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Broadway's Baayork Lee: What she did for love

Broadway dance legend Baayork Lee
Broadway dance legend Baayork Lee 06:27

The 1975 musical "A Chorus Line" had no stars. Instead it told the stories of the dancers who hustle from show to show, whose names audiences will probably never know. It became a Tony Award-winning smash.

Asked why, actress-dancer-choreographer Baayork Lee replied, "I think, first of all, we were the first reality show. We played ourselves."

Lee starred as Connie Wong, one of those dancers doing what they do for one simple reason. "The theme song that Marvin Hamlisch wrote for us, which is 'What I Did For Love,' really is what it's all about. We love what we do. It's the passion and the dedication and the discipline."

Baayork Lee in the original production of "A Chorus Line." CBS News

The musical was the brainchild of director Michael Bennett, who was known for incorporating contemporary dance moves into his choreography, such as in 1968's "Promises, Promises":

Baayork Lee and the cast of "Promises, Promises" perform "Turkey Lurkey Time" on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (1970):

Cast Of Promises, Promises "Turkey Lurkey Time" on The Ed Sullivan Show by The Ed Sullivan Show on YouTube

"It is an extraordinary dance," said Rocca. "My biggest question is, how did you actually keep your heads on your necks?"

"We would go to the chiropractor once a week," Lee laughed.

"Promises, Promises" was Lee's third show as a "Michael Bennett dancer." But her path to Broadway began much earlier, when she was five years old and living in New York's Chinatown. Back then, Lee's world revolved around a two-block stretch where she went from her Catholic grammar school to the restaurant Wo Hop, which her father founded in the 1930s. Then, in 1951, when Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" starring Yul Brynner was casting the roles of royal children, Baayork and her brother ventured uptown to audition.

"There were thousands of kids there – well, looked like thousands of kids there," she recalled. "We all got on the stage. And I saw chandeliers and I saw velvet seats. And I was just mesmerized."

Rocca asked, "Had you shown any evidence before five years old that you might want to be a performer?"


"Did you take to it immediately, this performing thing?"

"Oh, absolutely. Ham on ham!" Lee laughed.

Correspondent Mo Rocca with Baayork Lee. CBS News

Baayork Lee had found her calling. But when she was eight, she was let go from "The King and I," because, she said, "I outgrew my costume. Them's the breaks! I went on unemployment. My mother had to pick me up to sign it."

For a while, she attended the prestigious School of American Ballet, and appeared in George Balanchine's original "Nutcracker."

But soon enough, it was back to Broadway, performing with Sammy Davis Jr. in "Golden Boy," and Tommy Tune in "Seesaw." When "A Chorus Line" opened, Lee was still only 29, but it would be her last show as a performer. "Opening night, Michael Bennett said to me, 'You're gonna take this all over the world.' And I just looked at him and laughed, you know? Really? He handed me the keys opening night."

Lee was starting a new act in her career: since 1975, she's helped cast and direct productions of "A Chorus Line" all over the world.

Baayork Lee (Choreographer) shows the girls at audition how she dances in the production of "A Chorus Line", Baayork came to Australia for two weeks to select girls from Melbourne and Sydney for the Australian production.Auditions were held today (Thursda
Choreographer Baayork Lee (front-center) shows auditioning dancers the moves from "A Chorus Line," at tryouts held at the York Theatre, University of Sydney in Chippendale, Australia, December 2, 1976. David James Bartho/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The role of nurturer came naturally to her. In 2009, Lee co-founded the National Asian Artists Project. The goal: exposing Asian-Americans to the joys of musical theater. 

And this 78-year-old isn't just lending her name to the cause; "Sunday Morning" witnessed her rehearsing performers in the "Turkey Lurkey" dance, and later showcasing them before a crowd of tourists at a midtown Manhattan hotel.

Baayork Lee leads a troupe in the "Turkey Lurkey" dance in Manhattan. CBS News

And in 2017, Lee earned the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her philanthropic work. "I really cherish this because it is about me helping my community – not my 12 Broadway shows, not all the things that I've done," she said. "I really take pride in this."

Today Baayork Lee, a child of the stage, has raised more Broadway babies than she can count.

Rocca asked, "Do you feel like this represents your life's work?"

"Absolutely," she replied.

And she isn't done yet.

For more info:

Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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