“Un-Block The Music” caught up with Telly Leung recently. You may recognize him from his Broadway stints in Aladdin, Godspell, In Transit and Allegiance. Telly may actually be the busiest man in theater! I contacted him about his appearance in today’s Bite-Sized Broadway premiere of A Relative Relationship with book, music and lyrics by Tim Huang. “I was drawn to this project because of Tim who is a dear friend,” he said. And, just as I was about to post this interview, I found out he is also in The Christmas List which is an original musical premiering virtually in December (I spoke with composer Phoebe for “Women Wonders” next week!).
“Actors (and professional artists, in general) are a resourceful bunch,” Telly said. “Of course, I have my moments where I feel unmotivated and depressed like everyone else. I fear for the future of live performance, but I try to stay busy and find other ways to continue working. For the most part, actors are used to some degree of instability and ambiguity. We are constantly pivoting – pandemic or not!”.
Since the shutdown Telly said he has done many demo recordings, Zoom readings, and
has been online teaching as well. Before The Christmas List, Telly worked with Phoebe and Gary Adler this past summer. “I produced and recorded a virtually-inspired-and-created EP of 5 songs called ‘You Matter’ to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (https://broadwaycares.org/).”
Where did all of this talent and stamina come from? “My parents love music, but they are not musical, and they certainly didn’t expect me to go into musical theater. Like many Asian ‘tiger’ parents, they wanted me to go to Harvard and be a doctor. I had other plans,” Telly joked. He first discovered musicals when he was 8 years old and watched the PBS Great Performances’ presentation of Into The Woods.
“Musical theater was always something I loved, and I did it after school as a hobby and an extra-curricular. Rent is the show that made me want to do theater in high school. But, it wasn’t until I was researching colleges that I discovered there were university programs that specialized in the performing arts. It suddenly dawned on me that this was an actual career choice. It would be hard. It would be competitive. Being a doctor would have given me greater financial stability, but I accepted all of that as I started to really make a commitment to pursuing a life as a professional artist,” he said.
Telly ultimately went to Carnegie Mellon University. “Un-Block The Music” can tell you that school accepts around 12 musical theater students a year. That pretty much says it all for Telly’s talent. “The CMU program for acting / musical theater is incredible. There are so many amazing professors at CMU and they’ve each generously given me so much of their knowledge and experience that I draw from all the time in my work. The incredible teachers I’ve had include Victoria Santa Cruz, Barbara Mackenzie-Wood, Judy Conte, Claudia Benack, Billy Porter… all of them the best of the best.”
“Un-Block The Music” first met Telly in 2011 when he was performing in the revival of Godspell. If you don’t know Godspell, download it! With music written by Stephen Schwartz, the show is about the last days of Jesus told through the parables. Don’t think it is sad! Quite the opposite. It’s funny, joyful, hopeful. “Godspell was a true ensemble show. We wanted to retain the spirit of the original production, which was created all via improv with the director and the actors. The material you saw on that stage came from us and our unique way of telling the stories of those parables as an ensemble. It drew upon the humor, sensibility, and special talents of that incredible ensemble – and boy! What talent! I’m very proud of my entire Godspell family and all the amazing things they’ve done since then!” (That cast included Uzo Aduba, Corbin Bleu and Hunter Parrish. Julia Mattison was in the cast too and is part of The Christmas List.)
How does the saying go? No moss grows under Telly’s feet? “While I was working on Godspell, I was developing Allegiance. I was attached to that show for 6 years before it actually premiered on Broadway. I did readings. I did workshops. I took the show out of town. It was a difficult but highly rewarding experience to create an original role – and to tell the incredible history of the 120K-plus Japanese-Americans who were wrongfully interned in America during World War 2.” Another amazing show which also starred Lea Salonga and George Takei.
“Un-Block The Music” tries not to bring political views into focus on this blog, as I am a journalist trained old-school with objective reporting as key. HOWEVER, my views are not hard to figure out since I am so connected to the artistic community. I asked Telly to talk about the current political climate and how it is affecting the arts. “There are many conversations happening in our (Broadway) community about the racial inequities that are systemically built into our business. It’s a micro of the macro of what’s happening with racial justice after the murder of George Floyd. COVID forced all of us to stop moving and reckon with the racial bias that is part of this country’s DNA. I have hope about equity on Broadway because these hard conversations about racial bias have begun in earnest – and we are holding each other accountable.”
Telly openly supported the Biden/Harris ticket. “We are in desperate need of leadership as we recover from both COVID and the economic collapse. This current administration has failed us time and again. This administration has lied to the American people time and again. They haven’t kept us safe. We are not better off than we are four years ago. This administration has not been good to immigrants, people of color, or the LGBTQ+ community.” With the President-Elect Biden win, he said, “ let’s start fixing everything that’s been wrong the last four agonizing years!”
If you liked this story, find out more about Bite Sized Broadway and Karen Mason, Telly’s co-star in A Relative Relationship.