"A Chorus Line" original returns to direct

Posted Online: Jan. 17, 2013, 10:01 am
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

With last August's passing of composer Marvin Hamlisch, all the creators of the classic musical "A Chorus Line" are now dead. But the glorious 1975 tribute to performing, passion and persistence lives on, and one of the original cast members directs the current tour that will dance into the Adler Theatre this Tuesday.

"It's so exciting," Baayork Lee -- the original Connie and assistant choreographer to Michael Bennett -- recently said from London, where she directed a "Chorus Line" production there. "It's a universal show. It's only about dancers, but about people and families, all the things they went through."

Mr. Bennett (1943-1987) had worked with Ms. Lee when she was in the casts of "Promises, Promises" (1968), which he choreographed, and "Seesaw" (1973), which he directed and choreographed. He came up with the concept of "A Chorus Line" by interviewing dancers (including Ms. Lee), about their hopes and dreams.

"I played myself. She is me," she said of Connie. "We're one and the same."

"A Chorus Line" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score and Book, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It ran for nearly 15 years, closing April 28, 1990 after 6,137 performances. It was the longest-running American musical in Broadway history and held this title for 28 years from 1983 to 2011 (when it was surpassed by the revival of "Chicago").

After it reopened on Broadway in 2006, Elysa Gardner of USA Today wrote: "Exhilarating and endearing, it still has a freshness and fervency too seldom seen in contemporary musicals."

"It can apply to anyone," said Ms. Lee, who performed the show for three years after its premiere -- half on Broadway and then in California. "Michael Bennett said this show is dedicated to anyone in the chorus who danced or marched in step."

"We had no idea what this was," she said, noting the original team did not anticipate its staggering popularity worldwide. "We all took a chance."

Most of the show takes place on a bare stage, with a white line on which 17 dancers stand, and they reveal their innermost personal stories. The musical's most famous songs are "What I Did For Love," and "One."

With original cast member Thommie Walsh and Robert Viagas, Ms. Lee documented the evolution of "A Chorus Line" in the book "On the Line: the Creation of A Chorus Line," published in 1990.

Born and raised in New York's Chinatown to a Chinese father and Indian mother, Ms. Lee started taking dance lessons at three and at the age of five, was cast in the original production of "The King and I" in 1951, and later in "Flower Drum Song" in 1958 (also by Rodgers and Hammerstein). She went to the famous High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, where she met Mr. Bennett.

Ms. Lee hasperformed in a dozen Broadway shows, and was encouraged by Mr. Bennett to take on the directing role, after she taught the "Chorus Line" dances as assistant choreographer.

"He gave me a voice. I was a dancer that didn't speak, only moved," she recalled. "He taught me to ask questions, to lead. He trained me to teach the show. You just kind of listened and learned."

"I thought I would miss performing," Ms. Lee said of directing. "But when you're in it, you don't know what the audience sees."

She has directed many national and international companies, including "The King and I" and "Bombay Dreams" (national tours), "Cinderella" (NYC Opera), "Barnum" (Australia), "Carmen Jones" (Kennedy Center, Washington), "Porgy and Bess" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" (European tours), "Gypsy" and "A New Brain."

Ms. Lee received the 2003 Asian Woman Warrior Award for Lifetime Achievement from Columbia College, as well as the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association Achievement in Arts Award. Through her new company, National Asian Artists Project, naaproject.org, she directed productions of "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" using all Asian artists.

NAAP's mission is to promote Asian performers in theaters across the country. "Unless it's 'King and I" or 'Miss Saigon,' you're not working," Ms. Lee said of many Asian artists. Her project "gives an opportunity for the actors to make that transition to other shows," she said.

"You see the talent out there and we can do color-blind casting," Ms. Lee said. "When I started out, it was difficult to find those roles. It still is."

If you go

-- What: "A Chorus Line."
-- When: Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
-- Where: Adler Theatre, 136 E. 3rd St., Davenport.
-- Tickets: $32, $42, and $52, available at Ticketmaster.com, (800) 745-3000, all Ticketmaster outlets and the Adler Theatre Box Office. Groups of 20 or more should call (563) 326-8522.


Local events heading

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1889 -- 125 years ago: Harvey McKenna, of Detroit, billiard player matched to play Wizard Schafer in New York in January for the world championship, was a professional friend and manager, Billy Catton in Rock Island.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Levi Cralle, former Rock Island county sheriff, had come from his farm near Mitchell, S.D. to visit friends in the city.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Work is being rushed on the new high school building in Orion to replace the one destroyed by fire last winter. Classes are being held in churches.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Rehearsals for the 84th season of the Handel Oratorio Society chorus will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the stage of Centennial Hall, Augustana College.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Rock Island City Council's plan announced this week to have the federal government vacate Valley Homes public housing and move residents to Arsenal Courts to reduce density may not be feasible.

(More History)