Telly Leung On His Life, New CD and 'Allegiance' on Broadway
Telly Leung has been a steady presence on stages here and abroad since graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 2002. He also had a recurring role on TV's "Glee" in 2011-2012.
In recent weeks, Leung opened in Broadway's "Allegiance: A New American Musical," starring alongside Lea Salonga and George Takei. He also just released his second recording, "Songs for You" (Yellow Sound), which was preceded by the single, "New York State of Mind."
Leung took a few minutes to speak with EDGE about his career and latest achievements.
EDGE: I can't believe you grew up in Bay Ridge! That's where I live. What was growing up like for you?
Telly Leung: I grew up in a Chinese traditional home. My parents were immigrants from Hong Kong. When I was growing up in Bay Ridge, it was heavily Irish and Italian. There's still a pizzeria and pub on every block, and I loved growing up there. I went to PS 127, a little public school in Fort Hamilton, and IS 259, McKinley, and my family still lives in Bay Ridge. I have friends that come and visit us in Bay Ridge and they say, 'I feel like you live on Sesame Street.' People hang out on their stoops and everything. It was a great experience. And the best pizza I ever had.
EDGE: Was performing encouraged in your household?
Telly Leung: Absolutely not! In many ways, when my parents came to America, their American Dream was financial. They escaped Communist China to find better opportunities and to have a better life. They didn't speak a lot of English. My Mom was a seamstress and my Dad worked in the restaurant business. Blue collar workers. They worked hard and saved every penny. They could only afford to have one kid and they gave that kid everything. With me, because they gave me all the opportunities they did not have in China, it was a way to complete the other side of the American Dream, which was that I could be anything I wanted to be.
I'm sure they did not want me to follow in their footsteps in the restaurant business or in the garment factory, but they really wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer -- something with financial stability. That's what they longed for. When I started showing interest about being an actor, they got very nervous. They worried I would be a starving actor. I had to have a very adult conversation with them and tell them that I fully understood what I was sacrificing in order to pursue what I wanted to do. Life is too short, and this how I wanted to spend my limited time on this Earth. What I wanted was something I could not put a price tag on. Slowly and surely, they were getting it, but for a little while there was tension. But it was out of love and concern, and then they realized that I was able to pay my rent and put meals on the table.
EDGE: I love the story of how you were discovered by Billy Porter at Carnegie Mellon and he got you an audition, and then you landed a job on that first New York audition. I've actually interviewed a couple of people that had a similar experience -- Tommy Tune comes to mind. Do you think it's a combination of luck or good training so that you're ready when the moment comes, or both?
Telly Leung: I think it's a combination of many things. I definitely had wonderful training at Carnegie Mellon University where I met Billy; he graduated from there as well. Some of that luck is the universe presenting you with an opportunity and you being prepared to take advantage of it. At the same time, I had an angel like Billy who looked out for me. Billy's first Broadway show was 'Miss Saigon' and the dance captain for that show was Marc Oka. Marc was going to be the dance captain of 'Flower Drum Song' on Broadway in 2002. So Billy just called Marc and told him that he should see me. I took a Greyhound bus overnight from Pittsburgh, landed in New York, and went to my first audition. It was crazy! Billy has often done that for people. The day that he won his Tony, I think the entire theater community stood up and cheered because we knew how much of an angel he was and that he's done so much to encourage the next generation of Broadway.
EDGE: Does your training ever stop?
Telly Leung: It doesn't stop. I still take voice lessons and go to class. For me, one of the things I possess is the ability to be a good student and I think that has served me well in this business. You can always be bettering yourself.
EDGE: You revealed in your Joe's Pub show that you've been with your partner for eleven years, since you were twenty-four. And then you had this good fortune with your career. What have been some of your struggles? How do you tap into the darker emotions?
Telly Leung: It's interesting. In press interviews, it's always to celebrate an achievement or an accomplishment that has happened, but nobody really talks about all the time between. I've been very lucky and this is my fifth Broadway show. Every time I end a Broadway run -- and every actor goes through this -- you think this could be the last job you ever do. Every actor has that deep, dark demon that you'll never work again or that they'll figure out you've been faking it all along. You have to quiet those demons so you can get on with it. I have a tradition that whenever I end a Broadway run, I actually kiss the stage before I leave, as a way of saying thank you. I know that stage isn't the cleanest place in the world, but I will put my mouth to the stage and kiss it. Being on Broadway is a privilege and an honor and I know a thousand people would kill to be in my shoes. I know how much hard work and discipline it takes to get there. For every job an actor gets, there are a hundred that he didn't get. But nobody ever talks about the jobs that they don't get or the disappointment that goes with that. So when I do have an achievement, I'm aware of the many failures along the way that led to that achievement and I never forget that. To be honest, I'm grateful for all of it. It's hard to know when something is a success or failure because you don't know where it leads.
EDGE: The message of Allegiance is so powerful. Basically, we took Americans and put them in camps because of their race. As an American of Chinese descent, have you ever been made to feel less than American because of the way you look?
Telly Leung: Oh, absolutely! I think every person of color can relate to that in this country. The country is founded by people from somewhere else, and so we come here seeking those ideals like "liberty and justice for all"-that's what this country promises. We don't always deliver on that promise. We didn't always deliver that promise to women, to African-Americans. Things are getting better but we're still having the debate of equal pay for women and Black Lives Matter. And the Japanese-American internment was just another chapter of that. What I love about this country is that we strive to be a perfect union. It's in the striving for that, and in the pursuit of that, that makes our country great. Our Constitution and our laws have the ability to change in order to meet those ideals. We all want to be treated equally in this country. It's why the Pilgrims came here in the first place-to escape the persecution they felt elsewhere. Because the country is founded on that, as a Chinese-American I can relate, but I think every American can relate. Certainly I've been looked at as a Chinese-American and been judged because of my race and the color of my skin. Absolutely.
EDGE: Let's get to the new CD. On this one, as well as your previous one, you really put a new spin on some well-known songs that were covered by iconic singers over the years. Was that at all intimidating?
Telly Leung: It's always intimidating. A song like "Leaving on a Jet Plane," that holds a special place in people's hearts, or a song like "New York State of Mind", yes. The only way I could escape that intimidation was to really make it my own and collaborate with those amazing musicians, and ask, "Why are we singing this song? Who are we singing it to? How can we make this uniquely ours?" I feel that with each of the twelve tracks we strived to achieve that. It is challenging. I have to embrace what that song means to me, because there is only one me.
EDGE: You show this soulful side of your voice that's a bit different from the legit voice you use on stage. Were you influenced by both theater and R&B, or do you have to work to adjust the sound?
Telly Leung: My training is in the theater, so that's where the legit singing comes from. But as a musical theater performer, you have to be able to adapt to all of it. As a singer, what drew me into music was growing up in Brooklyn and listening to Z-100 with my dual cassette deck and recording my favorite songs. That's how I learned to sing. My early influences were Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder. And my father had this great LP collection from the '70s, so I listened to the Carpenters and the Bee Gees and KC & The Sunshine Band. My love of music comes from pop music, first and foremost. But my training is in the theater, so I'm able to do both simultaneously.
EDGE: I know you give back by teaching. What is your greatest joy in teaching others?
Telly Leung: It's the same joy I get from the theater. I get to bring a group of people together in a room and form a community. And then I get to be the person who gives them something before they leave that will make them a little different from when they came in. As an actor, I get to make people leave feeling a little lighter or seeing the world differently, and that's exactly what I want to do in the classroom as well. I have to keep them entertained, but I want them to leave different somehow. If I can do that, I have achieved my job.