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Being in A Chorus Line -- a show that is not only a conceptual benchmark for Broadway musicals but the fourth longest running show of all time--is any singer/dancer/actor's dream job. But for a few performers--who were there when the late choreographer/writer/director Michael Bennett used the audio-recorded interviews with a batch of dancers that formed the basis of the show which became A Chorus Line--it is an actual excerpt from their lives. Among those original people, Baayork Lee's story is told both metaphorically and literally. She was the original "Connie"--the tiny Asian who wanted to be a ballet dancer.
What a legacy, knowing that the part you are playing on stage is a kind of meta-reality, a culling of your own life history into a story line to be enjoyed by audiences for ages and to touch every performer who has had a similar life experience to it.
Beyond all these accolades, these two artists also were blessed with the chance to be documented in the film, Every Little Step, going through the revival's auditions to working together on it. Directed by Adam Del Deo and James Stern, this touching documentary (which opened here as part of New Directors/New Films) tracks the making of the show from its origins when Bennett used the taped discussions for the original workshop that was first presented at the Public Theater. The film shows the process from how it got refined for its first Broadway run to the winnowing down of the many candidates for the revival. Maybe presenting a self-reflective, innovative show on Broadway like A Chorus Line, isn't going to change the world, but--as this conversation with us interviewers proves--it is a life-affirming event for us to enjoy.
Q: How did you feel about your story going from here to here [gesturing] through the workshop into what became the original A Chorus Line?
BL: It started off with the taped sessions. Before that, Michael had done a show called "Seesaw" with Michelle Lee. It was not a hit. I had done several flops with Michael... a show called A Joyful Noise. You had never heard of them, right? Those were Michael's shows. So when someone says' we're going to do a session' and 'we're going to do a show, and we don't know what it is' and all of that, you go, "Oh yeah, right. Yeah. We'll be there." But we didn't know what it was.
That musical, Seesaw, had 16 dancers, 12 singers, eight principals and that was considered a big musical. We heard that producers weren't going to do shows like that anymore and they were going to be cutting down. So where are the dancers going [to go]?
They all got together with Michael Bennett and had this taped session. It was 24 hours. They talked about how to "save the theater." And they got into why they came to New York.
Michael thought what was said on those tapes was really interesting. He took them to Joseph Papp [who ran The Public Theater--the same place that launched Hair a decade earlier] who gave him a bare-bones--there were only 12 of us to do a workshop. At that time it was called a "work in progress"--the name "workshop" hadn't been developed yet.
My part in that first workshop was as Michael Bennett's assistant. He said, "You're not going to be in the show [as a dancer] but you'll be 'my assistant.'" So I played the assistant.
But by second workshop, Michael decided that he wanted me, my life, in the show. In the second workshop, where my part was developed, I said, "Why would anyone want to know about a short Asian that wanted to be a ballet dancer? That doesn't interest me at all." But he said, "No, no, no, no." He was getting the balance of the show [right].
There were 17 people on that line. He needed different stories, different balances and things like that. So Michael felt he needed me in the show. I gave up the assistant role and became "Connie." The name came about because I had done two shows. The first was "Promises, Promises" that Neil Simon had written, and he made me Ms. Wong. Then in Seesaw I was also Ms. Wong. So when it came to naming the character, he said "You're going to be Ms. Wong, but you have to have a first name."
One night he was watching Connie Chung on television. And there you go, Connie Wong. In fact, I told her that. But everything that I sing in the show I sent on the tape. So he didn't have to edit anything.
Q: What were the points in your life when you said, "Yeah, that was just like it?"
YT: I grew up dancing [from] when I was five and wanted to be a ballerina. Then somebody told me that my butt was too big and coming out of my suit. It was like, "Oh, okay." And I never grew. At a certain point--I think I was like 12 years old, the sixth grade--I just stopped growing, and here I am, still at like 4' 11" on a good day. So I felt like those issues were very similar. What I didn't know was that I'm a fighter inside. Connie sort of brought that out of me.
I love the line in the show where I, or she, says, "Because whatever I am, I am." That's so beautiful to me because it's like, "Oh, I'm in New York, being a performer. We're always being judged because we're Asian, or we're short, or we're too this or we're too that." But that line, "Cause whatever I am, I am." All right, that's it. You're right. I'm not going to grow any taller. I'm not going to be all of a sudden somebody else.
I am from Okinawa and am in New York right now, fighting for myself like [Baayork] fought from Chinatown. Yeah, we're both fighters inside, and that I discovered through Connie.
Q: You almost didn't get the part because of your Japanese accent--is your accent less noticeable now?
YT: I'm working on it.
BL: It's funny, because I was the only one that heard [her accent].
Q: How much did you change after working with a giant like Michael Bennett?
