TALKING “ALADDIN” WITH BROADWAY STAR TELLY LEUNG

TELLY LEUNG IS DISCOVERING A WHOLE NEW WORLD.

This summer, the acclaimed Broadway veteran took over playing the titular character in Aladdin, Disney’s blockbuster stage adaptation of their 1992 animated classic. With a theater career that spans nearly two decades, the revered actor is tackling his largest role yet. And coming off two back-to-back shows (Allegiance and In Transit), Leung is proving himself to be one of the busiest and hardest working performers on Broadway today.

I caught up with Leung about what getting to play Aladdin means to him, how Broadway has evolved since his 2002 stage debut, how Carol Channing changed his life, defying the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Were you a fan of the animated movie growing up? What memories do you have associated with watching it as a kid?

TELLY LEUNG: Like everyone of my generation, I fell in love with the animated film in 1992. I remember falling in love with the music (and having it stuck in my head for weeks!) and I remember the amazing, a-hundred-miles-a-minute performance by Robin Williams. It was a tour-de-force. As I was watching the movie as an adult, I realized there were so many jokes I actually MISSED as a kid that I now understand as an adult. The movie is timeless.

What does getting to play the titular character in Aladdin mean to you?

It’s an absolute blast. I’m having the time of my life with this stellar company, and YES – it IS as much fun as it looks! Every night! That being said, it’s also a daunting responsibility to play a character that is so beloved by so many for generations. It was a wonderful challenge to meet the demands of this role, and the expectations of this classic Disney prince – but to also find that special thing that I can contribute to it as an artist.

You made your Broadway debut in 2002 in Flower Drum Song. Now, Aladdin marks your seventh show on the Great White Way. How do you decide which roles to take and/or which shows to participate in? And how do you think Broadway as a whole has evolved since your first curtain call 15 years ago?

The honest truth is I don’t get to choose as much as one might think. Yes, I’ve had a wonderfully blessed (and lucky) career on Broadway the last 15 years, but it’s because I’m constantly auditioning and putting myself out there for opportunities. One’s Playbill bio only lists the shows I’ve done, but it doesn’t list all the shows I auditioned for and DIDN’T get. In many ways, the wonderful opportunities that I got on Broadway all happened for very specific and different reasons – and, in some ways, the show chose ME at that moment in my life, and I just said, “Yes.”

As for the evolution of Broadway in the last 15 years, I think the doors of possibility have been blown wide open! Every season, I am blown away by something that, on paper, doesn’t look or sound like a Broadway show or I say to myself, “How are they going to do THAT on Broadway?” and I am constantly blown away (and pleasantly surprised) when I’m proven wrong. I recently had that mind-blowing experience seeing Indecent on Broadway. The use of staging, musicians, stagecraft, etc. to tell this very difficult-to-tell story with a tough subject matter was so innovating and surprising – and it created a very satisfying and moving evening of theater.

Your career has given you the opportunities to perform in Broadway’s smallest and biggest venues. How does doing an intimate show like Godspell compare to the experience of a huge show like Aladdin?

Telly LeungI love performing at intimate houses like Circle in the Square, where the audience is only inches away from you. It’s initially very challenging and scary for actors because there’s nowhere to hide! You are constantly being watched by someone in the audience when you’re performing in the round (like Godspell) or in three-quarter thrust (like In Transit). But, once you embrace the nature of the space, it’s actually quite freeing to perform in a space and accept the fact that everyone in the audience will be seeing a slightly different show from their vantage point. Performing in a big proscenium house like the New Amsterdam is a challenge to actors because one has to fill the space with size – but to play the size with TRUTH. Luckily, I’ve had some great training at Carnegie Mellon University that taught me to do just that! That’s not to say that simplicity isn’t an actor’s friend in these large spaces. One of my favorite moments to perform is Aladdin’s solo, “Proud of Your Boy,” and it’s my challenge every night to get all 1,700 people in that massive theater to take an intimate look at my character and what drives him to be the kind of man that would make his mother proud. In that moment, I try to get the New Amsterdam to feel more like Circle in the Square.

The inclusion of “Proud of Your Boy” is just one of the notable differences between the original film and this musical. For those who have not yet seen the show, how do you think this look at Aladdin gives audiences a more intricate and fleshed out understanding of the character?

“Proud of Your Boy” is a song that was cut from the original film when the animators realized they didn’t have enough time to delve deep into Aladdin’s character. Aladdin’s mom was an integral part of the original animated film, but they had to cut her character due to time constraints. Now that we are in the theater, and Aladdin has been reconceived from an animated film to a theatrical piece, we have 2.5 hours in the theater to delve deeper into his character motivations. In our play, we’ve raised the stakes for Aladdin – and his mother has just passed several months prior to the beginning of the play. Before she passes, he promises her that he will give up his dishonest life as a liar and thief – and make something of himself that will make mom proud. This song ends up being Aladdin’s character spine and drives all the actions in the play.

