It's a chance for everybody to feel like we're not so alone when you share that story and you can share it in an authentic way.
Hello, welcome to The Tony Howell Podcast. In this episode, I have a conversation with Broadway Changemaker, Telly Leung. I first saw Telly tickling the ivories and taking us to church in Godspell and then watched him reach cult fan status with shows like Rent and Glee. After recently watching him beautifully lead a historic original work in Allegiance, and then flying high on Broadway, Times Square, and in Digital Ads in Aladdin, I was really excited to bring him in for our Pride Episode. He is a leader in the Broadway community, as well as the LGBTQ+ community. And I think after listening to this episode, he will become your Broadway big brother.
Thank you so much to Telly for being on the show. Thank you for listening and enjoy.
Hi Tony, how are you?
I'm great. How are you?
Happy Pride. I want to start by asking you what you're most proud of today?
What I'm most proud of today? Because we're talking about Pride, when I think about Pride and I think about being proud, I think about my husband actually. We've been together for 15 years. It'll be 15 years in October. We've been married since 2017. So we've been married for two years. I feel like having somebody like that in my life for that long, that's been a constant. Our love together. And our relationship together has kind of given me the strength to be out and proud. In a lot of ways as an actor, I know oftentimes I definitely had managers and people like that who said “I'm not really sure if you should be out of the closet” and “I don't know if it's okay to really be gay in Hollywood and on Broadway. Will people think that a gay actor can play heterosexual roles?” I definitely got that kind of feedback from certain people that were in the industry.
I got to the point where I said, I'm with Jimmy, at all of these opening nights and all of these events, I'm not hiding him or putting him or myself in a closet. So in a lot of ways when I think of Pride and I think of being proud, I think of him actually.
So on that, what would you say to the gay actor who's getting that feedback still, or who has bought into that and is still in the closet or hiding that?
I think that there certainly was a time in the industry, in our world when you had to hide. Especially when you hear about all those stories about old Hollywood, the Tab Hunters. Those real old stories of what it used to be in Hollywood. I feel like authenticity is something that you cannot train. It doesn't matter how much acting class you go to and how many degrees or master degrees you have in theater and performance. It's not something you can pick up from an acting school.
It's something that you have to tap within yourself, being true to yourself and being able to use that, use that authenticity to move other people. I feel like the world and the stories that we're wanting to tell today in film, in TV, and in the theater are moving more and more towards that. We are more and more attracted to the authenticity of people and the authenticity of the story.
I think that's why things like Pose on television have really gotten a great audience. We're ready for that now. I don't know if we'd be ready for that 50 years ago, when those brave, brave trans people picked up bricks and fought for our rights at Stonewall. I don't know if we were ready for it then, but I feel like we are much more ready for it now.
So you've played a number of gay roles, Angel and Steven In Transit. What would you like to say to the creative teams and the producers that are putting together this material in terms of the representation you'd like to see on stage?
What I love, here's a great story about In Transit. Those writers were really part of an acapella group back in 2000. They were an acapella group in the city and they were singing acapella versions of Madonna songs and George Michael songs and stuff like that and all of a sudden 9/11 happened. And they found comfort in each other. All of these people were not from New York City, but had moved to New York to fulfill their dreams as writers and as singers. So those four writers, they said 9/11 happened and they really spent that period of time healing with each other. They said, instead of us singing Madonna covers, why don't we actually write songs about New York City that we love? Why don't we write songs that celebrate New York and do them in an acapella style?
So that's really how that musical was born, it was 2001. The musical took many, many years before we got to 2016 and premiered on Broadway. And they had written a gay storyline, Trent and Steven were always there, but the material from 2001 just didn't resonate anymore. So we were doing that material in previews. It's a wonderful process when you're in previews of a Broadway show. It's that time when you test it in front of an audience, you see if it works or not. And Justin and I were definitely ramming our heads against a wall because we could feel the audience not connect to this story.
So the writers actually pulled us in a room and said, we need to talk to you guys about this storyline, we know that we wrote it back in 2001, we need this to resonate with the 2016 audience. They asked me very directly, you as somebody who's in the LGBTQ+ community, what is your story right now?
In a small room with Kathleen Marshall, the director, and our four amazing writers, I said, guys, I have a confession to make. Now this is 2016. This is right after the election. When Donald Trump was elected, the day after the election was our first preview in November.
So the whole city was basically in shock. You could ride the subway and it was as if it was a somber mood all over New York. I said, guys, I watched the election results that night, and I fell a great deal of uncertainty as a person of color and as somebody who's gay and as a child of immigrants, I just felt like there was going to be a great shift, a big shift from the last 8 years of Obama, which were so progressive. And so much about inclusion and acceptance. I just felt like the pendulum was swinging the other way with the election of Donald Trump.