BL: When you grow up with somebody, they're not a giant. They're not a genius yet. We grew up together. Michael, at 13, would come every summer to my dancing school and I knew him. Then later on we danced in a show, Here's Love Together. He started teaching Jazz class and I started taking his class. So you don't know that there's a giant yet. It hasn't come out yet.
When we started this work process, we started with an empty slate, an empty sheet. We did not have a show. We did not know how to write a show. We were just dancers that were unemployed and with taste, talking about our lives.
Who sets the structure? That's where the genius came in. Saying this is an audition, finding the hook for it, we could have been in a therapy session or something. But he found the common ground for us. We were all dancers. What do we all do? We all go to auditions to do our job. And that's where the giant starts to build and the genius starts to build.
So every single person who had their stories in the show--sometimes it was a compilation of two lives together--Michael worked with them individually on how to build it, should I say this or shouldn't I say that.
In the documentary he talks about that hellish performance where it lasted for four hours and everybody told their entire life story. [My character] told her entire life story. Then came the genius of how you take those four hours and get it down to two.
Marvin Hamlisch [who wrote the music] makes a very good point. He had three lives and they [had to] get three or four of those lives musically together [on stage] so he put it together musically [by having several voices sing their stories in one song].
That's when all the geniuses sit around the table. But we were part of that. So I'm very lucky that I was in on the ground floor and saw how the show was developed.
Q: When did it dawn on you that you were in a major Broadway show? Did you ever think you'd work in a show where the real originals were there--you see the process, you do the show. It's a hit. You never know that a show's going to be a hit.
BL: I was a chorus dancer. I danced for Michael. I'd been his assistant. I loved being in the chorus. I loved dancing in the chorus. I did not want to go in front of that white line and be Hello Dolly or somebody out there. I took pride in dancing in the chorus my whole life.
When Michael said jump, I had to jump because I didn't know any better. Dancers listen to their choreographers. And when he says, do a tumblesault, that's what we're going to do. Most of us who were dancers had never taken acting lessons. I was not a singer. So when Michael said, "I really think that line doesn't work for you..." I would say, "Well okay." And he was right.
When did it dawn on me that this was going to be a hit? When I saw Jackie Kennedy and her two kids sitting in the audience and I saw Diana Ross and her kid sitting on the stairs because there were no tickets, and I went, "Wait a minute. What is this?"
Bob LuPone [who played Zach in the original show] said to me--he knocked on the door--and said, "Baayork, come here." And we looked out the window. There were limousines outside of the Joseph Papp Theater. And he said, Are we a hit or is this a hit?"
And then we were up and running. All of a sudden we were on Broadway. How did that happen? Wow! But the A Chorus Line machine had started to go, the engine [kicked in] and it hasn't stopped in 35 years. It's unbelievable.
Q: So how was it for you, Yuka? You're not only in it for the auditions, but you're actually cast and working with the people that made the original. And you're going to be in the movie. When did it dawn on you, "Oh my god! This is all coming together for me like this?"
YT: We weren't sure about the movie until recently. But to have Baayork in the room every day, I probably won't be able to have this kind of experience ever again. A character from the show, which is based on her life, is alive in my room and giving us warm-ups every day at 10 o'clock [in the morning]. She's ready with her bandana and getting ready with the drummer.
She has so much energy and has been such an inspiration for me and the company. So we were all so lucky to have you and also Bobby, the director... To get it from the source instead of getting it passed down from somebody else that couldn't do [the original]. So it's just great to have that. I hope someday I'll be able to do that for the newer kids. She's been making sure that we're ready for that. And she's gotten ready for us in show business and also in life.
Q: Now with the popularity of the dance reality shows--some people resent them, others feel that they're fine--what do you think about them?
BL: We were the first reality show to begin with. So American Idol comes along and So You Think You Can Dance and all of that. People are interested in people. But the thing is that dance has come full circle. Back in the '70s everybody was discoing and partying all night and dancing, having dance fever, Michael Jackson. Everybody was taking Jane Fonda's warm-ups and getting her tapes. Everybody was into their bodies and had leg-warmers, dance bags and going to class. It has come full circle, 35 years later. You now have So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With The Stars, blah, blah, blah, on and on and on and on. And I think we were the mother of all of that.
YT: It is true. A Chorus Line was the American Idol. Michael Bennett was ahead of anybody. He was way ahead. He put it as a theatre piece, and also he said that when he wanted to make a movie. He said this should be a documentary about real life, auditioning for a show, which John [Breglio. executive producer] made 30 years later. When we get questions about American Idol, [It's] like we are ahead of the game. It's been done already.
BL: Those [shows are] Johnny-come-latelys. I've been confined to the desk for almost 34 years; I've been judging. We're not as cruel as Simon because we are expecting professional people to come in to audition for us, that we don't have to tell them what they need to do.
