By Lia Chang
AsAmNews Arts & Entertainment Reporter
It’s been quite a year for Telly Leung, who is currently starring opposite Star Trek’s George Takei, Tony winner Lea Salonga and Michael K. Lee in the new Broadway musical Allegiance, inspired by Takei’s real-life experience as a Japanese American during World War II.
On his night off from the show, Leung celebrated the Yellow Sound Label release of his sophomore CD Songs for You, with a sold-out concert at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater.
Leung made his Broadway debut in the 2002 David Henry Hwang revisal of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song opposite Lea Salonga, followed by the Roundabout Theater Company revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Pacific Overtures.
Leung starred in the final Broadway cast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent, which was filmed for DVD release. In the 2011 revival of Godspell, his version of All Good Gifts was praised as “magnificent” by New York Magazine, “superb” by The Philadelphia Inquirer, and “a standout” by Bloomberg News. Leung was named one of last year’s Out 100 and “Faces To Watch” by The Los Angeles Times.
On Fox TV’s Glee, Leung was featured as Wes, a member of the Dalton Academy Warblers opposite Darren Criss. When he recreated his portrayal of Angel in Rent at the Hollywood Bowl – directed by Neil Patrick Harris – he was called “vibrant” by the Los Angeles Times, “stunning” by the Orange County Register and praised for his “sweet, clear tenor” by Variety.
Leung also originated the role of Boq in the Chicago production of the smash hit Wicked and has performed in concert and shows at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Hippodrome in London, Birdland Jazz Club and 54 Below in New York, Paper Mill Playhouse, Philadelphia Theater Company, Ford’s Theater, and more.
Chang: How has your Allegiance journey to Broadway been different from Flower Drum Song, Godspell and Rent?
Leung: Allegiance is the first show that I’ve had the honor and pleasure of being a part of from the very first reading. It is a role that I originated, and I’ve never had that experience with my other Broadway shows. That comes with its own set of challenges and intense pressure to really “get it right” for its premiere, but there is also a wonderful collaboration that happens when you work with the creative team and authors for so long to develop an original piece. In the case of Allegiance, it was six years of developing Sammy – six years worth of learning and unlearning songs, new songs, seeing changes, new plot lines, rewrites, etc all tailored to me and what I bring to the table in a rehearsal room.
Chang: What was the toughest part about preparing for this role given your leading man status?
Leung: In the show, I get to share leading duties with my onstage/offstage show sister Lea Salonga. The show is pretty grueling on both of us physically and vocally – and the discipline of doing that 8-times-a-week has been the biggest challenge. It’s clean living, staying in shape, eating right, and taking the time to really warm up properly to have the stamina to get through the schedule. It’s a daily challenge! But I’m glad I have someone I love so much (personally and professionally) to share the challenge with me.
Chang: How much did the show change for you from first preview to opening
Leung: We never did the same show twice! You constantly keep multiple versions of the show in your body and brain during previews because you are often learning a change in rehearsals during the day but still performing the “old” version of the show before the cut song/new scene is properly rehearsed. It’s not like we are reviving a show that’s been done many times. We are constantly morphing the show during previews based on the feedback we get from the audience. We didn’t freeze the show until the weekend before the press came to review the show!! And yes – there were many times I wrote lyrics on my hand or spoke gibberish on Broadway or made up lyrics as I went! You kinda just pray for the best and jump off the cliff when it comes to putting in changes. My friends who saw the first preview and have come back after opening have told me that it’s a TOTALLY NEW SHOW!
Chang: What does this story mean to you personally?
Leung: As an American who is also a person of color, the story resonates with me deeply – especially since the issues of immigration, refugees, and racial profiling are still so prevalent in our headlines and political conversation right now. The story of Allegiance, which takes place in the 1940s, deals with so many issues that we are still very much grappling with today. It is such an important story to be telling right now, and we all feel a personal responsibility as artists and as Americans to do our part in broadening minds and keeping these important issues in the conversation long after the curtain has gone down.
Chang: What has it been like to work with George Takei and witness his Broadway debut?