I said, guys, my husband and I, we looked at each other and we watched the results come in and we looked at each other and we said, we have to get married. I'm 39, Jimmy's over 40. I'm not going to reveal his age. So we're not part of the generation of gay people that ever thought getting married was possible. We never thought about getting married at all. We just said, listen, this is our relationship. The gay community for years and generations have had to define what partnership and what union ship meant to us. And each individual couple has to decide what that is for them and with marriage being legal now in all 50 states.
Now we're going alright, we can get married. Jimmy and I looked and said we should really get married after the election results came in. You just have no idea. Like in the next four years, with the selection of a few more Supreme Court Justices, the right to get married could be gone. The right for marriage equality could disappear.
And we're watching that sort of happen now with women's rights, that's being pulled back. Something that you'd never think would go away. Roe versus Wade you'd never think that would be something that we’d go back on. And here we are, we are living it today in the headlines. I looked at Jimmy and I said, I don't want us to lose that right to get married in the next four years. And then we grow old and then we're not legally wed in any way. And I can't make decisions for you when that time comes in the hospital, you can't do that for me. We're not making important decisions for each other. So I said, we just have to do it. So I confessed to that writing team in that tiny little room. I said, guys, I got married. I ran away and eloped secretly and I got married and we decided that we weren't going to even tell anybody on social media or on Facebook or Instagram until Inauguration Day because we knew we had a lot of friends who were going to feel very anxious that day.
And so we said, since we're getting some news from DC, why don't we also blast out some news that, “Hey guys, we got married.” We used the hashtag #LoveTrumpsHate, as our message to the world. In a lot of ways I feel like it's the best decision I ever made. And ironically that storyline of Steven and Trent running away and going to City Hall and getting married, that's in the show now because they basically just made our characters do the same exact thing. And all of a sudden it rang true and it rang true for that time right then and there.
And it also helped define our characters too, a little bit. Justin's character, he comes from a very conservative family. He's not even out to his family in the South, that was his storyline. Then my character, Steven was a vigilant left wing, very liberal guy who had PFLAG parents. In many ways too, even within the gay community, you have to go alright, we all come from different places, there's compromise. Marriage is also about compromise and that that's true of gay weddings and straight relationships and all of those relationships too. So it was interesting, the storyline that ended up working was the authentic one. The one that actually happened.
Speaking of Telly the actor, Telly the artist. I know that you bridge a lot of worlds between music and theater and you do a lot of performing in concerts. So this may be a silly question. But do you enjoy being Telly more or do you love to go be someone else?
It's a totally different art form for me. My formal training was at Carnegie Mellon University and it is the oldest degree in acting in the country. So the way that we're trained in that Western theater arts tradition is to train in the classics and to be an actor. And how do you form a character and voice and speech and movement. And that's really my formal training. I remembered it was my senior year and it was my senior thesis project. And Carnegie Mellon Alum, Billy Porter actually came and directed me in my senior thesis show. And I played Bobby in Company. I was a 22 year old Bobby. Bobby's supposed to be 35, but it's college. That's what they do.
I remembered Billy actually pulling me in a room during one of his note sessions and going, so what you're doing, the outside of it is great. He said, you sing it well, I hear every word. The diction is impeccable, you dance well. He said, you're not talking and listening. I said what? He said, I'm just saying the lines and I'm receiving, I'm hearing them. He said, no you Telly Leung, you are not talking to me as yourself. So somewhere in this process of you training to be an actor for four years, you've learned the right way to speak and how to correct your accent and the right way to move and all of that. You've all these great technical skills, but there's this other part of the process where you throw all of that work away and you embody a character with yourself.
And again, it goes back to the idea of authenticity that we've talked about so much. You have to trust that you and your humanity and your experience, being poured into this character is what's going to give it life and that the technique will come. And it was such a great lesson. He said, just talk to me as you and trust that we'll hear every word. Trust that all the notes will be there, that every step will be there. That you're going to remember all of that. But if you're not talking and listening to me in the moment and actually communicating something as Telly as Bobby, it's not going to make any sense. I think that was one of the best lessons I ever learned at Carnegie Mellon and I thank him for that.
When you do cabaret and when you do concerts, it's all of that. There is no hiding, but it's not even Telly as Bobby. It's Telly as Telly. It's frightening because there are two things that happen. A.) You go, “Gosh! It's hard to share personal stories about yourself,” because it feels like you're naked on stage. B.) At the same time you say to yourself, “Is it enough? Who wants to hear about my story?” There's that little voice in the back of your head that goes, “You are not interesting. Your story is boring.” But actually finding the courage to tell your story in the most authentic way and in the most truthful way, and to actually engage an audience in your story actually helps to move people. It actually helps people to look back at their own stories and find the courage to tell their stories as well.
