Talking with Telly: Telly Leung Shares His Story and Thoughts about a Career in Theatre
Telly Leung is one of the most exciting, enthusiastic, and energetic young performers on Broadway. From his debut on Broadway in the musical Flower Drum Song, through his work on Rent, Pacific Overtures, and Godspell, he exhibits charm and talent by the truckload. Now he is poised to return to Broadway in the musical Allegiance, set to star alongside George Takei and Lea Salonga.
I first met Telly when I brought him in as a guest for a production of Godspell I was directing with youth in the Catskills region. He generously shared his stories of his experience with Godspell, offered a thorough history of the piece that included ties with his alma mater (Carnegie Mellon University), and led the kids through an original choreography creation set to one of the numbers from the show. He inspired many kids that day! His devoted work with youth makes him an inspiration to the thespians of future generations.
Recently, Telly consented to an interview with me, patiently and thoughtfully answering my questions on a range of topics. Please read on and learn some more about this incredibly gifted and genuinely kind talent of the theatre community.
Mark Robinson: Give us some general background about yourself. Where you are from?
Telly Leung: I'm Chinese-American, and I was born and raised in New York City. My parents are still in Brooklyn today - so I'm a proud, native New Yorker. I went to a math and science high school in New York called Stuyvesant – but I quickly realized that being a doctor or an engineer wasn't in the cards for me. I went to Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama, where I got a BFA in Acting / Music Theater - and I've been very lucky to have a wonderful career (so far) doing what I love - telling stories, making art and inspiring others to do the same.
MR: Tell us about some of your likes and dislikes.
TL: Since LIKES / DISLIKES is so broad... I'm going to name some random ones off the top of my head...
LIKES: the Broadway community, teaching, creating and producing art, traveling and eating (love trying new cuisines on my international travels for work), SCANDAL, RUPAUL'S Drag Race, Kettle One vodka gimlets, jelly beans, Miles Davis, old-school 80's and 90's music, equality for all regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation - and COFFEE.
DISLIKES: the MTA, water chestnuts (I know... I'm Chinese, and it's all over the food of my people. But, I always pick them out), negative energy, pessimists, cream soda, selfish performers, laziness (especially when it comes to my students), cardio (but I do it anyway), sinus infections.
MR: Tell us about your training as a performer. What have been the most valuable experiences in your training and what advice would you offer a teen who is aspiring to explore musical theatre as a career.
TL: The first acting class I took was the young actors' program at Lee Strasberg when I was 14 years old. It was every Saturday, and it was the first time I understood that acting was a craft that required a performer to hone their technique SO well that they can eventually just TRUST their technique because it has becomes second nature to them and LIVE as the character. This is STILL something I'm learning (and fine-tuning) today.
My first voice teacher was a wonderful man named Thomas Shepard - and we started when I was 15. He has since moved to LA, where he has private students - but we've remained good friends. He gave me a deep appreciation for singers and the disciplined lifestyle required to be a professional. He also was the person that first taught me how to express myself musically with my instrument to tell a story and evoke an emotion in my listener. The voice is a muscle, and I still study voice today with a wonderful teacher in NYC.
Most of my training was from Carnegie Mellon University. I would be no where today without the deeply-engrained conservatory training I received there during those four years of rigorous study.
The advice I offer to young teen performers: See EVERYTHING. Go see Broadway, off Broadway, Community Theater, movies, TV, talent shows, drag shows, beauty pageants, operas, ballets. Then, don't just watch it as a
fan - but watch it as a STUDENT and start picking apart the performance. What worked? What was effective story telling? What evoked a reaction from the audience or the scene partner?
MR: Tell us about Allegiance; what was the most exciting part about the Old Globe inception? How do you think you as a person and the show as a whole will evolve with the upcoming Broadway production this fall? What about Allegiance do you think will attract people? What will resonate with them?
TL: At its core, Allegiance is a musical about a family, and how it endures a very difficult period in our history - the Japanese internment. Audiences will see themselves and their own families when they watch how the Kimura family weathers the storm of history. I also think that anyone in the audience who has ever been treated as a second-class citizen (because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) will relate to this show because all of us have been the victims of prejudice and bigotry at one point or another. Our nation is a country that strives for "liberty and justice...FOR ALL." Sometimes, we don't achieve that (like the Japanese Internment). But, we are a nation that keeps striving for it, and that's what makes America great.
The most exciting part of doing the show in San Diego was meeting the audience afterwards - and getting their reactions. This was so important to all of us working on the out-of-town of the show - as it is our time to test it out. We knew that our first audiences in San Diego would let us know what worked, what doesn't work, what parts of the story resonated, etc. We are indebted to our Old Globe audience and how much they taught us about Allegiance. Often times, I would meet people after the show that had NO IDEA that the internment ever happened - and I was glad to have been an agent in the storytelling of this (often) unknown story about our country's history.
There will be MANY changes in store. A Broadway musical is always a work in progress. Just as our San Diego audiences taught us a lot about the show, our New York preview audiences will ALSO be very helpful to us as we continue to fine-tune and develop till opening night in November.
MR: What is your favorite song that you perform and why is that so? Have you ever had a song that frightened you or you had a hard time connecting to? How did you get past that?
TL: My favorite song to perform is “I’ll Cover You” from Rent. I do a special arrangement of the song on my album, also entitled I’ll Cover You. Rent was a very special show to me. Seeing the show's original cast in 1996 inspired me to do theater - and I was lucky enough to join the Broadway company in 2006 and be part of the final cast on Broadway. Every time I sing that song, I revisit all the wonderful friends, memories, and experiences I had because of Rent - and it remains my favorite Broadway love song. Ever.
I don't know if I've ever been frightened of a song. I find that I'm a pretty emotionally available person, so usually connecting to a song isn't that hard for me. To me, connecting to a song is all about finding out what my "character" in the song WANTS, WHO am I talking to, and HOW do it get what I want from this person. In many ways, Singing 101 is actually ACTING 101!
MR: What role (that you have performed) would you like the opportunity to revisit because you feel that life experience has deepened your understanding of that character? What role are you aching to sink your teeth into?
TL: When I was 21, I played BOBBY in Company at CMU. It was my senior musical. Billy Porter was my director. At 21, there is no way I could fully understand what it meant to be 35 and single. I'm much closer to that age now, and I'd love to get another stab at that role.
MR: Thinking back over the Broadway shows you have done, what has been the hardest thing to overcome? What is the most surprising thing you learned about yourself?
TL: My first Broadway show was Flower Drum Song. The show opened and closed after a very short four month run. Many blizzards and a musician strike shuttered the show much earlier than anyone expected. After achieving my ultimate dream of being on Broadway, I think a little part of me just assumed that it would never end. When it does end, I felt what MANY actors (including myself) feel ALL THE TIME - that I'LL NEVER WORK AGAIN. There's a deep fear in all of us (whether we admit it or not) that says: "Is this my last job? Will I ever get to do this again? Will I ever get hired to perform again?" It doesn't matter HOW successful you are, or how many Tony awards you have on your shelf. Every actor has to deal with this fear all the time - and that's because it's a VERY tough (and often times, FICKLE) business. That's just the reality of it. But, hopefully, our love for what we do, and our optimism and FAITH is what keeps us going. It's what's able to quiet those negative little voices in all of us and it sustains us till the next gig.