Leung: George is my idol! I’ve looked up to George for so long because many of us in the Asian acting community consider him a pioneer. He was representing us when there were not very many Asians in show business. Frankly, if it wasn’t for George Takei – there wouldn’t be a Telly Leung. I also admire him as an activist and as someone who speaks for equality, and as a role model to so many people in the LGBT community. He has accomplished so much – but he’s never been on Broadway! It was so great to watch him make his Broadway debut. What a testament to the fact that it’s truly “never too late” to fulfill your dreams. George is for filling his Broadway dreams – at 78!
Chang: What was your experience working on The World of Extreme Happiness given your extensive musical theater background?
Leung: I have to thank my training at Carnegie Mellon for preparing me for the challenges of working on a play. The reality is that as an actor who does both musicals and plays, I’ve done more musicals because there is more work for music theater actors in New York City. I am often hired to “sing for my supper”. After making my mainstem debut in a Broadway musical (Flower Drum Song), the business has a funny way of putting actors in a pigeonhole that says, you are a “music theater actor” and nothing else. When I got the opportunity to work on a brand-new play at MTC with WOEH, I felt like the luckiest actor in the world! I was getting to stretch the muscles that I have not stretched since college – and getting an opportunity to show The New York theater community a different side of me as a storyteller and artist.
Chang: Jennifer Lim and Lea Salonga have both portrayed your sisters. What has it been like to share the stage with such formidable talents?
Leung: They are both power-houses! I just try to keep up! In all seriousness, I would say that actors are only as good as their scene partners. Both of them have a wonderful generosity onstage and offstage. Lea and I have a long history, since 2002 – so working with her was easy. We bring a lot of our Allstate chemistry to the stage in Allegiance. Jen and I had never met, but both of us had an instant connection in the rehearsal room. We both have a strong work ethic and commitment to the work – and the same tenacity towards the material. We are both “dive headfirst” kind of actors that love to discover new things in the rehearsal room based on what the other actor is giving – and it was lots of fun to explore that complex and difficult play.
Chang: What has been the most moving or compelling thing someone has said to you after the show?
Leung: I knew that Japanese American audiences would connect to Allegiance. What has been most surprising and moving to me is that there have been so many people of all races and backgrounds that connect to the story as well. There is truly something very universal in the story we are telling. African American audiences have come up to me and told me, “this is our story too.” Recently, many Muslim Americans have stopped us at the stage door to thank us for telling this story at this challenging time for their community. Allegiance is a very entertaining show – but it is also an agent of societal change for those who come to see the show, and that is actually touched me the most about this experience.
Chang: Were your parents always supportive of your career in the arts?
Leung: Like most immigrant parents, they wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or an engineer. They wanted me to go to an Ivy League school, graduate, and get a great job that paid me a lot of money. That’s because the American dream to them was a financial one. They are both from blue collar backgrounds. Dad worked in Chinese restaurants all his life. Mom worked as a seamstress. They saved every penny for their one and only kid to give him the best things in life. To them, the American dream was only achievable by following one path. At first, when I decided to diverge from this path, they discouraged a career in the arts because they thought it would be a life of financial instability. Don’t get me wrong – it is, sometimes! But, through my career, I feel like they’ve learned the other part of the American dream. In China, they did not have the opportunity to dream and choose what it is that they wanted to be. Their careers in America were based on the financial necessity. I feel like in many ways they’re living vicariously through me when they see me making a living doing what it is that I love to do. Financial stability is a sacrifice – but it is a sacrifice that I am fully aware of by choosing this as my career. They understand that now, and they realize that this artistic fulfillment is something without a price tag.
Chang: How have you maintained the balance of the juggling act that has been your life in the last year with The World of Extreme Happiness, Allegiance, all of the press, your concerts on the road and producing the new CD?
