As a high school student, Telly Leung got involved in his high school’s musical as a way to take a break from his physics and calculus classes. Telly never quite returned from that break, however: Today he’s a professional performer, currently in the Broadway cast of “Rent.” He has a packed life that is constantly in motion, with rehearsals, auditions, and performances – it’s anything but a conventional 9-to-5 job. Despite the instability of going from one show to the next whenever one ends, and despite the “gypsy” lifestyle of often being on the road to go where the work is, Telly, 27, says he thinks he’s one of the luckiest people on Earth because he gets to do what he loves for a living. To learn more about Telly and what it’s like to be an Asian-American performer, check out this week’s Young & Professional Profile.
When did you start?
Brooklyn, New York
New York City, New York
Carnegie Mellon University
BFA Acting (Music Theater)
Roles: Steve and Others, understudy for Angel
Roundabout Theater Company
Roles: Observer, Boy in the Tree, Sailor, understudy for Kayama
2005 Broadway Revival
“Flower Drum Song”
Roles: Ensemble, understudy for Wang Ta (Broadway debut)
2002 Broadway Revival
“Wicked,” Chicago Company
Role: BOQ (original Chicago cast member)
Regional Credits Include (for more, see website):
“Hello, Dolly!” at The MUNY (Barnaby)
“Children of Eden” at Fords Theater (Seth/Shem)
“Jesus Christ Superstar” at Sacramento Music Circus (Simon)
“The King and I” at North Carolina Theater (Lun Tha)
“Miss Saigon” at Pittsburgh CLO (Thuy)
“Sweeney Todd” at Four Seasons Theater (Tobias)
Describe your career
I think I’m one of the luckiest people in the world because I get to do what I love for a living: perform.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
The most common misconception about Broadway performers is that we only work three hours a day, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. However, we are constantly: a) in rehearsals for new cast members being put in the show b) in rehearsals for understudies c) auditioning for new projects d) in rehearsals for workshops and readings and e) staying on top of our game by going to voice/dance/acting classes. Our days get pretty packed.
A Broadway performer (especially a music theater performer) has to live a life of discipline in order to be in top form for the evening performance. We know how expensive a ticket to a Broadway show is (a whopping $110 is the top ticket!), so we make sure we are at our best and giving the audience their money’s worth. The voice and body are the main tools of our trade, which means we have to sleep well, eat right, exercise, and not party all night long. I find the worst possible thing you can do the night before a show is be in a loud and smoky bar. The second hand smoke and the overuse of the vocal chords when speaking over the noise of the bar is killer on the voice.
We have to watch what we eat and drink, through the course of the day, to make sure it’s not affecting the way we sing/dance. I, for one, cannot have spicy food or too much sugar before I sing. We wake up in the morning, and the first thing we do is check to see how tired we are vocally/physically from the night before. Doing eight shows a week takes a certain stamina that I had to learn to develop over time. and it’s still something I’m figuring out how to do better and better. Some folks focus on hydration. Others like to steam. It takes a while to figure out one’s personal daily routine that works for them.
As you can see, our day-to-day routine is all focused on how to give the best performance possible. Some say we live like nuns, and depending on how difficult your show is night after night, they might be right.
Most notable milestones
My Broadway debut was in “Flower Drum Song”, and actually setting foot on the Broadway stage at the Virginia Theater for the first time was a moment that I will always remember.
When I did “Pacific Overtures,” I got to fulfill the dream of every music theater actor and work with Stephen Sondheim. What an incredible opportunity, to be a) performing in one of his shows and b) to work so closely with him on the process.
As an Asian-American performer, I was so proud to be cast as Boq in the Chicago Company of “Wicked.” At the time, I was the only Asian person to ever cast in the principle role in any company of that show. I have great respect for the casting directors, creative team, and producers of “Wicked” because they really wanted the world of their play, OZ, to reflect the diversity of the world. Why can’t munchkins be Asian? Why can’t the green witch be African-American? It is one of the few shows that is truly dedicated to non-traditional casting.
What’s the niche?
