. His choreography is iconic, as well as the show. People know the opening jazz combination. They know the combination 'One' with the hats. 40 years later, fourth generation, they're really getting into this choreography. 40 years later, it's still making an impact."
What Baayork looks for in auditioning triple threats for A CHORUS LINE: "First of all, they have to do double pirouettes. If you can't do the double pirouettes, you better be singing like Maggie when she sings that high note and holds it. (chuckles) Come prepared. YouTube. You don't come in with a contemporary song or a rap song to audition for A CHORUS LINE. Know what you're auditioning for."
Baayork credits her longevity in the theatrical arts to her love of theatre. "Loving what I do. Inspiring the new generation. Wanting to continue being in the theatre."
On what she wants the Hollywood Bowl audience to walk away with after their final bows - "I want them to understand what the show is about and why it's an icon. I think that's really, really important. Why has this show lasted this long and why has it effected so many people."
For Baayork personally, "So exciting to have our line. A lot of the original company who live here will be coming to see the show. For us to look on that line, to be at the Bowl, and see our lives on that line, and how far this show has come, and how we contributed to the theatre... will be quite something."
Questioned if the audience can expect dance mirrors - "Of course!" Top hat and tails? "Well, of course!"
Go see A CHORUS LINE for yourself (if you can still get a ticket!) and discover why A CHORUS LINE won the 1976 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Choreography (Michael Bennett & Bob Avian) and Best Score (Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban) among its total seven wins.
A CHORUS LINE will play at the Hollywood Bowl July 29, 30, & 31, 2016
For single ticket availability, log onto www.HollywoodBowl.com