Even at 4 years old, Baayork Lee knew that “The King and I” and Yul Brynner were very, very special. At 29, she wasn’t so sure about “A Chorus Line” and Michael Bennett.
“This was a work in progress, an experiment, and we all took a chance on it,” said Lee, a member of the original 1975 Broadway cast of “A Chorus Line,” and now the director of the national tour stopping in at Proctors for four performances Friday through Sunday.
‘A Chorus Line’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $65-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
Just another show
“I had done two other shows with Michael and they certainly weren’t considered big hits. This was just another show, but we all loved Michael and we wanted it to be a success.”
“A Chorus Line” was nominated for 12 Tonys and won nine of them. It was also the 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner and ran for 6,137 performances, making it the longest-running production in Broadway history until it was surpassed by “Cats” in 1997.
It wasn’t, however, Lee’s first taste of success. On March 29, 1951, when she was not yet 5, she played Princess Ying Yawolak, the daughter of the King of Siam, played by Brynner, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein production of “The King and I.” Born in New York City’s Chinatown to an Indian mother and Chinese father, Lee often referred to Brynner as her second father.
“They came down to Chinatown looking for children, and practically our whole school went and auditioned,” she remembered. “After working with Yul Brynner at the age of 5, I knew that I was going to stay in the business. I did it every night for three years. I loved it and I felt so lucky to find my destiny at such an early age.”
In 1958, Lee made her return to Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” During that two-year run, she met Bennett while they both were attending the High School for Performing Arts. She was offered a scholarship to Juilliard but instead opted to return to Broadway, where she got plenty of steady work as a dancer.
In Neil Simon’s 1968 hit, “Promises, Promises,” she played various roles and also served as dance captain. In 1973 she was again in the dance ensemble, in Bennett’s “Seesaw.” When he started working on “A Chorus Line,” he relied on her extensively, using her as the dance captain and the assistant choreographer while also giving her the role of Connie. As “A Chorus Line” became a huge success, Bennett relied on Lee even more.
Beginning to roll
“Michael told me, ‘You know, this machine is going to start rolling, and I need somebody to take care of it,’ ” remembered Lee. “He wanted to develop some other things, and was saying how he wasn’t going to have the time. We had three companies in the U.S., one in London and another in Australia. It was amazing, and I was kept very busy.”
Her work with Bennett, who died in 1987 at the age of 44 from AIDS-related lymphoma, led to other opportunities for Lee. She soon started directing and doing choreography for a number of international tours other than “A Chorus Line,” most notably “Bombay Dreams” and “Porgy and Bess.” She also continued to get work in New York, serving as Tommy Tune’s associate choreographer in “My One and Only.”
As much as she enjoyed her experience with Brynner in “The King and I,” it was “A Chorus Line” that really gave her a long and continuing career. It’s a show, she insists, that not only changed her life, but changed Broadway.
“If you look at the history of the theater and where it was in 1974 and ’75, Broadway had taken a real dip and there was no money to be had,” she said. “Musicals had these huge casts of 45 or 50 and more, and there just wasn’t any money to put on a really good, big show. ‘A Chorus Line’ told the story of how it was such a struggle to be a dancer, but it all began with Michael just taping our conversations with him.”
Bennett picked 17 dancers, including Lee, on whom to center the show, and then got writers James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicolas Dante to write a play about them. Marvin Hamlisch provided the music and Ed Klaban the lyrics for the show, which produced songs like “What I Did for Love” and “One.”
The show was such a huge smash it revitalized Broadway, and had producers all over New York looking for performers who could act, sing and dance.
“As a dancer, you never really sang or spoke on stage, and then suddenly Michael is putting us on the white line and asking us to come forward and tell our story,” said Lee. “That was a bit frightening for all of us, and it was a big change. There weren’t that many people doing it all back then, what you would call a triple threat. ‘A Chorus Line’ changed that.”
The role of Connie is being played by Geena Quintos. Also in the touring production are Caley Crawford as Cassie and Jeremiah Ginn as Zach, the director.
In the original production, Donna McKechnie won a Tony for her performance as Cassie, while Michael Douglas played Zach and Connie was played by Jan Gan Boyd in the 1985 movie.
While her initial dream of becoming a ballet dancer never materialized — Lee only stands 4-feet-10 — her career as a director/choreographer has given her a great life and helped her travel all around the world. In 1976 she earned a special Theatre Award for her ensemble work in “A Chorus Line,” and in the highly successful 2006 Broadway revival of the show, it was Lee, acting as choreographer, who restaged all the dancers’ moves. Her No. 1 priority these days is to give other Asian-Americans the same wonderful opportunity she had, the one she made the most of.
“When I was growing up, my role models in the theater were always blond with blue eyes,” said Lee, who has started up her own production company called the National Asian Arts Project.
“In this day and age, we should have more Asian actors on Broadway and getting into film, and I’m not talking about people playing the cook or the maid. By producing shows like ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Carousel’ with all-Asian casts, we’re giving young actors a chance to showcase their talents, and maybe directors will put them in a lead role. I know we have wonderful pockets of Asian communities all over the country, and that’s why I wanted to start up this company.”
Getting Asian children involved in the theater isn’t an easy proposition, according to Lee.
“Musical theater is just not part of the Asian culture,” she said. “Parents want their kids to become doctors and lawyers. When I tell those Tiger moms that their kids are going to be singing and dancing, they look at me like I’m crazy.”