They have their agents. They have their teachers. They have all those people before they come to us to tell them how good [to be] or how not [to be]. It depends on what we need in our show and what parts are available. But we don't have to say, "Go home and cut your hair and get longer legs or... " We don't have to do any of that because professional people come in to audition for us.
YT: Actors, too. It's a job. We have to go in there, be focused and get that job because, like in the movie: "Oh, I'm on unemployment from this"--my job--and it was true. We're not just going in there to see how we do or see how they like my looks. We're in there to seriously go after our job. That's our life. The film captured a good part of it.
BL: We do this every day. People are auditioning for shows every single [day]--sometimes they do four and five auditions. They leave us and they go to Shrek or Mary Poppins. They do it all the time. This documentary opens the door so that you all can see what we do.
Q: It's bittersweet to watch because it ends on a happy note, on opening night. Then, the strike happens and it probably doesn't run as long as you guys wanted it to. Knowing that, it's bittersweet just knowing that they look so happy. It was bittersweet re-watching this. Look at how excited you are. You probably didn't have as long a run as [you] wanted.
BL: I wanted the show to run 15 years. I wanted us to break the record of what we had before, and that's what I was going for. I was fishing for it. We really had the momentum going, and then of course, the strike, and that was it. We do have a touring company now. There's a company running in Milan now in Italian. So A Chorus Line will go on forever.
Q: Was your main focus in the United States--doing theater or making your music as well?
YT: I'm trying to do everything, really, as much as I can--as long as my body's good. I released a CD last year in Japan. It was my second album and I've been touring with that. I'm actually on tour right now with Rent, the Broadway tour with the originals--Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp. So I'm doing that up until August, and then hopefully going back on tour, and then maybe to L.A. for auditioning.
I feel like I never stop. Whatever comes along, I look at the choice and say, "Okay, what do I want to do now?" I'm going to go on tour with it, and I'm here today for a day, and then I go back on tour tomorrow. So I kind of do what I can.
Q: Has his movie changed your life? Besides the show changing your life, Michael Bennett changing your life, how has this affected you? Does it give you a different perspective on anything?
BL: No. As I said, I've been doing the same thing for 35 years. They just put it on screen. Now everybody knows about it.
Q: We all know your height.
BL: You just go along in your life. You do what you have to do. I'm very, very focused. We have the tour out. I'm out with them every six weeks to make sure that they're reviews are good, that they're clean. That's my job right now.
I started a new company called the National Asian Artists Project, for Asian performers to be able to play roles that they would never be cast in. We are doing The King And I with the Atlanta Pops in October. So I am trying to give back to my community by forming this company. That's a new step in my life. So hopefully this film will make me more visible.
Q: Has having your life on screen changed things in some way for you?
YT: Because it opened in Japan last October, I was helping out a lot with their promotion of the film. I've gotten nothing but great responses on this. It's been great. And also, they've never seen me do shows over there. I've always been working here. They've come to my gigs, of course, with my music. But they didn't know what I did on Broadway. Some of the people from my island don't even know what Broadway is. So this film actually played in Okinawa and also was seen in lot of parts of Japan. So I was able to share my experiences with them.
Q: How has your friendship with your rival for the part of "Connie" in the film, Elaine, survived that fierce competition?
YT: Well, Elaine [Marcos] and I are both going to the opening tonight. We're like sisters, really. I get this question a lot. But no, we worked on our songs together and we were called "bookends" because we were the short girls out of the six. So we know what [each other] is thinking. When one of us steps down, the other one steps in. We don't have to speak to each other. We just know. We're connected like that. So we both knew that we were going to be in the finales at the audition.
But at a certain point, we just have to give it up and say, "Hey, we're doing the best we can. We're not the ones judging."
As long as we do our best, I'm happy. I even say in the film she's my sister. If I don't get the job, she's going to get the job. I know she's going to get the job. If she's not the one, I'm going to get the job. So it's great. And it ended up being that I got to open it and then Elaine came over to close the show. We both got to do it. So it's good.
Q: You talked about this show being like psychology. It's a little bit of psychodrama. What did you learn about yourself in going through that process and what did you learn about yourself too, realizing that it's about a dancer, about who you are?
BL: I just knew that I got a voice, because as a dancer you don't talk back to your choreographer. You do what you're told in the theatre. And Michael Bennett gave me a voice and asked my opinion. And I got a chance to work on the script with him on my role. So I got a voice. That enabled me to do what I'm doing now.
Q: In learning that, did it change the process of seeing who you are and what you are as a dancer through the film?
YT: Well, no. I just got to keep doing what I love. No matter what, we all have issues and baggage that we carry, right, no matter where we're from, how we grew up or what color we are. It's really, like I said, it's about love. The show's about love. This film is about love, too, and how passionate we are no matter what anybody says or what happens in your life. If you love it, you should keep on moving.
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