Some assume that every chorus dancer hopes to be a star. I doubt it, although some know: Chita Rivera and Shirley MacClaine, for two.
Ruth Mitchell, a long stem beauty in the original Annie Get Your Gun said when it closed she’d go home to Atlanta and open a dancing school. John Sharpe [The Most Happy Fella] was working toward his PhD. I did Broadway musicals to support my Modern Dance habit.
The dancing chorus had a serious limitation; every show closes and soon you’re too old. The chorus is only a bridge, if not to stardom, then roles, or as choreographer, director, stage manager, dresser, any job that doesn’t boot you out at age forty. It’s no accident that the collegial group for older dancers is titled, “Dancers Over 40.”
In Kismet, Ronald Field, with his instant study steel trap brain was marked for choreography. In The Ambassador, Nicholas Dante was working on the script of A Chorus Line. In Ziegfeld Follies, Lee Becker Theodore was already marked for important things in theater.
I met Lee, a Performing Arts High School grad, in the chorus of The King and I. Backstage she was kind of mournful, although if you watched her on stage, you realized she was quietly brilliant. We next danced together in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1956 (the only Follies in history to close out of town) choreographed by Jack Cole. She had already choreographed a hit number, Kabuki Mambo, for TV’s Ed Sullivan Show,
We were sitting at the back of the house watching rehearsal of the traditional A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody number, showgirls stepping gingerly down a grand staircase in ridiculously grand costumes by Raoul Pene Du Bois, I said something about how much I liked Kabuki Mambo. Lee erupted; “I’d rather be any one of those sexpots up there!”
Baffled, I replied, “And not a one of them up there wouldn’t trade their whole sexpot lives for a tenth of your talent.”
After notice went up in Philly, producers, director, etc., disappeared like thieves in the night, but Jack Cole came backstage to wish us luck, then sought out Lee in the dressing room. After he left she came out sobbing, “He told me it was an honor to work with me.”
Lee went on to choreograph, direct, produce, and create The American Dance Machine, whose purpose was to preserve great Broadway dances. It also played 199 Broadway performances at the Century Theater in 1978. Lee’s loss to cancer in 1980 deprived the world of a burning creative spirit.
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Anyone with personal memories of Lee, is welcome to post them here.