So that's definitely something I've learned by doing concerts and by doing cabaret to just trust that my story is interesting enough and that if I'm truthful to that, somebody will connect to that. And oftentimes, the more specific the better. I talk about my family a lot in my shows and it's very specific. I come from a Chinese Cantonese immigrant home in New York City. It's so specific. But me being very specific about my upbringing in that household, I find that there are kids who grew up in Indian American homes who are thinking, oh my gosh, that's totally my parents or kids that grew up in Latino homes that say, yep, we have those. We have traditions, too. And they’re sticklers about X, Y, and Z, and this is why.
So people connect and I think that's always the goal of doing concert and cabaret work. When you get an intimate room like that, when you're at a place like Birdland or Fienstein’s at 54 Below, or any of these great little rooms where cabaret artists are working, or you're hearing their stories, it's a chance for everybody to feel like we're not so alone when you share that story, and you can share it in an authentic way. My goal is to always have people leave my concerts or leave my shows going, I know a little something about that person. Not that person's work, not that Telly was in Rent or Telly was In Transit or Aladdin or Wicked. That doesn't matter. The resume stuff doesn't really matter.
I know that person a little bit more and wow, how wonderful that he was able to share his story, where are the opportunities for me to share mine? I guess if I can get one or two people in that audience or more to leave and think my family story is really interesting, or my story about me finding love is very interesting, maybe I feel like then I've accomplished my job as an artist.
I like that word artist. So can you define the moments in your life because you are a multi-hyphenate, you're an actor, teacher, producer. So when did you make the decision, I'm going to be an actor. Let's start there?
It's interesting that you say I'm a multi-hyphenate, like it's a choice. Sometimes I actually don't think for me it was a choice, because I learned very early on, maybe it's because I'm an Asian actor, an actor of color, and I knew that there wasn't going to be as many opportunities for me as there were going to be for my Caucasian counterparts, just because I'm a minority, I'm a racial minority. And we are a minority, not only in the world, in America, but we are a minority in this business. I think the acting opportunities are not as plentiful for me, so I'm going to need to express myself in other ways. So yes, I want to be an actor performing on Broadway all the time and performing on TV all the time. That's not going to happen all the time.
So I also have to create other work for myself in a cabaret venue or in a concert venue. Well, creating other work means then I have to create other work as a producer for myself, because if I'm not seeing the kind of stories that I want, I gotta go find those stories and find the people to be working on them, to make something. So if that means I'm sitting in a producer chair to tell stories, then great. Then I need to sit in a producer's chair or do I need to sit in a teacher's chair and encourage the next generation of storytellers. So in many ways, I am hyphenated, but I think I'm hyphenated out of necessity. The business sort of said, and the artistic world sort of said, you're going to be a hyphenated person.
Well, you do it well.
You wear it well. Let's rewind back to Billy Porter directing you in Company. I know there's a fun story there of you booking your Broadway debut. Tell us more.
It was my senior year and I'm doing Company. Listeners out there, you have to know that Billy Porter, we all know him as Tony Award winner, Billy Porter, Mutha Billy Porter from Kinky Boots, now he's Golden Globe nominated for his turn in FX’s Pose. But Billy also went to Carnegie Mellon and when he graduated in 1991, his first Broadway show was the Original Broadway Company of Miss Saigon. He was hired to be in the ensemble to sing high notes, which Billy does very well and to cover John.
So when he did Miss Saigon, he entered into this very small tight-knit community of Asian actors that were working on Broadway. So he got to know them all very quickly and sort of became honorary Asian in a lot of ways. Fast forward. It's now 2002. And the man who was his dance captain in Miss Saigon, Marc Oka was going to be dance captain and associate choreographer of the 2002 revival of Flower Drum Song, which featured an all Asian cast. And so Billy picked up the phone and said, “Hey, Marc, I have a couple of Asian kids who are doing Company here at Carnegie Mellon. They are students, they're seniors. They have no agents. They have no business contacts but are you seeing people for Flower Drum Song?” And Marc said, “Actually, we are. We're looking for people for the Broadway Company.”
And he goes, “Great. Can you get them some appointments?” Billy got me and a couple of my classmates an appointment. It's a dance call, but they call them agent-only dance calls. You have to have had a Broadway credit or an agent submissions only sort of dance call. And somehow Billy submitted us.
He's your agent?
Correct. Billy said, I got you this audition in New York City, but we were teching Company at the time. He said you're Bobby. You're in every scene. So he said you have to finish tech at midnight. You can't leave tech. So I finished tech at midnight, I got on a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh to New York. I got into New York at around 8:30 in the morning. I splashed some water in my face. I was at my first Broadway dance audition. I made it through the jazz combination. They put you through a ballet combination. They make you read sides and, and sing from the Flower Drum Song from the score to see if you can cover any rolls. And ultimately Bobby Longbottom said, “So I hear you're doing company with Billy Porter right now.” And I go, “Yeah, I just got off a Greyhound bus last night.”