Given the large amount of families and children who attend, what type of pressure does it add to know that Aladdin is the first Broadway show many audience members are seeing?

While the show is family-friendly and we know we’re welcoming plenty of children to their first Broadway show, Aladdin is such a beloved story around the world (and has been for centuries!) that we get lots of adults who are seeing their first Broadway show with us too. It’s awesome to have so many young audience members experiencing their first Broadway show in Agrabah. As a Broadway performer, we do eight shows a week – and sometimes we get tired or we aren’t in the mood (we’re human, after all). But I always remind myself at places backstage that there’s someone in audience that is experiencing their first Broadway show, and they’ve chosen US to give them a magical experience for the next 2.5 hours. It’s an honor I cannot (and do not) take lightly, and it’s my job to give every audience 100% of myself every night.

If you could take a ride on a magic carpet to anywhere in the world, where would you want to go and why?

I’ve always wanted to visit India.

Recently, Disney announced the primary cast for their upcoming new adaptation of Aladdin. What are your thoughts on the company’s recent initiative of remaking their animated classics into live-action movies?

I’m super excited to see these live-action movies! I think Disney did a wonderful job with Beauty and the Beast, and I’m thrilled that a whole new generation of moviegoers will get to experience these stories in a new and fresh way. Hopefully, it’ll make them go back to revisit the original animated source material!

You had a very strict Chinese upbringing, in which your parents wanted you to become a doctor or lawyer instead of an actor. What was the defining moment that made you realize that your dreams meant taking a different path in life than what was expected of you?

I remember exactly where I was when this “a-ha!” moment came to me. It was the day I took my SATs, and I rewarded myself by taking myself to see a matinee after the exam. I had saved up my allowance money, and I went to the TKTS booth, where I got my half-price ticket to see Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly. As I was hearing her sing “Before The Parade Passes By” at the end of act one, I felt like she was singing right to me. She was telling me, through song, to not let life pass me by. She was telling me to dig deep and ask myself if I really wanted to go to college and study medicine or law – or if I wanted a life in the theater. I was in the presence of a living legend – Carol Channing – who dedicated her life to Broadway. The answer was clear.

Telly LeungYou recently got married to your partner of nearly 13 years. Congratulations! You announced the wedding via Instagram, writing “LOVE makes America GREAT.” You’ve also previously spoken publicly about how the election of Donald Trump inspired you and James to tie the knot. Can you please elaborate on why that was? And at a time when the current U.S. administration is attempting to strip rights from the LGBTQ community, how do you think people should fight back to defend both themselves and their loved ones?

Jimmy and I have been together for years, and though we support marriage equality, we never thought we needed our relationship recognized by any government or religious institution. We are part of the LGBTQ generation that never even thought marriage was a possibility, so we had resigned ourselves to defining our own relationship. However, we both watched the election results in November with shock and anxiety. Never before have I feared for my inalienable rights as an LGBTQ person, as a person of color, and as a son of immigrants. Never before have I felt like my rights were in danger.

On a personal level, we wanted to get married and make sure we protected our union under the law. With Trump in the White House, we didn’t know if he and his cronies would try and take marriage equality away during his 4 years in office, and if we’d ever get those rights back. Jimmy and I wanted to know that as we grow old together, we had all the rights and benefits of being spouses.

On a political level, we also wanted to make a statement. We knew that there was going to be a political fight ahead against this administration and their agenda to eradicate all the progress made for the LGBTQ community, and the ring on my finger is not just a symbol of my love for my husband, but it’s also to signify my resistance to this hateful administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Do you still keep in touch with any of your former Glee co-stars? Have any come to see you in Aladdin yet?

Yes! We keep in touch. I love my band of brothers! Titus (Makin Jr.) has come to see Aladdin. I hope all my Warbler brothers get to visit me in Agrabah at some point!

Who are some current musical theater performers who inspire you the most?

Mandy Gonzalez. Initially, I was just a fan. We’ve started to collaborate on many concerts together – and I’m lucky to consider her a friend. Not only do I admire her talent as a Broadway performer, but I also love the way she balances her life on Broadway with a concerts and TV, all the while being an amazing mom and an extraordinary human being. Wow.

What is your musical theater dream role?

This is always a tough question! Aladdin is pretty close to a “dream role!”

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Telly Leung in Aladdin on Broadway.

