When Baayork Lee arrived in San Francisco with the production of A Chorus Line earlier this month, it was a homecoming of sorts.
“I remember coming here in 1976 when San Francisco audiences welcomed us overwhelmingly, so it’s nice to be bringing Chorus Line back to a new generation of stage goers,” says Lee, who choreographed the show’s current re-staging and who has been a part of this long-running musical for over 30 years.
Lee created the role of Connie Wong – the 4-foot-10-inch Asian dancer from New York’s Chinatown with dreams of being a ballerina – from her own life story for the original 1975 production.
Lee grew up in New York’s Chinatown with an East Indian mother and Chinese father who owned the Wo Hop Restaurant. When Lee was 5 years old, her mother heard that the new show The King and I with Yul Brynner was looking for young Asian children, so she brought Lee to audition. She played one of the King’s young children in the show from 1951 to 1954 and “got bitten by the dancing bug,” she recalls.
At 8 years old, Lee received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where she performed with the New York City Ballet and studied with Jerome Robbins. When Flower Drum Song was first introduced on Broadway in 1958, once again they needed Chinese children, and Lee joined the show for 3 years. She enrolled in the Performing Arts High School and formalized her study of jazz dance and other dance forms. In 1962, Carol Haney, who had choreographed Flower Drum Song, remembered Lee’s talents and placed her in Bravo Giovanni, again in a child’s role.
Along the way, Lee met producer Norman Jewison and performed in his Here’s Love production, first as a kid and eventually joining what she laughingly calls “the big girls chorus line” in 1963.
This led to two career milestones: Lee finally played an adult dancer, then met Michael Bennett, who also was playing in the show and who would later conceive a musical about a chorus line of dancers, their individual lives and struggles. In 1975, Bennett asked Lee to join his stable of dancers.
Lee created the character of Connie Wong and played that role when the show opened on Broadway in 1975. Since that early success, she has worked in the show as dancer, choreographer and restaging manager all around the world.
But Lee hopes to give back to the community more than an Asian American character for the ages. “Remembering how I started in New York’s Chinatown, I always wanted to go back there in search of children like me and give them encouragement to try the field of dance,” Lee says. “I want to establish a musical theatre to encourage Chinese children to try dance, so they can learn there is a life outside of the academic studying their parents stress in their lives.”
Lee will oversee the musical’s choreography for the next two years of its revival in the United States, and will continue to run a website connecting former dancers or others once connected to A Chorus Line.