A Chorus Line Original Baayork Lee Passes Down Broadway Tradition at Hollywood Bowl
Lee hands Disney star Ross Lynch his theatrical debut with a side of theater history.
"We started the term 'triple threat,'" said Baayork Lee, A Chorus Line's original pint-size ballerina Connie Wong. Since originating the role in 1975, Lee has carried on the work of A Chorus Line creator Michael Bennett by choreographing or directing over 40 productions of the game-changing musical, which follows a group of chorus dancers through a soul-bearing audition. Over the course of this long tenure, she's employed thousands of those triple threats she and the show's first company indirectly helped to mold — a field that now includes the starry cast of her Hollywood Bowl mounting, running for three performances from July 29-31.
Whether on Broadway or on tour, most of the Hollywood Bowl cast members have already been initiated into the A Chorus Line family — including Mario Lopez, his wife Courtney Lopez, Krysta Rodriguez, Mara Davi, J. Elaine Marcos, Sarah Bowden, and Jason Tam, along with original co-choreographer Bob Avian who will lend his expertise as production supervisor. But for a handful of new converts — including 20-year-old Disney star Ross Lynch, who makes his theatrical debut as the youngest dancer Mark Anthony — the show is uncharted territory.
"One night my manager called me and was like, 'Hey, what do you think about A Chorus Line?'" recounted Lynch. He was excited at the prospect of joining the musical, but his honest response was, "'I don't know much of it.'"
Fortunately, his Hollywood Bowl crash course will be taught by the woman who was not only the real-life inspiration behind the now-iconic role of Connie, but, as one of Michael Bennett's regular dancers, was also his assistant and the original dance captain on Broadway.
Lee's first lesson: "Everybody auditions."
"That's the show," she said. "If you just hand somebody a part, they're not going to appreciate the show." (Lynch landed his part in true rock-star fashion with a rendition of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets.")
Whenever she directs A Chorus Line, Lee also makes sure her casts know the show's history, including the context surrounding its creation. "I kind of start by talking about the time frame," she said. "It was in the seventies. There was a lot of change…and Broadway was not in a good state. So some dancers got together and Michael Bennett brought a tape recorder. They started talking and that's the basis of the show. Those were called the 'tape sessions.'"
Forty years later, Lee is the de facto heir to Bennett's A Chorus Line legacy, and believes that passing on the show's history and traditions to new performers is just as important as mounting it for new audiences. "I think that's why I continue to be so involved," said Lee. "Because every year I do a company or two and I introduce this incredible piece to a whole new generation. It's so important to pass on Michael Bennett's legacy and to have it in tact the way that he and the authors wanted it to be preserved."
For Lynch — best known to young audiences as Austin Moon from the Disney series Austin & Ally, Brady from Disney's Teen Beach movies, and the front man of his family band, R5 — this short run at the Hollywood Bowl will be his first foray into the musical's storied past. However, as Lee is quick to point out, the growing pains suffered by that first group of dancers who gathered for Michael Bennett's tape sessions resonate just as strongly with every up-and-coming generation of artists — if not more so.
"Everybody is going through the same thing now," said Lee, noting however, that in her generation of Broadway dancers. "We didn't have as much competition."
"For the open call of the revival of A Chorus Line [in 2006], we saw two thousand people in one day. Forty years ago we didn't have two thousand people auditioning," she said.
Lynch feels a similar pressure in the expected career trajectory of young people in Hollywood. A triple threat of a different sort: "Nowadays, any entertainer in Hollywood is putting out a record, and they're also doing a movie. It's crazy."
Lynch's career began when he was just 11 years old and has remained West Coast-bound ever since — a much different experience than that of Mark Anthony, Connie Wong, and the rest of the A Chorus Line characters (and the hoofers that inspired them). Even so, that universal experience Lee talks about still rings true with the young actor.
"When you're living in L.A. you're pretty much just trying to get whatever you can," Lynch explained. "Especially as a young actor, you're trying to figure out where your place is and what you're good at and what avenue you should choose."
This exploration in fact almost landed him on Broadway eight years ago. In 2007, he made it to the final 15 in callbacks for the title role in Billy Elliot — an experience that helped hone the ballet skills he'll be employing as Mark and will also undoubtedly lend a familiarity to the show's opener, "I Hope I Get It." However, to prep him for the road ahead, Lee offered Lynch an additional piece of history about the famous number, straight from the volumes of Michael Bennett.
"She told me that one time they had to do the opening number for eight hours straight," Lynch said, hazily recounting an anecdote Lee shared with him during his audition. "They were trying to capture the essence of an actual audition. A 'you-still-have-to-fight-for-it' kind of thing." He then added, "I'm in pretty good shape, but you do that dance two times and you are on the floor. It's so hard. I can't imagine the things that they went through."
If Lee has her way, he'll have a much clearer picture by the end of the month.