And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to “Show/Swap,” a one-night-only benefit that Telly is producing. Taking place on Sunday, August 20 (8:00PM at Yotel), “Show/Swap” will feature the cast of Aladdin singing the songs of Boublil & Schönberg, and the cast of Miss Saigon singing the songs of Alan Menken.

Originally published on PopBytes

FIVE MUST-SEE SHOWS ON THE NYC THEATER SCENE THIS FALL

Can’t score a ticket to Hamilton? Need something to hold you over until WaitressThe Crucible and American Psycho open in the spring?

Below, check out a list of five of the most exciting new shows and revivals on the New York theater scene this fall.

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ALLEGIANCE

STARRING: George Takei, Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, Katie Rose Clarke, Michael K. Lee
WHERE: Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

After Pearl Harbor is attacked, a Californian Japanese-American family is sentenced to forced internment at a Wyoming camp. While there, all of the families who have been relocated are required to a fill out an infamous loyalty questionnaire as a way of ensuring their allegiance to the United States instead of Japan. On this questionnaire, internees must designate whether or not they are willing to enlist. For Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung), the decision is a no-brainer: of course he will join the American troops. But for others, like Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), burning draft cards and publicly denouncing the country that imprisoned his family sends a much louder message. So when Sammy’s sister, Kei (Lea Salonga), falls in love with Frankie, he must learn how to navigate battle terrains not just while at war, but at home as well.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Inspired by Takei’s own life, this multi-generational family saga chronicles what happens when a man is torn between his love for his country and his love for his family. With his father refusing to put on a U.S. military uniform out of principle, and with his sister starting a new life with the man he sees as the antithesis of what he stands for, Sammy struggles to balance his beliefs and responsibilities. A fascinating character study that forces its audience to think about what patriotism means to them, Allegiance is a thought-provoking, unique look at a dark chapter in American history that must not be forgotten.

STANDOUT SCENE

As always, Salonga is a vocal titan. Her big solo, “Higher,” acts as the biggest show-stopper of the production. After finding herself caught between Frankie and Sammy, Kei must decide how to give both of these men the love and support that they need. She sings about pushing herself to new levels to be who she needs to be for them. Coupled with Jay Kuo’s music and lyrics, the song showcases not just Salonga’s powerful instrument, but how war harshly impacts more than just those on the battlefield.

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DAMES AT SEA

STARRING: Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita, John Bolton, Mara Devi, Danny Gardner, Cary Tedder
WHERE: The Helen Hayes Theatre (240 West 44th Street)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

A charming and nostalgic ode to the golden era of movie musicals, Dames at Sea opens with black and white credits presented on a projection screen, immediately transporting its audience back several decades. When a young small-town woman steps off the bus in New York City to pursue her goal of becoming a Broadway star, she meets a cast of characters who can all help make her dreams come true. But when the show she plans on making her big debut in loses its venue, it’ll be up to her and her friends to find a new location and perfect the show before the curtain call – all in the matter of one very busy day.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Aside from being the show that once launched the career of the great Bernadette Peters,   is not your typical tap musical. While it does pay homage to the days of Cole Porter and Fred Astaire, the show acts almost like a lighthearted parody of the musicals of that time. Full of self-aware humor and comical jabs at how sensationalized the plot is, this production acts as a refreshing, laugh-out-loud contemporary companion to the shows from the era it’s set in.

STANDOUT SCENE

Any scene with Lesli Margherita is worth the full admission price. As a diva living in fear of being replaced by a fresh-faced unknown, Margherita is terrifically over the top. She shamelessly seduces the men around her to get what she wants and then tosses them aside when they’ve fulfilled her wishes. The hilarious choices she brings to her character make her the “villain” you root for, even if it’s just to make sure that she doesn’t leave the stage. With a booming voice and dance skills that would make any ingénue shake in her tap shoes, Margherita is a bonafide scene-stealer whose magnificent work in this show will undoubtedly be recognized by Tony voters.

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FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE

STARRING: Caissie Levy, Alison Fraser, Betsy Morgan, Rachel Bay Jones, Mary Testa, Barbara Walsh, Theresa McCarthy, Isabel Santiago, Carly Tamer
WHERE: The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street)
WHEN: Now through November 22 only!

