Interview: A conversation with Broadway legend Baayork Lee

City Springs Theatre’s CATS director/choreographer has had a long and distinguished career

by Jody Key – Managing Editor — April 26, 2023

SANDY SPRINGS, GA –– The Byers Theater in Sandy Springs will soon be crawling with felines as City Springs Theatre Company presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic CATS from May 5th to the 21st. Based on the poems of T.S. Eliot, CATS tells the story of a clowder of junkyard cats dubbed the “Jellicles” and the night they make the “Jellicle Choice” by deciding which cat will ascend the Heavenside layer and come back to new life. City Springs is known for their Broadway-quality shows, and once again has the legendary Baayork Lee at the helm, directing and choreographing a third show to be performed at the Byers.

I was delighted to speak to Baayork and learn more about her work on the show. We also touched on her long career working on A CHORUS LINE, for which she also directed and choreographed for City Springs last season.

Born in New York City’s Chinatown, Lee began her Broadway career at the young age of 5 when she was cast in Rogers and Hammersteins THE KING AND I playing Princess Ying Yaowalak. She went on to study dance and attended the High School for Performing Arts where she met Michael Bennett. Lee performed in several productions which Bennett choreographed. In 1975, Bennett invited her to participate in workshops for A CHORUS LINE. The character, Connie Wong, was based on her life, and she played Connie in the original Broadway cast. Throughout the years, she has choreographed and directed A CHORUS LINE worldwide, including the Broadway revival in 2006 at the Schoenfeld Theater.  In addition to CATS, City Springs Theatre Company has been blessed to have Baayork Lee direct and choreograph SOUTH PACIFIC and A CHORUS LINE.

Speakeysie — What would you like us to know about the show?

All I can say is that I love coming down to Atlanta and working with City Springs Theatre. I did South Pacific and it was their first season, and I was just so happy to be a part of it. Then, of course, COVID, COVID, COVID! So we had to postpone A CHORUS LINE and then we did A CHORUS LINE last season. After that, they said, ‘Well, we want you back again,’ and they had all these musicals that I was not right for such as THE COLOR PURPLE, and SPAMALOT. When CATS came up I said, ‘That’s me! It’s Cats!’ because I love to work with dancers; yet, I was right out of my comfort zone because it’s not your traditional musical. I’m used to musicals, but this is a whole other ball game. It takes me out of my comfort zone into a new creativity that I didn’t think I had. I am just so thrilled to work with this company! They are so talented, and I’m learning about cats!”

“What’s wonderful is the legacy that Gillian Lynn (original director/choreographer of CATS) has given to people to keep her legacy going and to go out and teach the show. I had Jacob Brent with me and he had been in the New York and London Company and also the movie as Mastoffelees. He came down to Atlanta–took time off from the University of Arts in Philadelphia to work with us and talk about his experience.”

Speakeysie – What was your impression when you saw CATS for the first time?

“When I saw the show on Broadway, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, the dancing is fantastic, but what is it?’ Now that I’m directing it I’ve delved more into what the show is trying to say about the human race. It talks more about us as people than you would ever dream about. Especially after COVID. You know, treat your cats well–treat your humans well–treat one another well.” 

Speakeysie – What challenges did you face while directing/choreographing this show?

“The first challenge is doing the scenes. The cats are on the floor and we had to discover how cats move, look,  how they perk up their ears and tail. So we brought in 5 cats and they were all roaming around, and we were all crawling around behind them. They would sit in the corner and just look at us or roll on their belly to be scratched. I used all of that in some of the scenes, but also, there is a book to draw from, Every cat has a history, like any actor has a history. So we would do all of that character research–Where were you born? When did you get to the junkyard? Who are your relationships within the junkyard?   They made me a tail and as I was rehearsing with the cast, so I had a tail wiggling, but I left it up to them to explore their character and relationships. I left a lot up to them, and each cat has a unique character and relationship–their likes and dislikes, and you’ll see all of those things as if you’re watching a play.

Speakeysie – Do you have a favorite cat or one in particular with which you identify?

There’s just so many. I love Rum Tum Tugger, he is just so sassy and I’ve created a fun production number for him. There’s also this beautiful angel, Sillabub. She also sings Memory, but she’s a young kitten. She sees the older cat, Grizabella. Those are beautiful moments. I like all the cats because they’re all so different.

Speakeysie – Prior to CATS, you directed A CHORUS LINE at City Springs. Tell us about your work with A CHORUS LINE through the years.

“You know, I worked with Michael Bennett and helped write the character of Connie. Having done all the early workshops and having Michael put my life into the show, he passed the torch on to me to direct the shows. He spent a lot of time with me. We had 3 companies in the United States, and then we were in London. By then I had already been directing and taking care of 4 companies. After that, he sent me to Australia to direct the show myself. That was unbelievable. I had already had the experience of being in the show. Then we had San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and we had London that I was taking care of; flying back and forth, putting people in the show, and casting. All the stories were very close to me. So when he sent me to Australia to direct the show I was ready.

2025 will be 50 years and I’ve been setting A CHORUS LINE, and it’s been almost one production of A CHORUS LINE each year. Last year I directed City Springs Theatre Company’s production and one in Tokyo Japan. I love passing it on to the next generation because that’s the only way Michael Bennet’s work will live. I do master classes at NYU and PACE, Michigan University…anyplace that will ask me to go to teach choreography and talk about the show. It’s really important that we continue passing it on. Then going to a foreign country like Spain, Italy, Sweden, or Australia the work resonates. The Paul monologue–people come out in tears.

Speakeysie — anything else you’d like to tell us about CATS?

“I hope everyone will come out to see the show. I really think people will enjoy it!”

With Baayork leading the Jellicles, this is sure to be a stellar show!! Get your tickets at City Springs Theatre before they sell out!!

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