Telly Leung (Michael Kushner)
Broadway star Telly Leung chats exclusively with RyeTheNewsGuy.com ahead of his new show Sing Happy at The Green Room 42 on September 26th, 2019. Telly talks honestly and candidly about the show, the vocal scare that greatly impacted him, finding meaning and inspiration post-surgery to share his story, and what is next for him.
Telly has been seen on both the stage and screen. His Broadway and national tour credits include Aladdin, In Transit, Allegiance (with George Takei and Lea Salonga), Godspell, RENT (the final Broadway company), WICKED (original Chicago company), Pacific Overtures, and Flower Drum Song. On television many audiences know him from his role as Wes Warbler on Glee. He has also guest starred on Instinct, Odd Mom Out, Deadbeat, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent
Telly was recently named one of the “Out 100” by Out Magazine and “Faces To Watch” by The Los Angeles Times. He has released two solo albums, I'll Cover You (2012) and Songs For You (2016) on Yellow Sound Label. You can keep up with Telly Leung by visiting his website www.TellyLeung.com
Sing Happy will be at The Green Room 42 (570 Tenth Avenue at 42nd Street, on the 4th Floor of Yotel) on Thursday, September 26 at 7:00 PM. The cover changes is $30-$75. There is no food and drink minimum. For tickets, please visit www.TheGreenRoom42.com.
Can you tell me a little bit about your new show Sing Happy at The Green Room 42 on September 26th?
It's actually an encore presentation of a show that I did almost a year ago. It was in November of last year that I first premiered the show at Birdland. After Aladdin finished, I ended up taking this show all over ‑ to Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and London. It’s the story of me as a singer and why I became a singer and how I fell in love with singing. I grew up as a kid in the 80s who would listen to songs on the radio and copied artists like Whitney Houston before my voice changed. Eventually, I discovered musical theater and I loved it so much that I went on to train in Musical Theater at Carnegie Mellon and ended up doing Broadway shows.
So the show ends up kind of chronicling why I fell in love with singing in the first place and the music that made me want to be a singer, but also it talks about kind of all of the backstage stuff of what it feels like to be a singer and get to be at a Broadway opening, which is the highest of highs. And also, the lowest of lows too.
Where did the idea come from to do a show like this that highlights your career in both the highs and lows?
About two years ago I had a vocal injury and I had what they called a pseudo cyst that was on my vocal chords. The only way to remove it was to have surgery, which was really scary.
I mean, after making your career as a Broadway singer - at that point I had done six Broadway shows - and had over a decade of me singing and dancing and performing on Broadway all of a sudden this happens. It was during In Transit that this happened. The doctor was like, listen, this is an injury that happens all the time and I'm not going to lie to you there are always risks when you go into surgery. So, I immediately thought of those people that went into vocal surgery and couldn't sing again, like Julie Andrews.
I had that nagging thought in my brain and that anxiety and fear. But what ended up happening was I had an amazing doctor, and an amazing team of voice teachers and voice therapists. I was out of In Transit for six to eight weeks but I took that time away and recovered and learned how to reuse my brand new vocal cords again after the surgery.
At first I was really scared to tell my story, because as you know in this business there's a stigma that "if you've been injured or if you've been sidelined for something, you're damaged goods and you're not hirable anymore." But what ended up happening was I ended up privately in my own life, sharing my story with other people in show business and they started asking for advice like "Hey Telly, what doctors did you see?"
By telling my story to other people that were in show business, I ended up helping them and they started the process of healing and now they're singing better than ever. I feel like I'm singing better than ever after I've had the surgery. So I thought maybe it's time for me to tell my story because sharing my story could actually end up helping a lot of people. Maybe that’s why I was supposed to go through what I went through two years ago - this horrific scary thing that almost ended my career - so that I can share it with other people especially if it helps other people not be so scared and can help dispel the stigma and the myth of what it is to be injured on a show.
Well, in a way, you can sort of look at what you went through as a blessing in disguise-- though at the time I am sure it was very difficult to even think about that. Now you can look at it as a way to help and inspire people!
