Baayork Lee told Playbill that winning the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award, given by the Tony Awards for community service, will help turn a spotlight on Asian-American performing community.
“We need diversity,” she said. “I want to make my community visible. We are invisible now. This will help.”
Lee, who was born and raised in New York City, is best known for creating the role of Connie Wong in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line, a role based on her own life. Like Connie, Lee appeared in the original Broadway cast of The King and I, as tiny Princess Ying Yaowlak, opposite Yul Brynner.
She went on to originate roles in original Broadway productions of Golden Boy; Flower Drum Song; Here’s Love; Seesaw; Henry, Sweet Henry; Promises, Promises, and other shows. But her success was rare for an Asian performer on Broadway in the age before non-traditional casting became accepted.
To help, she founded the National Asian Artists Project, which does fully staged New York productions of classic musicals like Carousel, Oliver!, and Hello, Dolly!, cast mainly with Asian actors.
But, she said, she wants the rest of the theatre community to pick up the ball. “We are very grateful for shows like Miss Saigon, and casting of [Asian-American actors like] Phillipa Soo in Amélie. And, God bless Lin-Manuel Miranda for Hamilton. But we need more visibility. And I hope that this award puts a spotlight on that.”
In the short run, fans can see her work in action May 23 at the Gibney Studios, 53-A Chambers Street in Manhattan, when the NAAP Broadway Community Chorus performs an evening of Jerry Herman songs.
For many years Lee has been director of choice for national tours and international productions of A Chorus Line. She is scheduled to direct the show for its 2018 national tour. She also recreated Michael Bennett’s choreography for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, and staged Cinderella for the New York City Opera.
But Lee also stages after-school productions of Broadway musicals at the Yung Wing Elementary School on Division Street in Chinatown, introducing the youngsters to Broadway classics. Her productions there have included junior productions of Annie, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan.