Every #crushworthywednesday we speak with an inspirational member of the Broadway community. This week we spoke with none other than Telly Leung, star of Allegiance, an icon of the American Asian theater community. We talk about the ‘landmark’ year 2015 is for diversity on Broadway, and the new spaces for minority talent on the American stage. Kind, generous, and inspired! Thank you Telly!
How would you describe your childhood growing up in Brooklyn falling in love with the theater and, what was it like being American of Chinese descent with dreams of Broadway?
I first fell in love with Broadway NOT at a Broadway theater, but right in my own living room, when I was 8 years old. I had very strict, Chinese ‘tiger’ parents who wanted me to do well academically, and go to an Ivy League school and become a doctor or a lawyer. ‘Starving actor’ was NOT what they aspired for me. After school, they restricted my television watching because they thought cartoons would rot my brain, so I was only allowed to watch educational programming on PBS. Well, as I’m watching PBS one day, the series Great Performances comes on, and they are showing the live telecast of the original company of Into the Woods at the Martin Beck (now, Al Hirschfeld) Theater – Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason – and of course, STEPHEN SONDHEIM. I was hooked. (I guess my parent’s strict, PBS-only policy BACK-FIRED!)
My parents were not always supportive of me being an actor. They are immigrants from China, and they grew up in Communist China, where they did not get the luxury of CHOOSING what they wanted to do. The government chose FOR you – based on your given talents. This was one of the many reasons they escaped to Hong Kong in their youth (which was a British Commonwealth until the late 1990’s) and later immigrated to the US. The American Dream to them was purely FINANCIAL. They worked hard – and took work based on finances. The idea that the American Dream also included the FREEDOM to have choice and to pursue your dreams was foreign to them – so they worried for my livelihood as a professional artist. Luckily, over the years, they’ve learned, through my pursuit of this ‘American Dream’ that it encompasses more than just money. There are some things in life – like artistic fulfillment – that have no price tag.
In Allegiance you tell the story of the Japanese internment after the events of Pearl Harbor and how it affected the lives of 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Do you see the world differently now having worked intimately on the characters and the struggles they face, and if so how?
Having worked on the development of this show for 6 years, YES, it has definitely affected me as a person, and how I see the world. I’ve always felt a strong connection to this story, as a person of color and minority in this country. People of color understand what it’s like to be judged purely on the basis of the color of your skin or your ethnic background. This country promises, “liberty and justice for all” but all too often prejudice and bigotry (stemmed from fear of the “different”) get in the way of this promise. Working on this show, and diving deep into these characters and living this story 8-times-a-week has given me a deeper understanding, emotionally, of the minority experience.
Allegiance is SO timely and so relevant right now that we have politicians evoking the memory of the Japanese-American internment camps in political speeches! The conversations in the media about Syrian refugees, the immigration debate, and “Black lives matter” all show just how important it is to have this story on Broadway RIGHT NOW.
What do you see of yourself in the character of Sammy Kimura?
Like Sammy, I’m a second generation American with immigrant parents. I was born and raised in New York City – and I consider myself AMERICAN. There are many people in this country who see me as a “foreigner” based on the color of my skin – and when I open my mouth to speak to them, I (sometimes)
will get: “Wow! You don’t have an accent at all!!” Or, I will get asked: “Where are you from?” “New York” “Yes – but where are you FROM?” The internment forces Sammy to have to prove his loyalty and “American-ness” to the world. It forces him to be recognized beyond his race, and to be seen for who he is at his core. As Telly – an actor of color in show business who is constantly trying to be seen non- traditionally in the casting world – I can surely relate to that.
The lyrics in your solo, written by Jay Kuo, are powerful, and relevant to every generation. What is it that you personally want the audience to get each time you sing ‘What Makes a Man’?
“What makes a Man is his clarity when he listens to his heart. What makes a man is his bravery when he plays a bigger part. What makes a man is what he makes of himself when he’s doing the best he can. I must be my own man.”
Those are the lyrics that hit me the most – and ring the most UNIVERSAL in the song for me. We’ve all been at a cross-roads where we must stop ourselves from conforming to what everyone else thinks we should be, and forge our own road by digging deep and realizing one’s potential for impact in this world.
What is it like to be an American of Chinese descent on Broadway? What do you see as the future of diversity on Broadway?
This season is a real turning point for actors of color. Producers are finally catching up with what audiences have been craving – more DIVERSITY on Broadway! With On Your Feet, Hamilton, Allegiance, The Color Purple, Shuffle Along – we will all look back on the 2015-2016 seasons as a landmark year in theater history. I’m hoping that ALLEGIANCE is a big success so that audiences will be curious about MORE Asian-American stories – and producers will not feel like telling these untold stories will be a financial risk. It’s getting better for us – but we still have a along way to go.
You’ve just released a new album, could you tell us a little bit about it and perhaps your favorite track from it?
SONGS FOR YOU has been a labor of love. Each of the twelve tracks is a special dedication to someone special in my life professionally or personally – who’s gotten me to where I am today. This has been such an incredible year for me- and I couldn’t have done it alone. The album was born from a place of great GRATITUDE. I get to make music, touch hearts, open minds – and do it with fellow artists that I love and respect whether it’s on Broadway or in a recording studio. What’s there not to be grateful for? The album is a way of saying, “Thank you.”
It’s so hard to pick a favorite. It changes minute-to-minute. Currently, my favorite is A SONG FOR YOU. I’ve always loved that song – and our arrangement does a little something special and different with the song, by adding elements of another song that is close to my heart (EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE). You’ll have to download and listen for yourself!
Who are some of your role models and what is something they taught you that without you may never be where you are today?
I have so many mentors in this business – so I will pick ONE: Billy Porter. He returned to his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, to direct me in my senior year production of Company, and he cast me as Bobby. As a young, but well-trained actor (and as the good student that I am), I approached the role from a technical standpoint. Every word was spoken with great diction. Every note was sung with technique and proper placement. Billy pulled me aside one day and told me that NONE of that mattered to him. Billy had made a career of making EVERY role his own by bringing HIMSELF to the material. “Don’t worry about how you are doing it – but JUST DO IT. When you talk to someone on stage – JUST TALK. As Telly. It’s not as hard as you think. Telly IS Bobby – and trust that. Throw the technique and the last four years of rigorous training AWAY!”. It was a lesson that came at a perfect time in my life.
What is it you want people to think of you each time they see Telly Leung on a Broadway marquee?
WOW! What a question! This questions assumes that I will have more Broadway marquees with my name on them in my future – and the reality is that this business is fickle, competitive, and NOTHING is for sure! I’d love for that to happen – but there’s no way to know FOR SURE that each Broadway show you do isn’t your last one. It’s a gloomy thought – BUT, it also forces me to carpe diem and really relish EVERY minute I get to perform on Broadway. It’s an honor and privilege I’ve gotten FIVE times in my life – and I consider myself EXTREMELY lucky. That’s why I am committed to giving 100% 8-times-a-week. I understand what a coveted job I have, and how many people in this world would KILL to be on Broadway. So, I do them proud – and I give 100%. I guess that’s what I want people to think of when they see me on Broadway – that I am up there, giving it my ALL.
You are quoted as saying the greatest thing Allegiance leaves the audience with is a ‘sense of hope and a way to endure’. What do you think seeing the show would mean today to a young person in the audience, and how might they take that message into their lives?
ALLEGIANCE really has the power to open minds and open hearts. It’s my favorite kind of theater. It reminds me of RENT in many ways. It’s a very moving and emotional standing ovation that we get night after night – from audiences of all ages.
Young people growing up in this world need to know their history. The future of this country – and of this world – is in their hands, and we all learn from our mistakes. It’s my hope that the young people in the audience – the future world leaders, politicians, presidents, law-makers, Fortune 500 business owners, artists – will learn a lesson from being exposed to the untold story of the Japanese-American internment so that something like that never happens again.
As for young ASIAN audience members, I hope that seeing the array of Asian talent up on that stage is encouraging and gives them a sense of pride that they are being represented on Broadway. I know that a young Telly Leung saw Miss Saigon on Broadway, and felt a sense that he, too, could be on Broadway one day – just like those other beautiful Asian performers. Hopefully, there’s another little Telly Leung in the audience of Allegiance, that says to him / herself: “Hey! I could do that, too!”
Do you have a favorite saying or quote?
My Dad always taught me: Don’t say no before you try. It’s always stuck with me.
What is the greatest thing a life in theater has taught you so far?
Theater does not happen in a vacuum. It’s constant collaboration and working with others. It is this collaboration – this instant family / community that is the REAL joy of theater.