And he says, “Great. Sing ‘Being Alive,’” which was great. I was so thrilled that I got to. I literally just sang it the night before in tech, so it was awesome. It was already in my book, I was ready to go and I was like great. And it was like, awesome.
I went back on my Greyhound bus. You have to understand this is 2002. This is before iPhones. There was no texting. I remember when I graduated, I had a service number in New York and LA. People didn't really have beepers. It was America Online and people had answering machines. You had to call a code to hear your messages.
So I got on my Greyhound bus and I got back to Pittsburgh. Billy asked, how'd it go? And I said, oh, it, it went great. I made it through all the dance combinations and I sang “Being Alive,” it was great. He goes, I know, I already got a phone call while you were on a bus. And I heard you did very well. And I said, well, great. I said, I think I have one more call. And if I get this job, Billy, I know I only get 25 words in my Playbill, because it's my first Broadway show. And I'm in the dancing ensemble, singing high notes in the back. But if I do, thank you Billy Porter is going to be the last four words in that Playbill bio. And if you look at my Flower Drum Song Playbill bio, it literally is like Graduated Carnegie Mellon. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you Billy Porter are the last four words of the Playbill.
That's beautiful. So you've now been in the business. So that was about 2002. I like to say that it's more like a mountain or a rollercoaster, there are highs and lows. How do you handle that and how do you recommend the students, the young college seniors approach that?
The business is cyclical. I got Flower Drum Song. It was 2002. It was great. I was making my Broadway debut. I was like the kid in my class that graduated with a Broadway show. The show opened and closed in four months. There were all these blizzards in New York City, which was detrimental to ticket sales. There was a musician strike, which was about minimums in Broadway houses, which was much more about shows like Mamma Mia! that had small electronic bands. We had a 15 piece orchestra. We were way above the minimum in our house. So all of those things shut down our show.
So four months later I was where all of my classmates were when they graduated. I was pounding pavement and without a job and collecting unemployment and that is show business. So there is a constant hustle. I found, even though I've been on Broadway since, like 2002, it's now 2019, it's a long 17 years of being on and off Broadway. I didn't spend 17 years being on Broadway straight. There are going to be times that you're not working and you have to understand how to keep working, how to keep your craft alive during those valleys, because it's not always going to be a mountain. And so even when you're on the mountain, you have to kind of go, okay this is really great, but this will end. This job will end as every good thing does come to an end. And so you have to figure out what's next and you have to also keep creating. It's going to be more valleys than mountains, so just be prepared for that. And also be prepared for the fact that as an actor, it is your job to audition. Really, as anything, as a director, as a scenic designer, you're constantly pitching or you're constantly auditioning.
You're always looking for the next one.
And you're constantly putting yourself and your work in front of people and getting a lot of rejection, just know that going in. With rejection, everybody has to find their way of dealing with no. There's that great story of Christopher Reeve who people would see, he had just graduated. I think he went to Juilliard or something and he just graduated. And they were like, who is that cheerful guy? He would leave every audition and he just had a smile on his face. And it was because he said to himself, he says, I'm not going to quit. I'm not leaving an audition and not smiling until I get to a hundred auditions and I don't book a job. He never got to a hundred. He walked in with that positive attitude and he always booked a job before he reached a hundred rejections. So that was Christopher Reeve. And it's kind of a good trick.
Matt Kavenaugh, Broadway's Matt Kavenaugh had a really good trick where when you get sides at an audition and you get a character to learn, you'd learn a couple of scenes and then you'd go do it. Even if you feel great about your audition, you're like, I nailed that audition. I'm going to get a call back: throw the sides away. Rip up the piece of paper and throw the sides away and move on to the next thing. And I think that is so useful because then you don't sit at home waiting, oh my gosh, where's my call back because that's not up to you. That's not really in your control and in your power to do that.
The other really good piece of advice I got is that, again this is back to authenticity, but be authentically yourself. At the end of the day, I know my strength as a performer comes from the fact that there really isn't another Telly Leung in this business or in this world. What I do, how I look, and how I sound is very unique. And that is actually something that is powerful. I think sometimes with the way we are flooded with images in the media. Sometimes we think we're not tall enough. We're not handsome enough. We're not pretty enough. We're not skinny enough. We're not buff enough. All of those things. We get all of that—inundated with what is ideal. What it is that we should be striving for in the world. I actually think it's the opposite. I actually think the more you can embrace what makes you unique and stand out from the crowd is actually going to be your strength.
So can you define what success means to you?
