Spotlight on Telly Leung: Acting Edition
In Theatre Trip’s “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most inspiring people in the theatre industry. And today we’re doing a special feature on Telly Leung – an amazingly versatile singer, songwriter, and television/Broadway actor!
Telly Leung has been all over Broadway, but you might best recognize him from Disney’s Aladdin or the Broadway revival of Godspell. He also originated the role of Sam in Allegiance and Steven in In Transit. He’s on several cast recordings. And he even played the role of Wes, one of the Dalton Academy Warblers, on the hit television series Glee!
When was it that you first discovered your passion and talent for singing and acting?
“The first musical I ever did was in high school. It was Pippin and I played Lewis. I had an amazing teacher (Vincent Grasso) who saw talent in me before I recognized it in myself. He taught me many valuable lessons about the theater – but the most important one was this: The theater does not exist in a vacuum. Everyone’s job is important. It doesn’t matter if you’re the star of the show, or if you’re the person who’s job it is to sweep the stage every night. Everyone has a job, and that job deserves respect. This lesson has taken me very far in this business, and it’s made me a better collaborator and theater artist.”
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in your career so far?
“Several years ago, I had to have a career-threatening vocal surgery. I sustained an injury during In Transit. It was scary. I thought I was never going to sing again, and it was frightening to know that the career I built over 13 years and 6 Broadway shows could suddenly go away with a vocal injury. Thankfully, I had an amazing team of voice teachers, voice therapists, and doctors that got me singing again – and now I’m singing better than ever.
I was very scared to talk about this injury at first because I was afraid that the business would peg me as “damaged goods” or a liability. But, I’ve actually helped three other people through their own vocal surgeries because I was willing to share my story. So I’ve actually developed a one-man show called Sing Happy that tells my story in a fun, entertaining, musical way. I’ve gotten to perform this cabaret show in Asia, London, New York, San Francisco… and I hope it helps other people through a scary time.”
And what do you enjoy most about being a performer in the theatre industry?
“I love “the hang,” Theater people are a rare breed. They are special. It is our job to understand the complicated subtleties of humanity, and it makes us compassionate human beings off stage as well. As much as I love performing ON stage, the OFF stage time spent in rehearsal, hanging at the theater, and forming a family is my favorite part of this industry.”
Have you ever had to play a role that was especially challenging?
“Every character I’ve played has been a challenge! It take a lot of work to make it all look easy on stage. Each character has its own set of very specific challenges. Allegiance was vocally and emotionally challenging. Rent was a work out – in drag! Boq in Wicked spends a lot of time off stage, and it was a challenge to keep your energy up with 30 minutes between entrances. Aladdin was a huge physical challenge. I’m excited for whatever the NEXT challenge is!”
Is there a particular role that you would love to play one day?
“There are so many roles I’d love to tackle as I get older. I know it sounds like every actor’s dream role, but I’d love to tackle Hamlet one day. I’d also love to tackle those roles that made me love theater – The Phantom of the Opera, George in Sunday in the Park With George, Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar (although I’ve gotten to pay Simon, and I’m going to be playing Peter this fall!). I also love working on original musicals (like Allegiance and In Transit) and creating a character from the ground up.”
Do you have any favorite places in the world/travel recommendations for our readers? Or possibly cool cities to see theatre in (other than NYC)?
“I am currently in London, and I am obsessed with this city. I’ve done 7 Broadway shows, but I’ve never done a show on the West End, and it is a lifelong dream of mine. I also LOVE Tokyo. They LOVE Broadway. I also love Sydney. I went there for my honeymoon. I’d love the opportunity to perform in Australia.”
“Keep the “long game” in mind when [you] go from rejection to rejection. That “rejection” today isn’t necessarily a dead-end path. It could lead to other wonderful opportunities.”
Can you tell us a bit about how it felt step into the title role in Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway?