No two actors will approach the role the same way. That is because it is our job to bring our own unique perspective to a role and no two performers are the same. As an Asian-American person, raised in traditional Chinese home in Brooklyn, New York, I am unique in my perspective and understanding of the world. That is what makes me unique as an actor. As I get older, life will continue teaching me lessons. It will expand my actors’ vocabulary even more so as I continue on my journey as both a human being and a performer.
What’s in store for the future?
It’s one of the biggest challenges as an actor to adjust to the constant ups and downs of show biz. You never truly know what’s in store for the future.
The life of an actor is in constant flux. We are often called “gypsies” because we go from one show to the next. Today, you might be on Broadway. Then your show closes, and you’re on the unemployment line, searching for another project to attach yourself to. Actors often go where the work is. Life on the road might mean a new city – a new change of scene – every couple of weeks. It’s a lifestyle that is constantly in motion. So who knows what’s in store for the future?
This might sound terrible to some, especially those who like the stability of a “9 to 5” schedule (and paycheck). I must admit, there are times I envy those with that kind of job/financial stability. Yet being in this profession has truly taught me how to enjoy each moment in the present, to not worry too much about “yesterday” and “tomorrow,” but to live and savor “today.” The musical motif in “Rent” that echoes through the course of the show is: “No Day But Today.” There is a profound truth in that. I’ve also been very lucky. But, I believe that luck is preparedness meeting opportunity and I have faith that if I keep working at it, and being prepared for the opportunities that arise, I’ll be able to work constantly and have a full and prosperous career.
What is most rewarding about acting on Broadway?
I get to live out a life-long dream, and I get to work at home in New York. Actors so often have to go where the work is and do “gigs on the road” that I always find being in a Broadway show, and working in my hometown, a blessing.
Do you prefer acting in a Broadway production or in a smaller production?
I enjoy working on Broadway, but there I also love working regionally. There are some amazing theaters all across the country doing some daring, quality work on stage, and I love being a part of that. Though I’ve said being on the road is tough, it also gives me the rewarding opportunity of seeing places all over the US that I normally wouldn’t visit. Who knew that Madison, Wisconsin was such a great little town? I would’ve never visited North Carolina had it not been for work – and I had a fantastic time there.
What is your most memorable experience in acting?
The most memorable experience I’ve had so far in acting was being involved in “Pacific Overtures” on Broadway. It has always been a dream of mine to be in a Sondheim show, and getting to share the stage with an All-Asian cast of stellar Broadway performers eight times a week, being directed by our amazing director from Japan: Amon Miyamoto, the first Asian person to ever direct a musical on Broadway, was a major career highlight. I’ve never been prouder to be an Asian performer on Broadway.
Do you prefer acting or music?
I don’t have a preference. They exercise different parts of my creativity, and at the same time, one art form feeds the other. The music inspires my work in theater and vice versa. They are just different outlets of being creative.
Was it hard to master the skill of being able to act, sing, and dance, in order to be on Broadway?
I went to Carnegie Mellon University for my training and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a competitive, selective, grueling, four-year, conservatory program with an all-day long regimen of acting, singing, ballet/jazz/tap, movement, voice and speech, accents and dialects, theater history, etc. However, I felt incredibly prepared after my four tough years there. The training I received is something that I still use heavily in my everyday work as a professional actor.
I am a true believer in being a student for life. I still take classes, voice lessons, acting classes, dance classes, etc. in New York.
Goal yet to be achieved
Like every Broadway actor, I’ve dreamed of winning a Tony Award. It would be an honor just to be nominated. No, really! I’m not just saying it. Oh well, I’ll just keep plugging along and dreaming. Maybe one day, the right project will come along and it’ll come true.
Best practical advice
Keep studying. This applies to every profession, really. But, it is particularly relevant to those who want a career in the arts. “Studying” might not be formal class. For actors, it might be people watching on the subway and doing a character study. For musicians, it might be a concert at Carnegie Hall or a live band at CBGB’s. For artists, it might be gallery openings, or sketching the homeless man on the street. Live and breathe the art that is in the world around you, and keep studying it.
Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture
My family has not always been supportive of my career in show business. I have immigrant parents who came to this country to give their child a better life in America. Like most immigrant parents, they have dreams of their children going to Ivy League schools and having the financial/professional stability of being a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer.