For me, I think success is being able to do what it is that you love to do and put three meals on the table and a roof over your head. That to me is success. I think there are so many people that want to do what it is that I'm doing and dream of doing that. And for whatever reasons do not have the opportunity to do that. I consider myself very lucky and successful and that I can. I have no trophies on a shelf and I've not won any awards. There are certainly people that will define their success by that. I need a Tony on my shelf or I need an Emmy on my shelf or a Grammy or something to go, but now I've succeeded. I've gotten there.
Every person I've talked to, who that has happened to, I have many friends now and colleagues who have been in that position to win those awards, and deservedly so. They go, all right, like that's it. I still need to find out if I have a gig after this gig is over, the gig that I won the Tony for. That show closes and then what? I have a Tony on my shelf, but how am I going to pay the bills? How am I going to pay the mortgage? How am I going to put food on the table for me and my kids? And so that to me is really success. To be able to do what it is that you love to do. To be a professional storyteller. And I get to pay my rent and while I'm doing it is awesome, that's success.
This is where I'm going to put on my entrepreneur hat and ask you if you have any systems that you do annually, you could call them rituals, but things that you do every year, every quarter, every month, every week to just make sure that you're able to fulfill that food on the table?
I have always subscribed to save for a rainy day. So I feel if you were an actor and you were lucky enough to land that great Broadway role or that TV series or that thing that makes you a lot of money, just know that job is finite. I think it is one of those things where we get so excited. It's that story of all those LA actors that go to LA, they book their first pilot and they're like, oh my gosh, I just made 35 grand on an episode on my first pilot. And they buy that really expensive car for 30 grand. And then the pilot doesn't get picked up or they get recast and they're like, oh crap, I have this really expensive car and I have no job. So I think save for a rainy day because as actors, there's a lot of mountains and there’s a lot of valleys and save for the valleys so that the valleys aren't so treacherous when you have to climb out of them. We smooth the hills.
So you've been in the game for a while. How do you balance public and private, or work and play?
Well, balancing public and private is becoming increasingly difficult in our social media world. So certainly there is a world that I keep very private, that's just me and my family and friends. But I also know the power of social media and the effect that it has. It is the way the world is going. For anybody who has to secure some sort of fan base or some sort of support from the outside, viewers or fans or people that support your work, you're going to have to give them a little piece of yourself. I feel like I do that anyway, when I do cabaret and when I do concert work, I definitely bear my soul in that kind of environment. So when I look at my social media presence and kind of what I put out there, I understand that my audience is going to want a little bit of that.
But it's definitely a negotiation. I ask my husband if he's in a post, is this okay? Because he's not in show business. He has a 9-5 job and he works in an office and he has weekends off. I have to ask, Hey, do you want to be in this red carpet picture with me? And the other part of it that I think is important for people that are kind of curating their social media presence is to understand that it is forever, that yes, even if you post something, you delete it, it is still forever, somewhere on some server.
So understand that if you are really an artist and you care about the content that you put out there, that goes for art, that goes for the cabaret that you've put together, the story that you're telling, it goes for the play that you're writing. It also goes for that Instagram post. So choose wisely, what you want to put into the universe. If you want to put negative stuff into the universe, just know that negativity might bounce back at you. Or if you're going to put something out there that you're not really ready to share, just know that has consequences. If you've bared a little too much of yourself, that is too much.
I definitely have friends who are very scantily clad on their Instagrams. Of course they're gorgeous and they're beautiful. And that's what they're selling in a lot of ways. They also admit, whenever you Google me, that's the first image that comes up because it's the thing that has the most hits. And, and they go, I wish that wasn't the first thing that came up. I wish I was known for something else than that. So you also have to keep that in mind as well. What is the legacy you want to leave behind as an artist? And that in our world today includes the Instagram post.
That was going to be one of the last questions I asked you. So what is the legacy that Telly wants to leave?
I would like to think that I am somebody who gets up on a stage or gets up to perform and I've had some sort of positive effect on someone. That is really the legacy and really the reason why I do what I do, is that I feel like whether it's me getting up there to be in a play or to sing, or to record an album or put music out there that my hope is that it lifts spirits in some way. And that it inspires in some way, or it makes people hear the world differently or see the world differently. Maybe it makes people more compassionate towards each other. That's sort of my mission as an artist.
So anything I've sort of left behind, whether that's a cast recording or even if somebody's playbill and they hold it and they remember their experience from the show, that legacy I hope is a positive one and something that gives people joy.
And I'll applaud you and say your tweets, like the tweet that you made on January 20th is a piece of history.
Yes. That's what I meant by in our social media world, view your social media posts as art also. And if you're really an artist you know what rings true and what doesn't ring true to you as an artist when you put that stuff out there. I hope my legacy is that when they think of Telly the artist or Telly the multi-hyphenated whatever it is, Telly the teacher, Telly the recording artist, whatever that is, the actor, that they go he was always authentic and he was always moving in some way.