“I wish it was an interesting story, but I got the job the “old-fashioned” way – by auditioning and going to callback after callback. I will say that I think my work in Allegiance and the opportunity to showcase my skills as a Broadway leading man was helpful to the team as far seeing me as a leading man in their company. I am eternally grateful for the creators of Allegiance for creating a role like Sammy that showcased me in this way because frankly, there aren’t that many leading man roles for Asian men.
Tom Schumacher, the head of Disney Theatrical, at one point confessed to me that he remembered me from an audition for The Little Mermaid (for one of the eels) 10 years ago! I didn’t get that job, but I left a memorable impression on Tom, and he said he always kept me in his mind as someone he wanted to work with in the future. It just goes to show the old adage that show business is a marathon – NOT a sprint. That audition that I did well TEN YEARS AGO helped me get a job in the future. I tell my students this story often – to encourage them to always put their best food forward, no matter what, and to keep the “long game” in mind when they go from rejection to rejection. That “rejection” today isn’t necessarily a dead-end path. It could lead to other wonderful opportunities.”
The number of successful projects you have been a part of is inspiring! Do you have any tips for staying motivated and moving forward in such a competitive environment?
“Mentally prepare yourself for rejection. Someone from the outside looking at my Playbill bio will be impressed by all the credits, but no one ever puts the shows they DON’T get hired to do in their bio! For every great credit I’ve listed, there are about 100 shows I auditioned for that I DID NOT get. That’s just part of the business. You get told “no” a lot, and that can be hard on one’s psyche and self-confidence. It is important to keep a perspective on it as you pound pavement and go from one audition to the next.”
“Each one of us should embrace our individuality and celebrate it. The minute we try to copy another performer or try to be someone we are not, we are short-changing our artistry.”
And since you have so much experience in teaching/coaching students and young performers, is there any other advice you would give to this next generation of theatre artists and performers?
“There are many talented people. You get to a certain point in your career where you realize EVERYONE is talented. EVERYONE can sing. EVERYONE can dance. EVERYONE can act. Figure out the thing that sets YOU apart from the rest. Each one of us should embrace our individuality and celebrate it. The minute we try to copy another performer or try to be someone we are not, we are short-changing our artistry.”
What’s next for you?
“I’ve just released a dance remix of “New York State of Mind”, one of my favorite Billy Joel songs. I’m a native New Yorker, and I wanted to release something special to celebrate World Pride in NYC and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, which was the beginning of the LGBTQ+ movement. I’ve always been a fan of dance music, and I wanted to challenge myself by releasing a dance track of my own. It’s available on Spotify, itunes, and wherever you buy music!”
“I will be returning to Feinsteins / 54 Below in NYC on July 10th and 17th with a brand new show: The Telly Leung Quartet. I’ve had the joy of collaborating with some of NYC’s best musicians since 2010. We’ve done many concerts together. We’ve produced two solo albums together (“I’ll Cover You” in 2012, and “Songs for You” in 2015). Gary Adler (piano), Mary Ann McSweeney (bass) and Michael Croiter (drums) are my “partners in crime” in music – and we’ve decided to put together a show of all Broadway tunes, but reinvented for a jazz trio and lead vocalist. I’m so excited to share the music we’ve created.
I will also be heading to Tokyo this October to play Peter in Jesus Christ Superstar at Theatre Orb! The cast features a wonderful combination of West End, Broadway, and Tokyo theater stars coming together for a concert version of one of my favorite shows! It’s 6 shows only! My dear friend from Rent Declan Bennett will be reprising his star turn as Jesus from the London production at Regent Park, and Ramin Karimloo will be playing Judas.”
What did you think of this interview with Telly Leung?
Are any of you working as or aspiring to be an actor or actress? We would love to hear all about what you’re up to in the comments below! And in the meantime, you can check out even more of our exciting theatre interviews with other inspiring people in the industry!
*The featured image of Telly Leung is by Eve Reinhardt Photography.
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Author: Stacy Karyn
Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She has a TESOL drama certificate, a BA in theatre, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.