Yeah, so I wanted people to sort of know what we do is extreme. We are vocal athletes on stage. What we do with our voices eight times a week is freakish. It's not normal.
And sometimes, when I think about what happened to me, it’s like the universe’s way of saying “All right, it's time for you to slow down or take some time to really take care of yourself. Take care of your body. Take care of your heart. Then come back stronger than ever.” I wanted to be able to be somebody who told my story truthfully so that it would help other people. So that's inspired me to put the show together.
Now that it's been years after the surgery, and since I did the run in Aladdin where I sang healthy for a year and a half, I feel like having some distance from the story helps me tell it in a fun and entertaining, evening of cabaret. I believe we have to find a way to take even those events that are dark and scary and can feel negative and turn them upside down and make them into a positive.
And that's really what I'm trying to do with this show too, besides having an entertaining evening of cabaret and songs and stories!
I'm sure you will continue to help many more people by telling your story, and that's SO important. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of bravery to do so. I commend you.
Well, thank you. It’s very important and there is this trend more and more on Twitter with friends in the community who many think of as "vocal titans" who have been very truthful about their struggles too. Caissie Levy and Eva Noblezada recently have been open with their struggles in an effort to help the next wave of singers who come along. We are asked to do some crazy, inhuman things on a Broadway stage eight times a week. Broadway shows are not getting easier to sing, they're only getting harder. And as they get harder, we are asked to do more not less, and that’s great – that’s what makes theater exciting. It just means that we have to be smarter vocal athletes.
I also have a big birthday coming up and there’s no point in hiding it. I'm 39 and I’m about to turn 40 next year. It used to be where people liked to hide their age, or people didn't talk about their surgeries. Now with the internet it’s impossible to hide either of those things.
So true. What are some of the songs you’ll be performing in Sing Happy?
You’re going to hear a myriad of stuff. My favorite singer of all time is Whitney Houston, so I open the show with the Whitney I knew as I grew up. I didn’t have a lot of money growing up in the 80s to buy the latest CD's so I would stay at home and if a song came on the radio, I would press record and I'd make myself radio mixtape - and there were plenty of Whitney Houston mixtapes!
But I also started as a theater fan before I ever was a theater performer. So, there's also going to be plenty of Sondheim in the show too. There's definitely gonna be some Kander and Ebb there. I sort of take songs that we all know and love and I sort of reimagine them musically, so it sounds like you are hearing it for the first time. You're definitely going to hear some interesting arrangements of songs that you may already know, so it’s going to be a very eclectic night of music. Everything from Kelly Clarkson and Whitney Houston to Stephen Sondheim and Alan Menken and Kander and Ebb.
I also have a wonderful team of musicians that are behind me for this show. Brian Nash is going to be on the piano, Michael Croiter is going to be on the drums, and Jim Donica is going to be on the bass. I've worked with those guys a really, really long time and they're awesome.
Telly Leung (Leon Le Photography)
I cannot wait to hear what you have done with the songs! With that being said, what’s been the hardest but the best thing you’ve learned about being a performer?
I actually talk about this in the show a little bit too. What we do as actors is such a competitive business and often times it is when you're asked to do something you feel like "Gosh, I'm never going to work again or I'm never going to be on Broadway again." This is just as true for me now seven Broadway shows later and was true for when I did my first Broadway show, Flower Drum Song, that closed just four months in when I was 23. I've talked to actors with Tony's and Emmy's on their shelves and people that have won Pulitzer’s and everybody feels the same way – there’s a fear that we will never work again.
It's the hardest thing in the world because you start to spiral into that dark place of "this is it, it's over, this is the last job ever" and it makes you a little crazy. That's a very hard thing that people deal with, and they deal with on every level - whether you’re the person that’s fresh out of college or 18 years old auditioning and pounding your head against the wall, or if your somebody like me who has done this for a long time. Everybody experiences that.
The best part of that though, for me, is being able to find all the ways to quiet that little voice on my shoulder that says "you'll never work again." We are often asked to kind of be “on” 24/7 - always working and perfecting our craft. For instance, I've been married for two years and with my partner for 15 years. He works a 9 to 5 job and is able to come home from work and not think about it until the next day - that's not us, that’s not theater people.