Looking back at your resume, I noticed a trend that there's a lot of ensemble based work. And specifically hearing you speak about creating a communal environment in those two hours or 90 minutes or whatever it may be. So I also know that you refer to every cast as your family, you have your Rent family, your Glee family, your Godspell family. So with that, why is it so important for you to create a family and a community?
I think it comes from the fact that I'm an only child. I never grew up with brothers and sisters. So I grew up as an only child, pretty lonely and with an active imagination. So now that I've entered show business and I've started doing theater, and I really started doing theater in high school, it was instant brothers and sisters. And that's where the idea of family really came in for me. It's also part of the LGBTQ+ community, too. It's the family you make. We have so many people. I have wonderful parents who are loving and accepting. I mean, it took them a while, but they love me and they love Jimmy. I have a family that's accepting me and I've considered myself very lucky. There are people that don't have that in the world.
And so they've had to find family. It's the family you make. I think it's both of those parts of my identity that makes me gravitate towards forming community and forming family in whatever it is that I do.
My first love is theater, at the end of the day that is what theater does. Theater in many ways is like church. It brings people together to remind ourselves of our common humanity and what makes us one, even though we are all different, at the same time we're also very equal. And that reminder is so important. So that when we leave church or when we leave the theater, we take that out into the universe with us. And we hope that makes some sort of positive change into the universe.
I feel like the idea of family and community is inherent in the art of theater. For me it's instant playmates, it's brothers and sisters. And I think that's really where it stems from.
So you've worked with some incredible aunties and uncles and sisters including Sondheim, Schwartz, Lea Salonga, George Takei, NPH. Are there any particular lessons or messages that these leaders passed on to you that you would pass on to the listener?
Jose Llana is somebody that I love. He was the first leading man that I understudied. He was great for morale in the company. I think he even said it, he said I learned how to be a leading man by watching Lou Diamond Phillips. I actually did a regional show with Lou Diamond Phillips. He was really like the leading man. And he rallied the troops and he would always have his dressing room door open. He would create social events for the cast to bond. And then when it was time for Jose to be a leading man in Flower Drum Song, he did that. It was my first Broadway show. I was 21 and he threw a big party at his house. And he always had his dressing room door open. He hung out with the ensemble, even though he was a star of the show.
So when it came time for me to be a leading man, I remembered, I was doing Allegiance at the time. That was my first time really being a leading man. And I had a wonderful leading lady in Lea Salonga who was playing my sister. And she had been a leading lady many times. We had talked about that. She had been parts of companies that were really wonderful and love fests, like Flower Drum Song. And then she was part of companies that were not. I said to Leah, listen, we're doing a musical about the Japanese American internment. This is a tough sell. I said, I don't know how long we're going to be on Broadway realistically, but you and I have to set the tone. You and I are going to make sure that in the four months that many of these kids, many of them were making their Broadway debuts, these Asian actors got their Broadway debuts doing Allegiance on Broadway. I said, let's make sure that this experience is really amazing for them, whether it's four days, four weeks, four months, four years. Who knows how long the show's going to run, let's just start it off. And we did, we kept our dressing room doors open.
I started a thing called Bar Telly in a tiny dressing room at the Longacre Theatre. But I made sure that every Sunday we had a drink before we left the building all together. And it didn't matter. We crammed like 40 people into my dressing room and who cares? Everybody: have a shot before you leave the building. Congratulations on a long week.
I heard other leading men do that, too. Like Alan Cumming used to have Club Cumming in his dressing room at Studio 54 and now Club Cumming is an actual bar in the village. It was born from his dressing room at Cabaret but he did the same thing for his company. And so when it was time for me to be a leading man again in Aladdin, I did the same thing. I opened Bar Telly often for everybody to hang and have a place.
And keeping your dressing room doors open: nobody teaches you how to do that. There's no acting degree that teaches you how to lead a company. And it's something you learn by having really good leaders and going, if I ever get in that position, if I ever get lucky enough to actually lead a company, I'm going to use my time in that way.
And I learned a lot from that and of course doing Rent and being with all those incredible artists, people like Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, and Gwen Stewart, the original cast members, but also people like Michael McElroy and people like Yasmin and Caroline, that Rent ensemble really taught me how to work in an ensemble. So those brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles really taught me. Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, when I did the show with them, they're huge icons, they're stars, they're musical theater icons. They were in the ensemble just like the rest of us, because that's the nature of the show. And that's what the show demanded of them. And so not once did I ever feel like I was lesser than in that show and that's the power of that show.
It was from those guys that I learned that very important lesson. Those are the ones that I can think of off the top of my head. There's so many actually, BD Wong, also a great leading man. George Takei, he was 78 making his Broadway debut in Allegiance. He never called in sick once. I've seen him do the show sick as a dog. He said my name is above the title, and this is my family story, and I know there are so many Trekkies coming to see me in this show. He said there are so many people that I can't disappoint them, Telly. I have to be here, even though I'm sick. It was great. That's it, that's show biz, even though he'd never been on Broadway before, and he'd never done eight shows a week in a grueling Broadway schedule like that. And he did it. I was so impressed and inspired.
