What she did for love

Choreographer Baayork Lee is creating a revival of the Broadway blockbuster ‘A Chorus Line’ and bringing it to Tel Aviv.

A Chorus Line 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
A Chorus Line 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The last time veteran Broadway choreographer and theater director Baayork Lee stepped lightly in Israel was in 1973 as an actress in Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Within a couple years, she had taken on a project that would occupy most of her time over the next three decades – performing in Michael Bennett’s legendary Broadway blockbuster A Chorus Line, one of the longest-running Broadway shows.
“A Chorus Line took over my life, and I haven’t been back to Israel since,” said bubbly Lee in a phone call from London where, now as choreography director, she is beginning rehearsals for a revival of A Chorus Line, which will be presented in 16 shows in Tel Aviv beginning October 18. “For me to be able to take this show to Israel is going to be so exciting.”
The show, which wowed the theater world when it debuted in 1975, tells the story of 19 Broadway dancers auditioning for spots on a chorus line. Taking the audience behind the scenes of a Broadway production, the show delved into the back stories of the performers as they described the events that shaped their lives and their decisions to become dancers. It proved to be a sensation, with the musical winning nine Tony Awards in 1976 and running in its original production for 6,137 performances. And more importantly, according to Lee, it prompted a revolution in the theater world.
“Until A Chorus Line, Broadway shows always had a star, and a name above the title. And you always had an intermission. Michael blew up that whole formula – there’s no stars; the show is the star. And he took the chorus, the people behind the stars, and brought them out front,” said Lee, referring to Bennett, the gifted director who died in 1987 at age 44.
“I think he did change the face of theater in some ways. Shows used to have 12 singers and 18 dancer, and Michael just said, ‘We’re going to have the chorus, and they’re going to do everything.”
Lee met Bennett when both attended the High School for Performing Arts and developed a deep bond. So when Bennett began holding workshops from which A Chorus Line was developed, he invited her, resulting in the role of Connie Wong and a brief but dynamic solo in the show.
Going on to direct or choreograph many of Bennett’s subsequent shows and more than 35 international productions of A Chorus Line, Lee’s crowning achievement was leading the Broadway revival of the famed musical in 2006, more than 15 years after the show left the Great White Way.
“It was an incredible experience for me, coming back to Broadway and restaging Michael’s work,” said Lee, an event that was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Every Little Step, which intersperses the story of the revival with the saga of the original production through the use of old film clips and interviews from the original collaborators.
“Of course, even though it’s a period piece, we had to update a few things. We don’t use the ages anymore because when a performer says he was born in 1943, we didn’t want people wondering why he looks only 27 in case they forget that it’s not taking place in the present day.”
Lee issued reassurances that the show coming to Israel next month would be faithful to the original, and she bubbled over with superlative comments about her young cast, consisting of American and British singers and dancers.
“The show is only as good as its cast – they make all the difference. The sets and costumes will be based on the originals. And even though they’re telling stories that were originally told 35 years ago, they’ll be investing their own lives and experiences into it,” she said.
In choosing the cast, Lee said she looked for “the triple threat.”
“A Chorus Line started that term. It means someone who can sing, dance and act. You have to have all three in order to be in this show,” she said.
“And of course, we also have to look at how close they are to the characters. It’s a very grueling process, but after 25 years of doing this, you know when you see the right person for a role. I can look at someone and say ‘That’s the [character] Sheila I know.’ Just the way she carries her bag and her attitude, you can just feel it. Or there’ll be some tough guy who’s auditioning, and I’ll think, ‘Oh my God, he’s a Val’ and he doesn’t even know it yet.”
So many years after first helping to introduce A Chorus Line to the world, Lee seems to have lost none of her enthusiasm for the show. Her reason? Its simplicity.
“It’s such a basic idea, and that’s the genius of Michael Bennett,” she said.
“He took something that all dancers have in common – we dance. And where do we show our wares? At an audition. He took this simple idea and blew it out of the water.”
Performed in English.
Starting Otober 18 at the Opera House, Tel Aviv performing Arts Center.For tikets all (03) 6927777, www.israelopera.co.il

Tags musical