From the time I was old enough to sit through a movie, I knew a performance of any kind contained magic. As a young child, nothing could hold my attention quite like a Disney movie, my favorite of which has always been and always will be Aladdin. This would make complement my love of theatre, because this movie, like many other Disney movies, was essentially a musical with animated characters. When it was announced that Aladdin would be made into a full-fledged Broadway musical, years before it would ever reach New York, I was so ready to be in that theatre and see magic in person. Some of my students will get to witness this magic over the summer, and I can’t wait to hear their reviews. I remember sitting in the audience in awe of the technicolor sets and costumes, technical aspects of the show, and heartwarming acting I saw onstage. As amazed as I was by all of this, I wanted to know so many things about the actors who get to do this eight shows a week. I was flattered that Telly Leung, currently playing Aladdin on Broadway, took the time to answer some questions of mine. I had seen him in Allegiance and In Transit, and of course as a Warbler on Glee. This man can do so much storytelling through song and stage presence, I simply couldn’t look away when he was onstage. We talk about originating roles, the difference between performing for television and a Broadway audience, and the importance of listening and trusting others during the collaborative process.
StageSLP: What got you into theatre?
Telly: I started doing theater in high school. I went to a math and science high school in New York City, and I wanted to do theater because it was a nice escape from the calculus and physics. This thing that was just an after-school happy ended up being my career!
S: Did you have to keep your friends and your theatre friends separate?
T: Because I went to a math and science high school in NYC that was very focused on academics, I did not go to a typical high school where there was a delineation between the “cool kids” and everyone else. I have friends in all circles. I was in a very unique high school environment where one’s unique individuality was celebrated and respected. I know this is not a typical high school experience for many, and I realize how lucky I am. That being said, the friendships and bonds I made with my theater friends ran very deep. Theater is such a collaborative art form that requires everyone to bare their soul as artists. That kind of intimacy in the artistic process creates long-lasting friendships for life.
S: When you were little, did you know this was what you were going to be?
T: Absolutely not. Working professionally as a performer is something that I stumbled upon. I did not have stage parents. When I was little, I did not have aspirations to be a performer. When I was little, I didn’t even know that being a performer was an actual profession!
S: You’ve gotten to be a part of new, original works. What’s it like to originate a role?
T: Originating role is a very satisfying process. It certainly has its challenges (i.e. constantly dealing with the stress of script /Lyric/character changes), but I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. I created the role of Sammy in Allegiance, and I was fortunate enough to be involved in very early readings, workshops, and developmental presentations of the show. I then took the show out of town to San Diego, and I even got to premiere the show on Broadway. As the show is being developed, the creators of that show but often engage me in collaborative discussions about the direction of my character, and the shape of the show. When they created the show, they kept in mind my particular since abilities and strengths as a performer. There are certain lines and lyrics in the show that now exist for posterity because of my input. It gave me such joy and artistic for film it to collaborate with other theater artists this way.
S: How is originating a role different from stepping into an existing role, and what do you do make your performance unique?
T: Replacing in a show is easier in some ways because there is so much about that particular track that is already figured out for you. There is a precedent on how it is done. But, it can also be very challenging because an actor that is going into a show is constantly feeling in adequate, like they’re playing “catch up” with the rest of the company. I recently experienced this when I was learning the role of Aladdin. I often grew impatient with myself and frustrated at myself for not learning the show faster because I was surrounded by other actors that I’ve been doing the show for quite some time. But, the company was very generous with me, and constantly reminded me that I, too, needed my own “preview” process.
S: Some of my students are coming to see you this summer in Aladdin, is that show equally as magical for you as it is for the audience?
T: Yes! I was a fan of the show when I saw the original company during its first year on Broadway. Watching a number like “Friend Like Me” from the audience is exhilarating. But, the excitement of experiencing this number on stage, and having 1700 people lose their minds at the end of the number is a truly magical experience. It’s an incredible rush.
S: I got to see you perform in Allegiance last January, and this year it was released in theaters. How did you have to adjust your performance if at all during the taping of the stage performance?
T: When I’ve worked in television, I do think of my performance differently. I am very aware of how tight the shot is, and how my face and body is telling a story on screen. But, when it came to filming the Broadway production of Allegiance I tried to ignore the cameras. The Allegiance taping was supposed to capture a live experience, and it wasn’t the TV/film version of the show. I did not do much alteration to my performance.
S: You just finished performing in In Transit. What did that show teach you about your voice?
T: That show was a very challenging show vocally. It was a 90 minute musical, and we never stopped making sound for 90 minutes! The show taught me a lot about stamina, and how to take care of myself as a vocal athlete. It also taught me a lot about ensemble singing in the world a cappella, and the kind of precision that’s required when it comes to singing in that style.
S: What has acting taught you that you’ve been able to apply to other aspects of your life?
T: When an actor first approach is a character, he or she cannot judge the character. For example, “evil” characters do not know that they are being evil. They feel completely justified in what they do. Characters also are often unconscious of their own flaws as human beings. It is often what makes an interesting character to play. It is up to the audience to judge their behavior. This means that actors have to find compassion for all of the characters they play, even those that might do some questionable things. Being an actor has taught me to be a much more compassionate person off stage, and I find myself to be less judgmental of others and their flaws. No one is perfect. We are all flawed.
S: We have a school-wide goal for collaborating, and you get to collaborate with a lot of other people in theatre. How do you make sure you’re contributing to the group as best you can?
T: I had a wonderful acting teacher who demystified the complex out of acting by simply saying that acting is nothing more than talking and listening. How well we talk and listen to one another is what makes us good actors. Some of us are better talkers and listeners. When it comes to being a good collaborator in the theater, it is essential to do both with equal skill.
S: You’ve recorded a few solo albums as well. How is singing in a studio different from performing onstage?
T: When I’m recording any studio, I often close my eyes when I sing because I often need to remind myself that the person who is buying the album is buying it for an auditory experience ONLY. They cannot see the storytelling choices I am making with my body or my eyes. They can only hear them. By closing my eyes, I am shutting off one of my senses – the sense of sight – and it forces me to be much more specific when it comes to making choices as a storyteller with my voice.
S: What advice would you give to your elementary school self?
T: You are enough.
S: I give weekly challenges to my students to encourage them to try new things–what would you challenge them to do?
T: Do something that scares you!
Hearing these responses from Telly Leung was such a treat, and I cannot thank him enough. Through how words, one can tell that he truly has a passion for performing, whether or not they’ve been fortunate enough to see him onstage. Theatre has some deep roots in the human connection, and I’m so glad he shed some light on that aspect of performing. I’m diving head first into his challenge in order to better this site for you readers, and some tasks are not as easy as you might think, but this is all out of love and creating a place for families to connect through this medium and find support in one another. If you haven’t heard Telly’s album, Songs For You or the cast recordings of Allegiance or In Transit, I strongly encourage you to do so. If you have the opportunity to see him perform on Broadway in Aladdin, GO. His performance of any material should not be missed, and it’s something that will always stand apart from that of other performances I’ve seen.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP