May 16, 2022
Broadway's Telly Leung Talks His Alan Menken Connection Ahead of Tribute with Boston Pops
John Amodeo READ TIME: 10 MIN.
This week Broadway's Telly Leung ("Glee," "Rent," "Godspell," "Aladdin") joins colleagues in celebrating Disney composer Alan Menken with the Boston Pops. Leung talked with EDGE about his Alan Menken connection, as well as diversity and LGBTQ+ equality.
"The songs of Alan Menken are the songs of my childhood," Leung said.
The 42-year-old openly gay actor continues, "I'm not Gen X nor am I a Millennial. We were the 'mixed tape' generation." Leung recalls Menken's music from "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" shaping his formative years. Little did he know that this Chinese American boy from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn would someday be playing the title character in "Aladdin" on Broadway, singing those very same songs from his youth but, this time, on a Broadway stage. Leung will join two other Menken and Disney Broadway veterans, Susan Egan (Belle in "Beauty and the Beast") and Alton Fitzgerald White (Mufasa in "The Lion King"), as Keith Lockhart's guests bringing to life the songs of Alan Menken in a Boston Pops special tribute "The Magical Music of Alan Menken" this Thursday, May 19, and Saturday, May 21, at Boston Symphony Hall.
Leung recently took a break from a work project in Nashville to speak with EDGE about growing up in Brooklyn, queer culture, working with Billy Porter, Anthony Rapp, George Takei, Lea Salonga, and of course, we had to talk about the songs of Alan Menken.
EDGE: What will the Menken tribute be like with the Boston Pops?
Telly Leung: I am so thrilled I'm working with Keith Lockhart. He's also a CMU grad. I've seen him conduct concerts, but not worked with him before. I've never worked with Alton Fitzgerald White and Susan Egan, but they are Disney royalty. That the Pops is honoring Disney and Menken is special to me. Of course, we'll be doing songs from "The Little Mermaid," and "Beauty and the Beast," and I will be singing some "Aladdin" songs. But I'll get to sing some songs from "Newsies" and "Little Shop...." Also, I'll be singing some songs that few people know, from "King David," and cut songs from "The Little Mermaid." It will be a fun program.
EDGE: As Asian Americans in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I imagine your family and you stood out in that predominantly Italian and Irish neighborhood. How did that shape your understanding of diversity and social equity?
Telly Leung: When I was growing up in Bay Ridge in the 80s and 90s, there was an Irish Pub and a Pizzeria on every corner. There were other Asian kids in my classes, but we were very much the minority. In the 90s, Bay Ridge diversified more. More Chinese and Middle Eastern families moved in, and diversity increased. My family was a part of that diversification. My parents then moved to Sunset Park, which has become Brooklyn's Chinatown. I grew up with diversity and I watched our neighborhood become more diverse.
EDGE: Themes of diversity and social equity periodically emerge in your work. This past December, you were part of a recording project produced by EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn called "Place and Time" that celebrates diversity and champions LGBTQ rights, especially in theater. What do you think it means to be out as an entertainer today?
Telly Leung: I have to be honest, when I first started studying theater in college, it was 20 years ago, and people weren't really out. You could be more out in the theater world; but in Hollywood, it was very taboo.
But today, we are hearing so many queer stories. The stories used to be only about Stonewall, and the AIDS crisis, and we've heard those stories told very well, and they are wonderful, but there is more to the LGBT+ community. Queer stories exist all around us. We love and we have heartaches, just like everyone else has heartaches. We are now telling more nuanced stories, everyday stories that can reach people's hearts in a different way.
For me, to be honest, I felt most proud when I met my now-husband Jimmy [Babcock]. We've been together for 18 years [and married for six] and I felt most proud by the act of loving someone and defending it to family and other people who don't understand it. I have a stronger sense of who I am because I am with him. There are people in this world who don't think that our partnership should exist – even in my own circles of family and friends – and I have to defend our right to be together and teach them about the legitimacy of our relationship. That made me even more proud. It is so different now. I do a lot of teaching, and most of my kids who I teach now, were born after 9/11. It's a whole different world.
EDGE: Matthew Lopez's play "The Inheritance" is currently running in Boston at the Speakeasy Stage, and themes of passing our stories down to the next generation of queer youth is a theme throughout the play. Many of today's youth don't know all the struggles that came before them. Does that play into your teaching?
Telly Leung: I love "The Inheritance." Matthew is a buddy. We inherit the responsibility to pass down what we know, and the younger generation has the responsibility to know what came before them. It's also upon this generation to be humble enough to recognize that there were people who walked the path before them that allows them to exist. And that play speaks to that.
