"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

  Today is Tuesday, Sept 2, the 245th day of 2014. There are 120 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: It is estimated that 300,000 people attended the recent Democratic convention in Chicago when Gen. George B. McClellan of New Jersey was nominated as a candidate for president of the United States.
1889 — 125 years ago: Alderman Frank Ill, Winslow Howard and Captain J.M. Montgomery returned from Milwaukee, where they attended the national Grand Army of the Republic encampment.
1914 — 100 years ago: Three members of the Rock Island YMCA accepted positions as physical directors of other associations. Albert Cook went to Kewanee, C.D. Curtis to Canton and Willis Woods to Leavenworth, Kan.
1939 — 75 years ago: Former President Herbert Hoover appealed for national support of President F.D. Roosevelt and Congress in every effort to keep the United States out of war.
1964 — 50 years ago: The Rock Island Junior chamber pf Commerce has received answers to about 65 % of the 600 questionnaires mailed out recently in a "Community Attitude Survey" to analyze sentiments of citizens towards their city's various recreational, educational, and civic service programs.
1989 — 25 years ago: The two thunderstorms passing through the Quad Cities last night and early today left some area residents reaching for their flashlights.

(More History)