November 21, 2019
Telly Leung packs an impressive amount into an hour-long cabaret show, The Telly Leung Quartet. In his show, he brings humor, reality, and a beautiful blend of Broadway and 70s music, the songs his parents listened to while trying to learn English. He and his fantastic band of Broadway musicians, Michael Croiter (drums), Mary Ann McSweeney (bass), and Gary Adler (piano/music director) were in Pittsburgh last night with the Trust Cabaret for two spectacular shows.
Leung grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a fairly traditional Chinese family. His parents grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, a time of instability, and quickly realized that they would have to leave the country if they were to continue their education. They swam seven hours to Hong Kong and met there while working in a travel agency — Leung tells the story with the perfect blend of Chinese history and humor. After living in Hong Kong, Leung’s parents moved to New York where he grew up planning on being a doctor or a lawyer, per his parents’ request. Even though he attended Stuyvesant High School, a math and science high school, he began doing high school theatre and fell in love with it. While in high school, he performed in several shows including: Pippin, Guys and Dolls, and West Side Story.
He applied to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on a recommendation from his high school acting teacher — “This is going to make me sound very old, but there was no internet when I was applying to college. So there were these giant paperback College Books that listed the top 50, 500 colleges for each subject, and you’d read a page on the college and decide if you want to go there. Does this sound crazy because there wasn’t any Googling?” he jokes — and ended up pursuing a BFA in Musical Theatre.
“My very traditional Chinese parents resisted me going into theatre for a little,” he says, pointing out that most of his high school classmates were going to Harvard, Brown, Princeton, MIT, all on the engineering/pre-law/pre-med route. “Not because they didn’t support me but because they feared that I would be going into a career that was very competitive and work would not be stable. To appease them, I applied to half “normal” schools and get a BA in something reliable and the other half were theatre schools. When I applied to Carnegie Mellon, actually, I applied both as a Spanish major in Dietrich and a performance major in the School of Drama.”
“I didn’t really know much about Carnegie Mellon other than that my drama teacher told it was a good school. Growing up in New York, I was like, ‘I’ll go to NYU,’ and my parents were like, ‘Great, you can stay at home while you’re at NYU.’ And I applied to CMU sight unseen, because it just had a wonderful reputation. When I auditioned for CMU, I had already gotten into NYU’s theatre program, so I was pretty relaxed. If you put stakes on yourself about how important an audition is you can tank that audition. I went in the most relaxed version of myself because I knew that I could always go to NYU, and I think that helped my audition. I visited and decided to go and fell in love with Pittsburgh too. My formative years as an actor were at Carnegie Mellon. It has an amazing theatre and drama program. They have a great tradition of training actors.”
Leung’s credits are formidable. Since graduating from CMU in 2002, he’s been in seven shows on Broadway: Flower Drum Song, Godspell, Wicked, Rent, Pacific Overtures, Allegiance, and most recently as the titular character in Aladdin. Not only that, but he’s guest starred on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and also played Wes, a Dalton Academy Warbler, on Fox’s hit TV show, Glee. Leung’s concert showed off his resume, highlighting some of his past roles with the three-person band he brought with him.
“What I love about this concert is that I’m bringing some of my favorite musicians from New York City with me. When I’m not doing a Broadway show, I’m often doing a concert — across the country, across the world — and I love working with great musicians wherever I am. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve met great musicians and collaborators, so I’m bringing some of Broadway’s best with me. We have a phenomenal time. The show is a lot of Broadway show tunes because that’s really my world and a lot of stories about my time at CMU; I’m going to walk down memory lane and tell some stories. ”
The careful thought that Leung gave to his concert was obvious Monday night. Each story he told related back to the song he had just sang or the one he was about to. The flow of the concert made it easy to follow the narrative of his life, from his parents’ escape from communist China, to his childhood in New York, to deciding to attend CMU, then making his Broadway debut.