EDGE: At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where you studied musical theater, you were Bobby in "Company" under Billy Porter's direction. What was one of the most important things you learned working with Billy?
Telly Leung: Billy had graduated from CMU. He was already a big star, and he wanted to do something different. He wanted to flex some creative muscle, and he wanted to do that in a safe place. Where else would be safer than coming home to his alma mater to direct?
Billy was ahead of his time in so many ways; long before the current Broadway production of "Company", he was already doing gender bending in some of the roles, turning Marta into Marty. I had an amazing time with him. He is not only a good director but also a good teacher. What I learned from him is that authenticity wins. That was an important lesson to learn as a senior in college. CMU was like the Hogwarts of musical theater, surrounded by all these wizards and warlocks, who teach you so much technique: singing, dancing, diction, wardrobe, monologues. But Billy said all that technique just allows you to be you. It is all in service of showing who you are. All that technique doesn't mean anything if it doesn't connect with who you are. When you talk about authenticity on a red carpet in an interview, nobody does authenticity better than Billy.
EDGE: You've gotten to work in several productions with Lea Salonga, first "Flower Drum Song," then "Allegiance." But they were over a decade apart. How did your working relationship evolve over that time, and was it very different with "Allegiance," where you were playing a lead role vs. being in the ensemble for "Flower Drum Song?"
Telly Leung: "Flower Drum Song" was my first Broadway show, and Lea Salonga was already a big star. She had already done "Miss Saigon," won the Tony and the Olivier Awards, she was already in "Les Mis." In "Flower Drum Song," she was above the title. What I love about her, is that in any show she is in, she becomes the big sister of everyone in the company. In fact, her old email address was something like "[email protected]." She took all of us under her wing at "Flower Drum Song." We all had wonderful big sisters and big brothers, aunties and uncles in that cast. And then in "Allegiance," she was playing my big sister. It was the easiest acting job I ever had, because we were already like a sister and brother. The part was even written around our relationship.
EDGE: You've done a lot of work with Anthony Rapp ("Rent"), first being involved in "Rent," then working with him on a musical short film, "Grind," which you produced, and in which he stars. What was it like working with him?
Telly Leung: First, "Rent" was one of my favorite musicals growing up. I cut high school class to get my first copy of the "Rent" CD. So, to be in "Rent" was like a dream come true for me. I was part of the final company, and Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal were in the original cast, and not in the company when I started. But Anthony and Adam came back into the show, and I was pinching myself that I was in the middle of this experience with them. Then we all went on the road together, and they called it the "Broadway Tour," and we toured the country and even abroad to Japan and Seoul, Korea. I got to know Anthony really well because we traveled together.
EDGE: Why move into producing?
Telly Leung: A pal from CMU that I knew had this idea about a Grindr serial killer, and we said, who do we know who could play this dark and interesting character, and we said Anthony! He looks and sounds terrific. You can see it on Amazon. So much of "Grind" was about connections. Just know, we made it on a $3 budget.
EDGE: What else have you been doing?
Telly Leung: I'm getting to do a bit of directing. During the pandemic, I directed my first production of "Godspell" at University of Michigan. I'm directing the ceremony for the Lincoln Medal at the Ford Theater with Michael McElroy. We are honoring [U.S. Rep.-SC] Jim Clyburn and [record producer] Clive Davis who just celebrated [turning] 90 years old. I'll also be directing a play, "Yellow Face," by David Henry Hwang. During the pandemic we've all had to pivot and use other skills to tell stories in different ways.
EDGE: Getting back to "Allegiance" for a moment, if Lea Salonga was like an older sister for you, what was it like working with lead George Takei (whose life story inspired "Allegiance")?
Telly Leung: George had a decades-long career in show business. He's that person from "The Inheritance." He is very aware of the responsibility to share his story as a leader in the LGBT+ community and fought for marriage equality in California. Then as a Japanese American who was interned, his passionate advocacy, and his responsibilities as a storyteller are so blurred, he tells you a story not to just move you, but to spur you to action. My husband Jimmy and I look at [Takei's husband] Brad and George and want to be like them. Let me put it this way: If there weren't a George Takei, there wouldn't be a me in show business.
Telly Leung will appear with Susan Egan, Alton Fitzgerald White, and Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Orchestra in "The Magical Music of Alan Menken" Thursday May 19, 2022, at 8 PM and Saturday, May 21, 2022, at 1 PM at Boston Symphony Hall, 201 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA 02115; Tickets $18-$96. To purchase tickets, visit https://www.bso.org/events/magical-music-of-alan-menken
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.