Tony Award-winner Baayork Lee brings ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to life onstage

Baayork Lee, director and choreographer of the City Springs production of “Beauty and the Beast.” (Photo Courtesy of Mason Wood)

Credit: Mason Wood

Credit: Mason Wood

Baayork Lee, director and choreographer of the City Springs production of “Beauty and the Beast.” (Photo Courtesy of Mason Wood)

City Springs Theatre Company’s latest production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is directed and choreographed by Tony Award-winner Baayork Lee.

Lee began her illustrious Broadway career, both onstage and behind the scenes, at the ripe age of five when she appeared in the original Broadway production of “The King and I.” But she is perhaps best remembered for originating the role of Connie in 1975′s “A Chorus Line.”

Lee would go on to become a close collaborator of Michael Bennett, director and co-choreographer of the original Broadway production of “A Chorus Line,” as well as a fruitful directing and choreographing career of her own. In 2017, she received the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award, which honors members of the theater industry for their charity work.

Lee first came to City Springs when she directed “South Pacific” in 2019, and “Beauty and the Beast” marks the fourth production for the Sandy Springs company. Based on the Disney film of the same name, “Beauty and the Beast” first premiered on Broadway in 1994, telling the story of an unkind prince transformed into a beast and his attempts to make a beautiful young woman fall in love with him to break the curse.

The City Springs production, which runs from March 8-24 at the Byers Theatre, stars Diane Phelan as Belle, Christian Magby as the Beast, Candice Song Donehoo as Mrs. Potts, Stanley Allyn Owen as Gaston, Nick Walker Jones as Lumiere, and many more. Rough Draft Atlanta spoke with Lee about the production prior to the show’s opening.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You made your Broadway debut at the age of five in the original production of “The King and I.” What do you remember about that experience and about being on Broadway when you were so young?

Lee: Everything. Every moment, every second. I made a decision at five that I wanted to be in the theater. I would have my mother bring me down very early after school, and I would be the first to sign in – and I still like doing that. Then, she would leave me with Wilbur, the doorman, and he would have to make his rounds … I would just tour with him, and I just knew everything about the theater. I wanted to be there, and I told my mother, this is what I want to do.

Q: And then you did! That’s amazing, to make that kind of decision at five. I know you’ve directed and choreographed a lot of productions over the course of your career. Is this the first time you’ve done “Beauty and the Beast?”

Lee: It’s the first time I’ve done “Beauty and the Beast.” You know, I’ve spent most of my life directing and choreographing “A Chorus Line” for Michael Bennett. In the later years of my life, I’ve been offered “Cats,” and I’ve been offered “South Pacific,” and I’ve been offered all of these things, because I think it’s time to branch out. To get this opportunity down here at City Springs Theatre in Sandy Springs at the Byers Theatre, I mean – it’s the best kept secret ever! Because it’s so wonderful. The facilities, and the people down here – I just love working down here. This is my fourth show with City Springs.

Q: What brought you to City Springs? What do you remember about that process?

Lee: They found out about me. Brandt Blocker and Natalie [DeLancey], they came to New York to interview me. I think they made a decision, they wanted a woman – a woman of color – to direct “South Pacific.” I had already choreographed it at Arena Stage for Molly Smith, and they read about that. So they got in touch with me, they came to New York, they interviewed me. I just fell in love with them, you know? It was the first season, and I was glad to be on the ground floor. I hadn’t gotten a Tony yet [laughs]. You know, things happen. They took a chance with me!

Q: You said this is the first time you’ve worked with “Beauty and the Beast,” but what was your connection to the musical or the film prior to directing this production?

Lee: I told this story yesterday … There’s an organization attached to the theater, and there were 50 ladies that came. I told them that, Matt West and Rob Roth [choreographer and director of the original Broadway show] had never done a Broadway show. I had worked with Matt West, he was in the movie “A Chorus Line” He was choreographing “Beauty and the Beast.” Rob Roth had been an intern with Tommy Tune and myself and Thommie Walsh, so I knew them. They came to me, and they said, would you be an associate with us on “Beauty and the Beast?”

