A Chorus Line is the ticket to own this season, with shows running at the Teatro del Soho Caixabank in Málaga until January 19, 2020. Starring Antonio Banderas and directed by him alongside original A Chorus Line cast member Baayork Lee, it brings a timeless hit to our shores and seriously raises the cultural appeal of the south of Spain.

A Chorus Line made history in theatre when it first opened in 1975. Baayork Lee, who is one of the original dancers who ‘played herself’ on Broadway, explains, “It was the first-ever reality show to make it to the stage. A Chorus Line was a compilation of stories by dancers in a company; our struggles to make it to the stage, why we love dance, everything we gave up to work in this industry.”

The musical, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennet (who passed away at the tender age of 44) was the first to focus entirely on one aspect of theatrical life – the audition – arguably the most arduous and exhilarating experience in a dancer’s life. As expressed so eloquently by John Heilpern, A Chorus Line has somehow managed to stay ageless. In no small part, it is owing to the themes it covers – homophobia, image obsession, and the sacrifice that is required to make a living as a performer on Broadway.

Baayork Lee assures us that what audiences will be seeing in Málaga is identical to what they might see on Broadway. “Michael Benett was the first show creator ever to copyright his show. Every word uttered has to be right, the dancing unparalleled, the singing on point.” Lee, who played ‘four-foot-ten Connie’ in the original show and for many years after (the show ran for 15 years straight on Broadway), told me, “I represent Michael Benett’s estate, the authors of the show, and the original cast whose stories formed the basis of the characters in the show. It is my responsibility to ensure the music is played in the right way, that the sets and costumes are exactly right.” In the Málaga performance, the lines are spoken and sung in Spanish, but the magnificent One is performed, close to the show’s end, in English.

The price for A Chorus Line tickets are reasonable indeed, ranging from €18 to €140 – a far cry from the €435 euros you might expect to watch a show like Hamilton on Broadway. Banderas, fresh from receiving the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for Almodóvar’s Dolor y Gloria, is dedicating blood, sweat, and tears to his goal of turning Málaga into an important cultural hub. He stars in the show as Zach – the company director who is auditioning dancers for an upcoming show.

Joining him is a talented cast that hails from all over the world. “We do open auditions for every show, which also makes us unique,” says Baayork Lee, adding, “Antonio wanted the show to sound exactly like a Broadway audition would – with a variety of accents. Our cast is multilingual indeed, with actors from Portugal, Berlin, London, etc. Antonio also included 11 students from the Málaga acting school ESAEM in the show; three of them will be singing with the professionals and the rest will be part of the big group of dancers that starts the show.”

The one thing cast members had to do well, was speak Spanish. Baayork Lee herself brings her own translator with her so she can communicate with the cast. This was something she had to do during the workshop stage, which lasted various weeks. “Performers for A Chorus Line have to have something called the ‘triple threat’ – they have to be able to sing, dance, and act to a very high standard. The workshops help the cast hone each of these requirements to perfection.”

Baayork Lee’s task is difficult indeed; she lays all the groundwork then flies off for the next show in a completely different part of the world, sometimes before the cast has enjoyed the resounding applause on opening night. “I love getting onto a plane and flying somewhere new,” she says, her vivacity and charm warming the gloomiest of days. She is the living symbol of what a career on Broadway means; the immense sacrifice as well as the elation of performing before a live audience. “When I was five I told my parents I wanted to be a dancer and they supported me all the way. My dad had a restaurant and he worked there practically all day but my mom used to accompany me everywhere. My brothers still tease me to this day, recalling the many times they had to wait for me while I was in dance class. I ruled the roost and my family listened to me!” she laughs.

Baayork’s first gig was no less than incredible: she played Princess Ying Yaowolak in the original production of The King and I in 1951 alongside the great Yul Brynner on Broadway. “Nobody from Chinatown ever went into the City; they had no reason to! But one day casting agents came to my school looking for children for The King and I and I was chosen! I haven’t stopped since.” She studied and perfected her talent at dance, and met Michael Benett, who “would come down from Buffalo in the summer to attend dance classes in the same place I was studying. I was his very first friend in New York. Eventually we danced together on Broadway and he started up a company. He told me he wanted to hire me and I was delighted. Other choreographers like Bob Fosse wouldn’t hire me because my legs were too short!”

Tellingly, the character Connie in A Chorus Line shares her frustrations about being a ‘four foot 10’ dancer who wanted nothing more than to be a prima ballerina. “The only thing that continued to grow was my desire,” the character sings, telling the audience how, despite being 32, she continued to play 14-year-olds!

Baayork says that her company never realised how successful the show was until “We saw Jackie Onassis sitting there! For us, it was not about making it big; it was about bringing this project to life – a show that was one vibrant, emotionally-packed audition.” Baayork not only has a shining career to this day, but she is also doing plenty to encourage young Asian performers to step into the dazzling lights of Broadway. Thus, a decade ago, she founded NAAP – the National Asian Artists Project – and proudly says that some of her first students are now in college. “Two of my students are at the FAME school (La Guardia – where Timothée Chalamet studied) and it makes me so happy because when I was growing up in Chinatown there were zero opportunities for Asian actors.” When Baayork was asked to direct The King and I, she gave 14 children one year’s tutoring. “One girl from this group wants to be a costume designer and she’s about to finish college.”

Baayork talks about sacrifice – the kind that many parents make, moving cities just so their children can pursue their dreams. “Entire families follow the child, who is making more money than the parents!” She also talks about the way the theatre has changed. “Today it’s big business and shows run for a long time. Performers make good money, especially if they are on Broadway, and accommodation and a salary for parents accompanying the child are provided.”

When asked what you need to ‘make it’ in New York, she answers, “You need to be in the right place at the right time and you need to meet the right people.” Her own mentors, she says, “were Michael Bennet and my dance teacher, though I consider myself a student for life. After all, no matter how successful shows are, they always close and you always have to go back to class. Performers sometimes think, ‘If I got this role I have it made’ but there are always new people coming up, ready to knock you off your pedestal.”

Arguably the most powerful message that A Chorus Line relays, is summed up perfectly by Baayork Lee: “If you really want to be in showbusiness, you always find your way into it – either as a star or on the chorus line; as a performer or in lighting, music, or carrying costumes. Today, schools aim to create stars but not everybody can be ‘the one’. If you want it badly enough, you can make the dream of working in the theatre come true.”

Baayork also tells me about what a pleasure it is to work with Antonio Banderas – a man who “really knows what he wants.” There is no diva behaviour from the hardworking Malagueño. “He doesn’t miss a single warm-up session and that takes 45 minutes. You have to have plenty of stamina for A Chorus Line because it is so physically demanding. Antonio is working with 20-year-olds so has to be super fit!” She also highlights the fact that there will be a 22-piece live orchestra at the show. “When you watch an audition it is pitch black and you can only see the stage, but there is a band there playing fantastic music.”

As we end the interview, Baayork tells me she is on her way to Washington soon to receive the American Artist Award at Washington DC’s Mead Center – granted for her contribution to American theatre. The award has previously been given to an illustrious lineup that includes Kathleen Turner, Edward Albee, and James Earl Jones. Despite all she has achieved, she doesn’t have the slightest intention of taking a break. “I have never stopped dreaming and learning and I don’t think I ever will,” she says, smiling at me and heading back to the place where she most belongs: the theatre.