Early life and career
Lee was born in New York City's Chinatown to an Indian mother and Chinese father. She started dancing at an early age, and she made her Broadway debut at the age of five as Princess Ying Yawolak in the original production of The King and I in 1951. Yul Brynner, the original king, was like a second father to her. After she outgrew the show, she first collected unemployment at age eight. With further dance study in ballet, modern, and afro-Cuban, she appeared in George Balanchine's original production of The Nutcracker, where she met another idol, ballerina Maria Tallchief, whom she hoped to emulate.
While attending the High School for Performing Arts, she met fellow student Michael Bennett, and appeared in Flower Drum Song, in which she was taught to walk in high heels. When reaching her full height of four foot, ten inches (147 cm), her dreams of becoming a ballerina were dashed because she was deemed too short. Next, when offered a scholarship to Juilliard, Lee instead chose to further her career and Broadway appearances included Mr. President, Golden Boy, and Here's Love. Her next three shows were all choreographed by her old friend, Michael Bennett: A Joyful Noise, Henry, Sweet Henry, and Promises, Promises (in which she performed the famous dance Turkey Lurkey Time with Donna McKechnie and Margo Sappington). Lee was dance captain for Promises, Promises, and recreated the choreography for subsequent touring productions, starting her future path as choreographer.
A Chorus Line and Michael Bennett
In 1975, Lee was invited by Michael Bennett to participate in the workshops from which A Chorus Line was developed. The role of "Connie Wong" was, in large part, based upon her own life. Her bubbly and vibrant energy and "dynamo" personality were reflected in her brief solo, although Lee reports her mother disliked her daughter's singing. Lee laughingly blamed the notes. (Her "Four foot, ten" solo, long missing from the album, was finally heard on a re-release in the late 1990s). Along with the cast, she won the 1976 Theatre World Award for Ensemble Performance for the show. Over the years she has directed or choreographed more than thirty-five international productions of the musical, including the most recent Broadway revival in 2006. Fifteen years later, along with cast member Thommie Walsh and Robert Viagas, she documented the evolution of A Chorus Line in the book On the Line: the Creation of A Chorus Line, published in 1990. The 2008 feature documentary "Every Little Step" chronicles the casting process of A Chorus Line's 2006 revival, which was choreographed by Lee, and, in the course of the film, the saga of the original production is re-told as well, through the use of old film clips and revealing interviews from the original collaborators, including Lee.
Lee had become one of Bennett's closest collaborators and helped develop the choreography in many of his shows.
Choreography and Directing Career
Starting in the 1970s, Lee stepped out on her own choreographing Where's Charley? in New Jersey. Since then, she has directed national and international tours of The King & I, Bombay Dreams, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, Barnum, Porgy and Bess, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Carmen Jones. She was Associate Choreographer for Tommy Tune. She also has choreographed several productions for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. She also choreographed the ill-fated Marilyn: An American Fable when Kenny Ortega was fired during rehearsals. Other projects include becoming a talent scout for Tokyo Disneyland, opening a musical theater school in Seoul, South Korea, and producing.
References and sources
- Flinn, Denny Martin, What They Did for Love: The Untold Story Behind the Making of A Chorus Line, Bantam, 1989, ISBN 0-553-34593-1
- Viagas, Robert, Baayork Lee, Thommie Walsh, On the Line: the Creation of A Chorus Line, Morrow, 1990, ISBN 0-688-08429-X
- Baayork Lee's website
- Baayork Lee on IMBD