STORY

Presented in four separate parts, First Daughter Suite is an exploration of the wives and daughters of various American Presidents. Directed by Kirsten Sanderson and written by Michael John LaChiusa, this new musical delves into the relationships these women have with one another and with how they’re perceived by the American people. Featuring Julie Eisenhower, Pat, Tricia and Hannah Nixon, Amy and Rosalynn Carter, Susan and Betty Ford, Patti Davis, Nancy Reagan, Anita Castelo, and Barbara, Laura and Robin Bush, First Daughter Suite is an original look at the deeply private lives of these highly public figures.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

The Public has been churning out hit after hit. Last year, their show Fun Home (read my review here) went on to Broadway and won five Tony Awards, including Best New Musical. This year, of course, is all about Hamilton. After its initial sold-out run at The Public, the show has gone on to be a certified box office juggernaut since its Broadway debut. With the accolades already piling up (including a McArthur “Genius Grant” for creator and star Lin Manuel Miranda), Hamilton is all but sure to sweep the Tonys come June. So how can The Public follow up two smash successes like this?

With First Daughter Suite, they continue to encourage innovative new musical theater. The show also features a vast cast of immensely talented women. Theater buffs will be delighted to hear them all sing in the intimate venue. With essentially no dialogue, the show transitions from song to song, giving each actor an opportunity to individually shine. And when they’re not performing their solos, they break off into layers of harmonies and belt-off contests which amount to pure ear candy. It’s worth catching First Daughter Suite for the singing alone – but if you can’t check it out live, don’t miss the recently announced cast recording when it hits stores in 2016.

STANDOUT SCENE

In the closing vignette, Barbara Bush (Mary Testa) is commemorating Robin (Theresa McCarthy), her daughter who died at the age of four from pediatric leukemia. As she stands watching the Atlantic waters crash against the Maine shore on a cold October day in 2005, she’s visited by Robin’s spirit, and the audience quickly learns that the two of them have this reunion on this same day every year – the anniversary of Robin’s death. When Laura (Rachel Bay Jones) arrives and beckons Barbara inside, the sharp contrast between her relationship with her daughter-in-law and deceased daughter underscores how even with time, the pain and impact of losing a child is something that no parent can ever forget.

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FOOL FOR LOVE

STARRING: Sam Rockwell, Nina Arianda, Tom Pelphrey, Gordon Joseph Weiss
WHERE: Samuel J Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street)
WHEN: Now through December 13 only!

STORY

A pair of ex-lovers (Rockwell and Arianda) find themselves in a small motel in the Mojave Desert. There, they passionately rip each other to shreds, revealing their darkest and most shocking secrets. As they continue to pick at the scabs of the relationship they once had, will what’s underneath reveal that they do – and can – still love one another?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Written by Sam Shepard with his signature gritty and fiery flair, Fool For Love is a brutally honest and often dirty look at what it means to be drawn to someone who brings out the worst in you. It’s a multi-layered, complex drama that unpacks the many definitions of “love” and tests its limits in merciless ways. Although you won’t leave the theater feeling uplifted, the punch in the gut feeling you depart with is a testament to the work’s resounding power, unapologetic dialogue, and the committed performances of the actors.

STANDOUT SCENE

Without giving too much away, a pivotal reveal is when one of the characters discloses the truth surrounding the death of the other one’s mother. In a show chock-full of jaw-on-your-floor moments, this one certainly takes the cake. It’s so shattering that it will send a chill down the audience’s spines, resulting in the type of visceral reaction only truly excellent theater is capable of. And as the aftermath of this reveal begins to have its full ripple effect, the vulnerability and tension that comes out of it culminates in the show’s explosive finale.

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ON YOUR FEET

STARRING: Ana Villafane, Josh Segarra, Andrea Burns, Alma Cuervo
WHERE: Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

Set to the duo’s biggest hits, On Your Feet is a biographical show about the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. We meet Gloria (Ana Villafane) as a teenager and follow her on her journey to international superstardom. Along the way, she and Emilio (Josh Segarra) fall in love, stand up to music industry executives who claim the world isn’t ready for their sound, and craft smashes like “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” and “Turn The Beat Around.”

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

You don’t need to be a Gloria Estefan fan to enjoy On Your Feet – but you’ll certainly be one after you leave the theater. Directed by Jerry Mitchell and featuring sizzling choreography by Sergio Trujillo, the show acts as a high-energy concert of sorts, interlaced with an inspiring and touching story told in between the classic numbers. Featuring a detailed look at fame, family, and assimilation, On Your Feet is the type of feel-good production that so many jukebox musicals strive to achieve but rarely actually do.

STANDOUT SCENE

After the tour bus accident that almost took her life, Gloria must learn how to walk before she can conga again. As she is in the process of rehabilitation, she and Emilio have their only real argument of the show. He wants her to make her comeback performance at the American Music Awards, while she’s afraid that she might not be ready and that people will only pity her. Together, they overcome the difficulties they’re faced with. And when Gloria eventually returns to the stage, it’s a soaring, moving, and triumphant moment – not just for them but also for those witnessing their story unfold.

Originally published on PopBytes