About six months to a year went by, and I was waiting and waiting and waiting for things to happen. And I got an offer. I had done “Porgy and Bess” – I had done five companies in Australia and all over the United States – and there was a company going to Europe. I had only been a choreographer, and they asked me, the director couldn’t go – would I direct the company? So I had a choice of, shall I wait for “Beauty and the Beast” and be an associate? Or shall I go off and direct “Porgy and Bess?” I took “Porgy and Bess.” In fact, Matt said, go ahead, because we don’t know what’s happening with Disney. And the rest is history. “Beauty and the Beast” went on to, you know, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen companies. But I wouldn’t have had the career that I have now.

Q: That’s so interesting. It’s like you’re coming full circle.

Lee: When I called Matt, I said, guess what Matt? I’m directing and choreographing “Beauty and the Beast!” He’s in Australia now working on a company that will tour and then will come to Broadway. We’re still good friends. He said, I hope you’re having fun!

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the casting process for this show? How did you go about choosing your leads?

Lee: We wanted most of the cast to come from the area, from Atlanta. I had done “A Chorus Line” and “Cats” down here, so a lot of those people came and auditioned for me, and we hired them. I would say 95% of the ensemble, they are from the area.

Then, we looked at the principles. The only principles that we got from New York [are] Belle and Madame. I really wanted an Asian American Belle. I never dreamed that I would get an Asian American Mrs. Potts – who lives in Atlanta, who had done “The King and I,” who had done Broadway. She was here taking care of her father, so she was available and had housing. Lumiere, he had done “Spamalot,” and moved from New York during the pandemic. A lot of people moved back home. He’s just incredible. Cogsworth, his family is here, but he’s a Broadway guy and has done “Les Mis” all over the world. I mean, it was just incredible. You know, I have to thank the pandemic! Because everybody came home, and I have Broadway-quality people.

Q: Yeah, what you said earlier about City Springs being this hidden gem – it does feel of a certain quality that you would never really think about until you experience it. There are Broadway-quality people up there.

Lee: And you have Shuler Hensley, who was on Broadway, you know – Tony Award [winner]! He’s artistic director [of City Springs Theatre Company]. I really believe that having two Tony Award winners, and bringing in Sara Edwards, who has done “The Music Man” – you bring all these people in, and the quality goes sky high. It was good before, but there’s another level. And I must say, City Springs, they get the best sets and costumes. The package is unbelievable.

Q: What was your favorite part of directing and choreographing this production?

Lee: Two things. The enchantments, who are the clock and the chandeliers and all – we call them the enchantments. That was challenging. We met the challenge head on. I mean, how do you make a clock talk and sound not like – I didn’t want the animation. I wanted them to be people who had turned into these objects. So I had them very real. That was like directing a play with them. Also Christian Magby, the Beast, how he transformed, and how he should walk. Every year, he gets more hair, he gets more Beast-looking.

What’s so wonderful about [it was] being able to talk to the ensemble and to the actors like we’re doing a play. That I think for them was interesting, also, because they could really deal with their characters like they were people.

Q: For my last question, I wanted to shift away from “Beauty and the Beast” for a bit. You were Connie in the original “A Chorus Line” on Broadway, and you’ve returned to that piece time and time again throughout your career. What is it like for you to keep coming back to something that you did so early on, and in different capacities? How has it evolved or changed for you over time? 

Lee: You know, I represent the Michael Bennett estate, and all of the creatives. So my job is to really have the audience see what Michael Bennett created. Why I keep returning? It’s because of the actors. I mean, we’re going to be 50 years old in 2025. We now have five generations of actors who have done the show. I keep returning because they keep making me a better director, because they keep bringing more things to their roles. Even though, you know, everything is locked in – you have to have the same words, you have to have the costumes and everything. But they’re bringing a whole new sense to the roles. That’s what makes it interesting for me to keep coming back – again, and again, and again [laughs].

Tickets for “Beauty and the Beast” are available online.

Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta

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Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta


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