I'll take a moment to say, I saw you in Allegiance and you were incredible.
Oh, thank you.
And I would like to highlight the show for anyone who doesn't know it, they need to look into it. Is it available for licensing?
Yes, actually, there have been several regional productions that have been done. Most recently, one in Hawaii, that was a huge hit. They've done it in Boston. They've done it at East West Players in Los Angeles. So it is making its way through the regional circuit as well. And it's exciting. It's great because it's giving a whole new generation of Asian actors an opportunity to perform in that show and to tell that story, which needs to be told.
It's a whole American story that we've not heard much about, that 120 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, because they were suspected to be spies or a threat to national security. And it was pure prejudice and pure war hysteria and fear that drove that and that story really needs to be told in our climate today.
As we watch the world head towards building walls, and Donald Trump, and Brexit, and the fear of people coming in. It's a story that really, really needs to be told now more than ever. So I'm glad it is getting licensed.
Fathom Events had filmed one of our final performances of the show. And every year they do cinecasts all around the nation. So right around December, right around Pearl Harbor day, it'll be shown at a local theater near you, and you can check out Fathom Events, their website for the schedule of when that happens. And frankly, they haven't released it for streaming on Netflix or Broadway HD, because we still do so well at those screenings. Even though the show only ran four month on Broadway, I still get people coming to me at the stage door going, I saw Allegiance in a movie theater and it was so moving. There's a part of me that is so thrilled that people are preserving Broadway shows in that way now because it's bringing Broadway to people that might not have the access to it.
It's the power of digital: it reaches more people.
The first musical I ever saw was not live. The first musical I ever saw was on PBS and it was Into The Woods and it was filmed live on Broadway from the Martin Beck Theatre. Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason. So that was my first experience with Broadway, too. And had it not been for a capture of that live performance, I probably wouldn't be doing this today.
So for someone who's listening, who wants to be a part of making change in the world that we are living in. I feel, but as an observer, I feel like you're becoming a little bit more political on Twitter and such. Is that one of the ways that you're handling the current climate?
I think with what has happened in the last election cycle, I think people are just becoming more woke and more aware. You cannot sit back anymore. You cannot just say, I'm not going to participate and I'm not going to vote because as we see every vote matters. Your opinion matters. And it's what makes this country great. We're American. We can voice those opinions and they can be different opinions.
I respect people. I respect your right to vote for whoever you want, just go and vote and make your voice heard. I might not agree with you politically, but I respect your right to speak your mind if you feel very passionately and strongly about something. At the end of the day, that is what makes this country great is the differing opinions.
That is how we get to the best solutions; is by hearing from all corners of our country, about what the solution might be to a problem that we're having. We all should be vocal. No matter where you stand in the political spectrum, no matter how far left or how far center, or how far right. It doesn't matter. Just speak your mind.
Honestly, I also do think that when people really take the time to speak their mind and speak truthfully and authentically to what they believe that is when we find compromise, because as we keep talking. People from the very, very far left can talk to people in the very, very far right. And as they keep talking and talking and talking and communicating, they actually find out that their goals are probably very similar, that there is a way to meet in the middle somehow.
It's just that you actually got to get the two sides to talk first and actually express themselves in a civil way. And also not just talk, but listen to each other. And I think that's the other part of it too. So yes I am very vocal about how I feel and I feel like I have a personal stake in what happens in politics. I feel like everybody should have that feeling, but I also feel like that's why I'm vocal, but I encourage everybody to be vocal. You can't complain about what's wrong if you're not vocal about it.
So we'll continue towards the future. What is your dream project?
I have so many dream projects. I love my training at Carnegie Mellon, and there's a part of me that wants to one day retire, having opened an acting school somewhere with my friends who I love and adore, who I've worked on Broadway with, or who I've trained with. We just start a school somewhere and we train kids until the day we die. That's a dream of mine.
There's also a dream of mine: I love creating new work. So it's always a dream to like jump into something that's really, really original. I mean, Allegiance was very original. It was not based on a book, not based on a movie. It was based on a historical event and so to dive into something really original is always a dream.
I have so many dreams. I love New York City and I've done seven Broadway shows. I've never worked in London or the West End. So that's another dream is to do some London Theatre. Maybe it's the West End, maybe it's the National, maybe it RSC, but that's also been a dream of mine, to work abroad.
