Blazing Trails: An Interview with Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award Recipient Baayork Lee

Blazing Trails: An Interview with Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award Recipient Baayork Lee

Alex Chester

Baayork wearing designer Malan Breton at the ‘Designed To Celebrate: A Toast To The 2017 Tony Awards Creative Arts Nominees’ June 1, 2017.

Baayork wearing designer Malan Breton at the ‘Designed To Celebrate: A Toast To The 2017 Tony Awards Creative Arts Nominees’ June 1, 2017.

I remember the first time I met Baayork Lee. I was at an audition she was holding for A Chorus Line and there I was star struck trying to pick up the iconic dance combination from the opening number. Here was this legend I grew up hearing about, literally right in front of me. I didn’t get cast, but a year later I would make my NYC debut in Baayork’s Teatre company’s production of Hello Dolly. Not only did I get the rare chance to play a dream role, Minnie Fay, but I got to work with Baayork Lee who is a mother freaking legend in the Broadway community and the nicest lady to boot!

If you know anything about theatre you have heard of Ms. Lee. She started her career playing Princess Ying Yaowalak in the original Broadway production of The King and I starring Yul Brynner, and is known best for originating Connie Wong in A Chorus Line. Her career has spanned decades and she can still dance the opening number from ACL full out! She is also the co-founder of National Asian Artist Project.

This year she is being honored with the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her significant contributions to charitable causes through the arts. About damn time is all I have to say to that, and bravo! Baayork is kind and generous and she has created a community for the Asian-American performer. She has proven that hard work and perseverance pays off! I am so honored that she let me interview her.

Baayork, in the time that you've been performing and producing, do you think Asian Pacific Islanders (API) have progressed any, if at all? Or do you think we still have a long way to go? 

We have progressed a lot compared to the 1950's. However even with Hamilton, with it's diversity we won't know if that was a fluke, so we have to wait till the next season of theater and see how it unfolds. I still think we have a long way to go. 

What do you think is the biggest thing holding back the API performer? 

The producers, writers, directors, and casting. They need to be more open-minded in the use of the talent of the Asian-American Artist in their shows.

Baayork Lee, Donna McKechnie, and Margo Sappington, doing Turkey Lurkey Time in the original Broadway production of Promises, Promises.

Baayork Lee, Donna McKechnie, and Margo Sappington, doing Turkey Lurkey Time in the original Broadway production of Promises, Promises.

As a multiracial person myself I am always interested in how other mixed-raced people identify. Did you find you had to choose between one racial aspect of yourself over the other?  Was it difficult growing up in Chinatown as a half-Chinese, half-Indian kid? 

I lived in Chinatown, I went to school in Chinatown, my father’s restaurant was in Chinatown. My friend’s that I went to school with were: Chinese-Puerto Rican, Chinese-Polish, Chinese-Italian, this was not unusual. The Exclusion Act and Ministry of Agriculture closing the doors to China enabled the Chinese men to start families here. As Chinese women were not allowed to come to work in the USA, only men.

Your career has spanned decades and you have worked with legends. Do you have a favorite show you performed in? Do you have a favorite story about Michael Bennett? Yul Brynner? 

I loved Promises, Promises and A Chorus Line.

Martha Swope (Sony Picture Classics) Baayork Lee as Connie Wong in ACL

Martha Swope (Sony Picture Classics)
Baayork Lee as Connie Wong in ACL

[On the topic of Michael Bennett] In order to get the cast to react spontaneously, Michael at the end of our first workshop, all dressed in his party clothes (because he was giving us a party at his house) said, “let’s do the opening combination and I'll dance." The music started. He was dancing with the boys and all of sudden slipped and fell to the floor screaming. I knew he had knee problems, so everyone just stopped. Someone said he had a prescription for Valium, he ran out the door to fill it. I ran to the bathroom to wet paper towels. Why? I don't know. When I came out Michael was standing, everyone was laughing, and he said, "I want you to remember everything you did." I was furious and angry. However, the scene in ACL is exactly how it happened. 

[On King and I] Yul Brynner was a father to the children, he took us to the circus, he took us out for Christmas. We did a lot of publicity and lots of appearances. He was like a father to us. And when he was dying he invited all of us to see his last performance In NY. After the show there was a party. He could hardly speak because he had cancer of the throat. But we all went back to his huge apartment and he talked to us for hours telling us all about himself and his thoughts on life. I will always remember that evening.

You have become a very well-known choreographer.  Would you ever consider performing again? 

I will not be performing anymore. The excitement for me is in the creating and the development process.

Can you tell the readers about National Asian Artist Project? What is NAAP? Why did you start it? Do you think NAAP is the first of its kind in NYC? What are your hopes for the future of this awesome company? 

Steven Eng, Nina Zoie Lam and I started NAAP because we felt there was a need for the Asian-American performer to experience performing in the American Musical Classics. Since they would never have an opportunity to be cast in any of the shows, never be able to sing the songs of the great composers. They were chained to The King and I, Flower Drum Song or Miss Saigon. I think NAAP is the first to produce on such a large scale. Our last production Oliver we had 64 in our cast. We also realized that education is important. We decided to bring Arts Education to PS 124 in Chinatown, where Nina Zoie and I grew up.

NAAP’s 5th Anniversary Gala (Photo:Wai Ng)

NAAP’s 5th Anniversary Gala (Photo:Wai Ng)

Giving back to the community is important. Introducing children to Musicals, having them sing and dance and travel each year to the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, opens their world to 6,000 other children who love musicals. Working on their diction, projects, and speaking and singing in front of their peers. We started an adult chorus for professional performers and students. NAAP Broadway Community Chorus sings the composers of the American Theatre and gives concerts after each segment is completed. This gives the professionals an opportunity to keep their voices ready for auditions and the students to work on their sight reading and harmonies. We also offer Ballet classes, Jazz class, and Tap classes at a reasonable fee for members.

Is there anything that those who are currently representing us (Asian Americans) on stage can do to support NAAP and other Asian-driven companies in the arts? 

Well, they certainly can help by donations to NAAP. Or help fund-raise as these programs need funding as grants are now going away with this administration. We are so proud of everyone who goes out there and breaks down another wall. NAAP is always here for them and for the newbies just coming to town.

What projects or shows are you working on next? 

We are working on another co-production with Prospect Theater. Last year we co-produced Honor with them at the Times Building Theatre. We also have a summer NAAP Kids program.

Thank you so much Baayork and congrats on the Tony! It is truly and honor to know you and be part of the NAAP community!

For more info on NAAP please visit their website: 

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Alex Chester is a California gal living in NYC. She has been performing since she was a little girl and is also the creator of the blog MeSoHapa.com and the multicultural cabaret  "WeSoHapa", recently seen at The Triad. Theatre credits include: Broadway's “How the Grinch Stole Xmas” – Madison Square Garden (NYC) and the Broadway sit down production at The Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. A Biker in "Bubble Boy" by Cinco Paul, original cast recording and at 54 Below, starring Alice Ripley. Minnie Fay in “Hello Dolly” directed by Lee Roy Reams at the Signature Theatre (Off-Broadway),  Joy/Skyler in “A Taste of Chocolate” with AMAS directed by Dan Knechtges (NYC). Connie in “A Chorus Line” at The Berkshire Theatre Festival (Regional), “The King and I” at Dallas Summer Musicals (Regional). TV credits include: ER, The Closer, 7th Heaven, and several national/international commercials. http://www.AlexChester.com Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester

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