by Jim Gladstone
“My parents are pretty much the opposite of Mama Rose,” jokes Broadway veteran Telly Leung—who plays Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco this weekend—“They have no relationship to showbiz whatsoever. It was harder for me to come out to them as an actor than as a gay man.”
But, the Brooklyn-born Leung, whose irresistibly sweet, clarion singing voice has graced New York productions Pacific Overtures, Wicked, Godspell, and Rent, may crack wise a bit too quickly.
Reflecting for a moment, he’s reminded that, while his Chinese immigrant parents—Dad works in the restaurant business, Mom is a seamstress—always aspired for him to have a white collar job, American popular entertainment was ingrained in his life from very early on.
“My father learned to speak English by listening to pop music,” says Leung, recalling Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water in heavy rotation in the Leung household. (His own interpretation of that song, beautifully melded with the traditional spiritual The Water Is Wide is featured on Leung’s debut album, I’ll Cover You).
Television, too, had its part in his parents’ acculturation.
Leung’s first name is derived not from Cantonese or Mandarin, but borrowed from a Greek immigrant: Aristotelis “Telly” Savalas.
“My mother loved watching Kojak,” Leung shrugs. “That’s who she named me after.”
Ironically, the musical theater bug first bit Leung hard while he was studying at Stuyvesant High, New York’s prestigious public magnet school for math and science whiz kids. “I grew up as a studious, only child,” he remembers, “So theater really gave me my first real chance to just hang.” High school productions of West Side Story and Pippin provided an expansive sense of camaraderie that felt new and enthralling. “I never really refer to casts I’ve been in now,” he says, “In my mind its my Flower Drum Song family, or my Rent family.”
After high school graduation it was off to drama school at Carnegie Mellon University. “My parents only let me go,” Leung says, “because [the school] offered me the biggest financial package.”
Making theater the center of his life rather than a sideline proved a bit of a shock for Leung, whose coming out process was tightly entwined with his college education. “My first year I got a C. I was used to getting A’s and A-pluses my entire life. But my teacher told me ‘You are not bringing yourself to the work.’ I wasn’t a student trying to get 1500 on a test anymore. I had to commit to being an ‘A’ student for life, an artist for life. And to do this well, I had to dig in myself. I had to know myself. Theater really opened me up.”
Among his mentors at Carnegie Mellon was Billy Porter, winner of the 2013 Best Actor Tony for Kinky Boots. “Billy was an alum who directed my senior musical, Sondheim’s Company. Billy’s own first Broadway show out of school was Miss Saigon, so he knew a lot of the tight knit community of Asian-American actors on Broadway. He knew that auditions were happening for the David Henry Hwang revival of Flower Drum Song, and even though I didn’t have an agent, he arranged for me to try out. One day he said to me, ‘After you finish rehearsal, you’re going to take the Greyhound from Pittsburgh to New York and go to the Ripley Greer Studio.’ They kept me all day, and I landed a part in the ensemble.”
Since landing that first New York role right out of college, Leung feels extraordinarily fortunate to have been a part of three particular projects that have become huge cultural phenomena: He played Angel in the final Broadway cast of Rent, originated the role of Bok in the pre-Broadway Chicago run of Wicked, and appeared Dalton Academy Warbler, Wes, on television’s Glee.
Leung takes pride in the fact that none of those roles were conceived specifically for an Asian American actor, but nonetheless acknowledges an inherent prejudice in Broadway casting. “As an actor though,” he says, “I go into every audition thinking ‘Why not me?’ I can’t control my age, my height, or my skin color. But I can’t go in thinking that they’re never going to hire me. My job is to show why it can be me. But I do wish,” he notes, “That there was more encouragement of Asian writers and people in power to tell their own stories.”
To that end, Leung has long been attached to the musical Allegiance, about the Japanese-American internment during World War II. Also starring George Takei, whose own experience informs the script, and Lea Salonga, the show debuted to solid notices in 2012 at the Old Globe in San Diego, and producers remain hopeful for a Broadway production.
In the mean time, Leung—happily partnered for 10 years to a man who prefers to avoid the spotlight—continues to branch out as a solo recording and cabaret artist. He also recently served as producer of Grind, a short film about gay hook-up culture starring his good friend Anthony Rapp—available for free online at www.grindshortfilm.com.
The twin siren songs of Broadway and pop culture that have infused Leung’s life from the start have hardly faded into the background though: The candy-voiced singer named for a lollipop-sucking TV detective is currently involved in the development of a new musical: It’s called C’mon Get Happy—and it’s about a cult that worships The Partridge Family.
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.