My parents and I have a great relationship. I think part of that relationship is learning from one another. The “better life” they dreamed of for me was limited to financial stability, but “better life” in my eyes is also the freedom and opportunity to pursue one’s innermost dreams. Isn’t “freedom” and “opportunity” what America is all about? I think I opened my parents’ eyes to the fact that you can achieve both in this country, being in a profession you love and also making a living doing it.
Now my parents are happy for my success (and relieved that being an actor doesn’t mean starving for one’s art). Of course, I am happy that they are happy, but also satisfied knowing that my success has been defined on my own terms.
Thommie Walsh. He was an original cast member of “A Chorus Line,” and a two time Tony Award winner in Choreography. He was one of the first choreographers I’ve ever worked for, and he pushed me to always be better than I thought I could be. He recently passed away, but his effect on me as an artist and a performer will live on eternally.
Mr. Vincent Grasso, my high school drama teacher. He taught me to love the theater and to love being part of the “family.” Every person in the family is important: from the star of the show to the person that sweeps the stage at the end of the night. It’s a valuable lesson that I still carry with me today: that every person is integral to the show.
What motivated you to get started?
I went to a math and science high school in NY, Stuyvesant High School. It was a grueling, competitive environment academically, and I started getting involved in the high school musical to relieve stress and take a break fro physics and calculus.
Like best about what you do?
When I was a teenager growing up in NY, Broadway was right in my back yard, and I remember going to the TKTS booth or getting student rush tickets for almost every show on Broadway. It inspired me to do what I do today.
Shows like “Wicked” and “Rent” have a large audience of young people. Being involved in both of these huge theatrical phenomenons has, no doubt, inspired the next generation of theater artists. It thrills me to know that I might have a little something to do with that.
Like least about what you do?
The nature of what we do as Broadway performers is that shows open and close. There is nothing more heart breaking (and scary) than that company meeting where the producers notify you of the show’s closing date. All that blood, sweat and tears that went into the show will disappear (except for the memories of those involved and those who got to see it), and as an actor, I am once again on the hunt for a new project to go to. The pressure is on and the clock is ticking. But, I’ve learned that something always comes up. As an actor, you have to have faith that if you keep doing what you do, your good work will be recognized and someone will want to use your talents.
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think I wanted to make my parents proud, which meant going to an Ivy League school and being a doctor or a lawyer. Ah well.
What was your first job?
I did promotional work for the WB 11. I was part of their “Mickey Mouse” club called The Team 11. We did short commercials, promoting shows on the WB. It was the first time I got a pay check for doing what I love to do.
Biggest pastime outside of work
It’s kind of work related, but I enjoy going to the theater – as an audience member.
Person most interested in meeting?
I recently did “Hello, Dolly” at the MUNY in St. Louis, and it was directed by Lee Roy Reams, who directed the most-recent Broadway revival starring Carol Channing. We heard some fantastic stories about her and I would love to meet her. She is a living theater legend and I’d love to have dinner with her and have her share her stories with me.
Leader in business most interested in meeting?
Hal Prince. He is the legendary director of some of my favorite shows (“Sweeney Todd,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Show Boat,” “Evita”) and also an accomplished producer. I feel like no one knows this business better, and I’d love to pick his brain.
Three interesting facts about yourself
I can only think of one now, so…
My parents named me after Telly Savalas, the popular star of the hit 70’s series, “Kojak.” My parents came to this country in 1975, and watched a lot of TV in an effort to learn English. They like the name Telly. I’m glad they didn’t name me Kojak!
Three characteristics that describe you
I hate questions like this because I never know how to answer these without being a braggart or too modest. So I’m just gonna skip it.
Three greatest passions
- Food: I love to eat and I love to cook!
Besides being a huge Harry Potter fan, my favorite book (right now), is “Everything Was Possible,” Ted Chapin’s memoir from when he was a young intern on the original Broadway production of “Follies.” He is now the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.
As a part of the Broadway community, I am an active supporter of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Favorite Broadway production
It’s too hard to choose one, but if I had to, I would say “Rent.” I am almost scared to admit how many times I’ve seen the show (probably over 20), so you can imagine what an amazing experience it is to actually be in the production.
Many singers inspire me, including Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Billy Porter, Betty Buckley, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Adam Pascal, and Jill Scott (just to name a few!).