His songs ranged from The King and I (“Hello, Young Lovers”), Merrily We Roll Along (“Not A Day Goes By”), Hello, Dolly! (“Before the Parade Passes By”) to Billy Joel (“New York State of Mind”), John Denver (“Jet Plane”), and Simon and Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”). Of course, he sung a few songs from his previous roles, including “Proud of Your Boy” from Aladdin. Even in the cabaret dressed in a sharp black suit without the set, costume, and fanfare of Aladdin, when Leung sang “Proud of Your Boy” it was obvious why he starred as Aladdin for two years on the Great White Way. He was all the best of Aladdin, earnest and determined, and his voice is perfect for the role. His multi-language “A Whole New World” was impressive as he sang in too many languages to count — English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, and Swedish just a handful.
He also sang two songs from Rent, a “Seasons of Love” singalong and then a slow, croony version of the love duet “I’ll Cover You.” Leung was a part of three productions of Rent: the closing Broadway company which was filmed for Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, Rent: The Broadway Tour alongside the two original Broadway leads, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, and a production at the Hollywood Bowl.
Leung was excited to be back in Pittsburgh, a city that he considers his second home. The last time that Leung was in Pittsburgh was ten years ago when he toured through with Rent in 2009.
“I fell in love with Pittsburgh too. I loved that it was this little, big city. Coming from New York, which is a big, big city, I loved that there was a neighborhood feel to all of Pittsburgh, even downtown, it’s sort of smaller and close together. It feels like a city that’s still metropolitan and everybody knows each other and cares for each other. There was a warmth about Pittsburgh, about the people that I really enjoyed.”
He’s even spending all of Tuesday at CMU teaching the drama students, a way for him to give back and pass along what he knows, something that means a lot to him. He dedicated his encore number to the teachers he’s had and teachers as a whole because he values the ability of a teacher to guide a student and now, working as a teacher himself as well as a performer, he wants to give back.
In 2000, when Leung was still a student at CMU, he worked with the Pittsburgh CLO to perform in their 2000 Summer Season, performing in Anything Goes (in which he spoke Chinese) and after his run on Broadway in Flower Drum Song, he returned in the 2003 Summer Season as Thuy in the CLO’s Miss Saigon.
“It’s interesting. There are many Asian actors. The thing is, had it not been for Miss Saigon running on Broadway for almost a decade, there wouldn’t have been the visibility to encourage me to go into theatre. There were shows like Miss Saigon and The King and I, otherwise you don’t see Asian Actors in movies or on television. What’ve I’ve realized is that there are Asian actors out there. Whether or not they’re given the opportunity to be seen by the powers that be, that’s another story. But the actual Asian talent exists.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have done shows that feature heavily Asian casts like Allegiance and Flower Drum Song, but I’ve also had the blessing and the luck to be cast non-traditionally where my race didn’t matter. Where I was the actor for the job and it just so happened that I was an Asian. Shows like Rent, Godspell, they’re pretty diverse, multi-ethnic casts, and the actors that have done those parts before me have not necessarily been Asian. For me, seeing Asian actors onstage, seeing Lea Salonga winning a Tony Award on TV inspired me.”
He goes on to talk about Allegiance, a show about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Despite the specific narrative, the show has resonated with multiple different groups of people because the story about not being accepted and feeling other. The filmed version of the Broadway production plays in movie theaters annually and will eventually be available on streaming. He believes in the importance of representation, citing that it is circular. Since Allegiance, which went up the same season as Hamilton, there haven't really been Asian-centered shows. He does bring up the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians and the importance that it had for representing Asians outside of the usual stereotypes.
Leung is everything a cabaret performer should be. He’s charismatic, eqloquent, and funny. He showcased his vocal range as he sang even one of Stephen Sondheim’s fast-paced, most famous and lyrically challenging songs, “Not Getting Married Today” from Company (it was possibly the fastest rendition of the song ever performed), which he starred in his senior year at CMU under fellow CMU alum Billy Porter’s direction.
For any theatre lovers, Leung is a performer not to be missed. His stories woven into fresh arrangements of Broadway standards are the perfect mix for a night of entertainment. He performs concerts all over the world, and we hope to have him back in Pittsburgh soon!
Follow Telly on Instagram