By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
Talented and versatile performer Telly Leung has appeared on Broadway in Allegiance, Godspell, Rent, Pacific Overtures, Flower Drum Song, and most recently, the a cappella musical In Transit. Now he’s preparing for an upcoming solo cabaret show at The Green Room 42 at Yotel on April 23. The native New Yorker spoke to #COTA Senior Editor Shari Lifland about the interplay between his personal, professional, and political lives.
COTA: Let’s start by talking about your recent role in the Broadway show In Transit. You played Steven, a gay man whose partner, Trent (played by Justin Guarini) struggled with coming out to his Southern, religious mother. The show handled the storyline with so much compassion and humor. How did you come to play the role?
Telly Leung: My casting came about in a very traditional way: I auditioned. I was aware of the show, as it had been brewing since 2002, when the writers first got the idea as a love letter to New York City after 9-11. I’d always wanted to work with Kathleen Marshall, so when I heard she was directing it on Broadway I jumped at the opportunity when my agent called. As a born-and-raised New Yorker, the show means a lot to me. I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and went to Stuyvesant High School. My addiction to Broadway came from saving up my allowance money and going to the TKTS booth to get half price tickets. I was eager to be in a show that had my city as a backdrop. The last time I got to do that was Rent.
COTA: What did the part mean to you personally? Do you try to choose shows that have a message?
TL: As a gay man, it’s interesting: the show was written in 2000, but what Kathleen impressed on us is that we were the only new musical that was taking place in the present, in 2017, and that we had a responsibility to address what New Yorkers and everyone was feeling post-election. As we were going through the preview process, Steven and Trent’s story line went through a lot of changes. At one point, late in previews, the writers said, “We really want this couple to reflect what the gay community is feeling right now.”
Justin and I had a long conversation with the writers and I told them about my own experience, that I’ve been with my partner Jimmy for 12 years and that we are part of a generation of gay men who thought getting married was never an option. When Donald Trump got elected, Jimmy and I sat there with our mouths agape and I said to him, “I really want to get married.” It was a time when we didn’t know whose rights were going to be in danger: immigrants, dreamers, LGBT people, people of color, women, etc. So we decided we would go to City Hall and just do it, then throw a big party sometime later. We want to have a stake in the fight; if we’re going to be marching alongside our LGBT brothers and sisters, they’re going to have to pry that ring off our fingers!
A couple of days before we froze the show, I told the writers about our plans. They all looked at me and said, “That is so truthful to what the gay community is experiencing right now—a sense of anxiety, but also a renewed sense of activism.” [They restructured Steven and Trent’s story around what Telly was going through with his life]. I feel like our story is now forever captured in a Broadway musical and I got to live out that moment on stage every night with Justin.
COTA: At the first BroadwayCon you participated in a panel on “Diversity on Broadway.” This was just after the “Oscars So White” backlash. Broadway has come a long way when it comes to diversity: Hamilton, On Your Feet, Allegiance, Shuffle Along, and now the revival of Miss Saigon, come to mind. How have you seen the opportunities for non-white actors change throughout your career? Are casting directors making diversity more of a priority now?
TL: At that panel, one of the participants said, “Now that Hamilton is such a huge hit, everybody wants to do ‘Hamilton casting,’ but I just call it ‘casting.’”
We are feeling the positive effects from last season. Because last season was a big gangbuster year on Broadway—artistically and financially—it is opening that conversation now. I’m not available, but a regional theater recently called me in to audition for the role of George in Sunday in the Park with George. That blew my mind! That is a role I never thought I’d get a chance to play. The current New York production has a diverse array of actors, and nobody thinks twice. It’s kind of amazing.
It’s the job of every actor, but especially actors of color: It’s on you to go into the room and make your case as to why a character can look and sound like you. A lot of my colleagues who are actors of color view their skin color and ethnicity as a hindrance. But the minute you view it as something limiting, you’ve uncast yourself when you walk into the room. Ultimately it’s not your decision and it’s outside of your control. But the five minutes you’re in that room, it is in your control. They need an actor to fill the job, and if you plead your case, you might just end up being the best actor for the job.
COTA: You grew up in a very traditional Chinese family in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Both your mother and father swam from China to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution. How has your Chinese heritage shaped who you are? How have your parents handled your choice of profession and your coming out as gay? And is it true your parents named you after Telly Savalas?
TL: Yes, it’s true: they named me after Telly Savalas. When my parents came to New York in 1975 they had 200 bucks in their pocket, a couple of suitcases, and they crashed on a friend’s couch in Chinatown. They worked during the day, and to learn English, they took classes at night and watched a lot of television. “Kojak” was my mom’s favorite show. They thought Telly was just a normal, American name, like Joe or Bob.
Everything I have is because my immigrant parents worked hard and saved for it. So I understood hard work and never took anything for granted. I’m an only child because they could only afford to have one child. In many ways, I attribute my being in theatre to being an only child. Only children have very active imaginations, because you’re constantly creating imaginary friends for yourself. I found a lot of “brothers and sisters” when I started doing theatre. I still feel that way. When I’m doing a show I spend more time with my cast than with my actual family. Even today, I call them my “Rent family;” my “Allegiance family.”
Like every traditional Chinese parent, my parents wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer and earn six figures. I’ve always said it was much harder coming out to them as an actor than it was coming out to them [as gay], because I know that they laid all of their hopes and dreams in me, to be what they couldn’t be. They are proud of what I’ve done. It’s like the theme of In Transit: it didn’t happen the way they planned it, but I’m happier for it.
COTA: Let’s talk about your musical choices. You’ve said, “I had ‘Sesame Street;’ my parents had Neil Diamond.” How does the music you listened to growing up affect your repertoire?
TL: My dad loved popular American music. This was the 70s: It was a lot of Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Saturday Night Fever, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Beatles. Now that I get to be a cabaret artist, that’s the songbook that I draw from—my dad’s English-learning songbook. And I get to take the music that I love and that is in my soul and reinvent it.
COTA: Your version of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” is amazing. It’s more up-tempo and jazzy than Billy Joel’s iconic original. What is your process for making a song uniquely your own?
TL: I love doing cabaret and I love working with my band. It’s a collaboration—another family that I’ve created for myself. “New York State of Mind” is one of my favorites. As a New Yorker, I consider it to be like an anthem. The person who arranged that song is a wonderful bassist named Mary Ann McSweeney who plays on Broadway. We both love Miles Davis. So we asked ourselves, “What if Miles Davis had written ‘New York State of Mind,’ instead of Billy Joel? What would it sound like?” We take the music that we love, put it into a big melting pot, and see what we come up with.
COTA: What can audience members expect on April 23 when you perform at the Green Room 42 at Yotel?
TL: I haven’t sung with a band for a while, since In Transit was all sung a cappella, and I really miss that. People coming to my show at the Green Room can expect songs from my two solo albums, “I’ll Cover You” and “Songs for You,” along with songs from Broadway shows that I’ve done. I’m also enlisting the help of my musical director from In Transit to do some new tunes and new arrangements. I relish the opportunity to do concerts like this, because it’s not Telly as Steven and it’s not Telly as Angel. It’s Telly as Telly. I get to share stories and songs with the audience and I get to just be me.
Telly Leung will perform at The Green Room 42 at Yotel (570 Tenth Avenue at 42nd Street, 4th floor) on Sunday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information: www.thegreenroom42.com