Leung: I’ve always been somebody on-the-go. I’m a born and raise New Yorker, and I love the fast pace of the city. I’m definitely one of those people that says, “I’ll sleep when I die!” It’s just a part of my nature. I’m not the type of person that is happy when I’m only doing one thing. I love to multitask. I also have a family, circle of friends, and a partner that understands this about me and loves me for who I am. They have been an incredible support system for me – and there’s no way I could do all those things without their unconditional love and patience.
Chang: What is it like to be one of Ann Harada’s hunks for her annual Christmas Eve’s Holiday Hunkfest to benefit BC/EFA?
Leung: I love Ann! We are old friends. I also love collaborating with her director, Alan Muraoka – who worked with me on Pacific Overtures. Not only is Alan a brilliant actor, but he is also a genius director. He has been one of my artistic collaborators for many years, helping me shape my own club acts and cabaret shows. I’m really looking forward to a fun night, with great friends – all for a good cause!
Chang: Do you have any dream roles that you would like to tackle?
Leung: My dream used to be to originate a role on Broadway. I’m getting to achieve that dream right now in Allegiance. So it’s time for some new dreams, right!? I would love to tackle some Shakespeare. Scary – but a challenge I am looking for to at some point.
Chang: Any directors or composers that you would like to work with in the future?
Leung: I’ve always been a big fan of Adam Guettal. I would love the opportunity to sing his music.
Chang: Do you have any mentors?
Leung: I have many mentors. many of these mentors are also dear friends. Just off the top of my head: Billy Porter, Alvin Ing, Stafford Arima, Liz Caplan (my voice teacher), Lorenzo Thione & Elliott Masie (Allegiance producers), Michael McElroy, my parents, and the entire faculty at CMU.
Chang: What was the inspiration for your new CD?
Leung: The new album is called SONGS FOR YOU. Each one of the 12 tracks is a special dedication to someone who has meant a lot to me personally or professionally. The album is a product of gratitude. I’ve so much to be thankful for this year – and there’s been so many people along the way that it helped me get to where I am today. I want to make an album that was a loving tribute to those people who created a positive change in my life.
Songs for You – a follow up to Leung’s acclaimed 2012 debut album I’ll Cover You features familiar classic songs from the worlds of Pop, Jazz, R&B, and Broadway done with a new and innovative twist, accompanied by lush musical arrangements by Gary Adler, Mary Ann McSweeney, Jesse Vargas, and Leung himself. The album, produced by Michael Croiter is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and at live performances.
Songs for You features songs originally recorded by Michael Jackson (Human Nature), Oleta Adams (I Just Had to Hear Your Voice), Mama Cass Elliot (Make Your Own Kind of Music), John Denver (Leaving On A Jet Plane), Des’ree (You Gotta Be) and more. To honor his Broadway roots, Leung also includes songs by his favorite theater composers Stephen Sondheim (Being Alive), Jerry Herman (I Am What I Am) and Stephen Schwartz (Dreamscape), in addition to the world premiere recording of “Second Chances” from the pre-Broadway engagement of Allegiance.
Leung served as producer for the short film Grind, starring Anthony Rapp (If/Then, Rent), Claire Coffee (Grimm, The West Wing) and Pasha Pellosie (The Carrie Diaries). The movie, which won honors at film festivals around the country, is available to stream at GrindShortFilm.com. The soundtrack is available on Yellow Sound Label. Leung is also the co-producer of the touring concert series Broadway Back Together, a reunion of major headliners who have performed on Broadway together, sharing an evening of personal backstage anecdotes and show-stopping music. For more information, visit www.TellyLeung.com.
Allegiance has implemented a digital lottery for $39 seats available each day via allegiancemusical.com/lottery. Entries can be submitted the day of the preferred performance, either by 11AM for matinees or 3PM for evening performances. Winners will be notified via email or text, depending on what they select during the entry process, and winners may purchase up to 2 tickets which will be held at the box office. Allegiance will also offer a limited number of $39 rush tickets for patrons 35 years old and under for each performance beginning at the opening of the box office each day. There will be a limit of 2 tickets per customer. Cash or credit cards will be accepted for all lottery and rush tickets, and seat locations will vary depending on availability.
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Broadwayworld.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.