I'm getting a really fun opportunity to go work in Tokyo this fall. I'm doing a concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I'm getting to play Peter, which is great. I love that show. But it's a combination. It's kind of a cool melding of Broadway people, West End people, and Japanese Broadway artists as well. So actually the actor that's playing Aladdin in Tokyo is playing Simon. So you'll have a lot of Aladdins as Apostles.
My buddy Declan Bennett, who works both on the West End and on Broadway, we met during Rent. He played Jesus in Regent’s Park, in London, in an amazing production that was out there a couple of years ago. And he's getting to reprise that and Ramin Karimloo, again, somebody who works everywhere, Tokyo, Canada, London, New York, he's playing Judas. So it's this great combination of Japanese artists, West End artists, Broadway artists that are all coming together to do this great show.
Do you feel like that's the future of musical theater?
I hope that's the future of musical theater. I think the purpose that theater exists is to bring people together and why not? Why not make that happen on stage, too? I think it's great. I think it's always exciting when you see theater from… that's how really great theater was born if you think about it. Even something like The Lion King, which is such a big commercial success. Well, it's a success because it was such a wonderful fusion of African artists and Julie Tamar's puppetry and Disney, which is commercial. It's an animated film, but it's also told through the lens of these incredible specific points of view that you can only get from somebody who's worked with puppets for years and from Africa. I think that's what makes for good art.
Speaking of good art, what's ahead for you? Where can we see you? Hear you?
I have several dates at Feinstein’s/54 Below, which is one of my favorite venues in New York City—cabaret venue. And this time I'm doing a brand new show called The Telly Leung Quartet. So over the last, I would say, 10 years, I've collaborated with three of the best musicians on Broadway: Gary Adler, who was a musical director of Avenue Q for many, many years, for the entire run actually. And he also co-wrote the Off-Broadway musical Altar Boyz. He's my MD. Mary Ann McSweeney, who is a bassist that plays with so many amazing jazz artists all over New York City and also plays on Broadway as well. And my dear friend, Michael Croiter, who is Chita Rivera’s musical director and plays drums, but he also has a great record label called Yellow Sound Label. And we've produced two albums together. And also a couple of singles and things together.
That trio and I are going to be forming The Telly Leung Quartet, and it's really a celebration of our collaborations together. And this particular run of shows on July 10th and 17th at 54 Below is going to be all Broadway songs, but kind of reimagined by us and our musical tastes. There's some Latin rhythms in there. There's definitely some crazy bongo arrangement we just worked on today, of a show tune. And so it's going to be all the show tunes that you know and love, but kind of reimagined. And Michael and I actually just put out on Yellow Sound Label a brand new dance single of one of my favorite songs. I'm a native New Yorker and Billy Joel's “New York State of Mind” has always been what I consider like the New York Anthem.
It's been my love song to New York City for a long time. And so I decided, Hey, nobody's ever done a dance remix of this at 125 beats per minute. And it's World Pride this year, which happens to be in New York as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. And so I said, I would really love to put out something for my community, just to get up and dance. You can definitely check that out on iTunes and Spotify. There's a great DJ. Her name is Twisted D. She's based out of Florida, she's originally from Long Island. She did a really, really great mix and Twisted D. If you're a dance fan and you're an EDM fan, or if you're a circuit music fan, you'll know her, she's always DJing somewhere at some amazing club. So she agreed to do her mix on it, too. And I'm so excited because we're both New Yorkers, showing some love to New York during Pride.
Telly, it's been a delight. Thanks for being here.
Thank you for having me. It's been a blast.
Where can the listener connect with you further?
Well, I am on Snapchat and I'm on Twitter and I'm on Instagram @TellyLeung. You can also go to my website, which is www.TellyLeung.com.
Amazing. So I have one question for you to like “mic drop” on at the end. Rewind, go back to high school before you went to Carnegie Mellon, and put that with where we are today in 2019. What would you say to your high school self?
Oh yeah. I know exactly what I'd say to my high school self. So I went to a really academic math and science high school where your grade point average was divided down to the hundredth of a decimal. So if you got a 95.67, you got Harvard, but if you got a 95.5, you did not. I mean, it was down to the decimal. And I would just say to Telly in high school, don't be afraid of mistakes. You're going to learn a lot from your mistakes. So in that highly academic environment, failure was like the worst thing you could ever hear: to fail. And actually, my failures as an artist, when I fall on my face in acting class or crack on a high note or fall out of a turn, or mess up a line, that's usually when I learn the most about myself as an artist, and those lessons have actually taken me further than any sort of perfection or 100 I could have aced on a test. So that would be, what I would say is that don't discount your failures. Don't discount those moments where you feel like you effed up because in the effing up, you're actually going to learn a lot about yourself.
Wow. Thank you Telly for sharing your beautiful heart with us. Thank you for listening. And now I want to challenge you, the listener, to actually share your story. Use the hashtag #LGBTQIAFutureMonth, and let's all connect with one another.
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