But with that said, I've tried to find other parts of myself that are more than just showbusiness. Whether that means being a good husband, or being a good son to my parents, or a good friend to somebody else. Also, by finding the ability to make my own work, so that I don't feel at the mercy of this big nebulous thing called show business that tells me when I can make art, I can make my art when I decide to.
That's really how me doing cabarets and concerts and doing one-man shows started. A show like Sing Happy really comes out of my experience as a 23 year old when my first Broadway show closed after four months. I was like, “I'm not done I have more stories to tell and more stories to sing.” And I just put together a little show at Don't Tell Mama for myself and I think I charged an $8 cover - just enough to pay my pianist.
My friends and family came and that was one of the scariest things I've ever done. At 23 years old, having that negative voice in the back of my head saying, who is going to come see me at this thing? Like who wants to hear me? Who wants to hear me sing? Nobody knows who I am. But that ended up being such a wonderful outlet for me to make art even when Broadway wasn’t knocking down my door, you know?
Now, I also do a ton of teaching which is another wonderful way for me to not be a self-absorbed actor all the time. Because teaching is not about you, teaching is about generously giving everything that you've learned over the years over to the next generation of artists!
That balance is super important and by teaching you can give back to the younger generation and even some adults too. You are standing on the shoulders of the people who came before you and passing down what you know to inspire others to do the same down the line.
I know that I would not be here and doing this without amazing teachers. And so, I relish the opportunity to teach now because I actually feel like, oh gosh, I have been doing this for quite some time. I tell all of students this on day one of class that I don't pretend to know everything. I really don't. I just know that I've done this for 17 years longer than you have or maybe 20 years longer than you have. So, maybe I have some experience and some things I can share with you that I've encountered along the way that might help you on your journey.
I still to this day take classes, voice lessons and I still train. I am still a student. As an artist I feel like that part of the joy of being an artist is that we never stop learning. We never stop working at it.
Telly Leung (Leon Le Photography)
You recently came off a very successful 20 month starring run in Aladdin on Broadway. What was it like to play a role that was so physically demanding? How did you grow as an actor grow and what did you learn about yourself by being involved in the production?
Aladdin is by far one of the most difficult shows I've done physically ever. Just understanding your body and getting the stamina that it takes to be able to physically carry a show like that is something you don’t know you can do until you dive in and do it head first. So, I took the time to really train cardiovascularly to do that.
I remember when I was doing RENT and I was covering Angel and not going on for Angel all the time. Our dance captain then told us the best way to train for this is to go to the New York Sports Club up the block on 41st street, run on a treadmill and sing "Today For You." If you cannot sound winded, you're ready.
So, there's just an actual physical fitness that's required to do roles like Angel or Mimi in RENT. Or Aladdin where you literally you start the show and you're jumping up and down everywhere, jumping off buildings and onto moving carpets. I mean, it's a wild, wild way to start the show, but it was a wonderful challenge and it definitely tested the limits of what I could do physically.
It also taught me how to take care of myself as a performer so that I could give that same show that I do on a Tuesday on Sunday and that show one feels like show eight of the week. There was a of preparation involved. I also learned a lot about being a leading man in a company. I've had incredibly wonderful leading men and ladies that I have learned from throughout my career.
I've watched incredible leading ladies and men like Lea Salonga, Jose Lana, BD Wong, and Lou Diamond Phillips. I've watch them not just lead by example and giving wonderful performances, but also how they carried themselves offstage - how they were responsible for the morale and mood of a building eight shows a week.
And I'm not going to lie, eight shows a week is hard. There were times where it's like "pinch me I cannot believe I am on Broadway" and then there are times that it feels like a job. But I also know that being in the title role of a show people look to you and they go "well, if Telly is up there doing it and he’s giving 100% then the rest us should too."
I'm sure you learn quite a lot when you take on a leading role and it has to be humbling at the same time. That’s really got to feel very special.
It was just totally special. Aladdin is one of the finest companies on Broadway I've ever worked with. There's something really magic happening onstage at Aladdin, but like there's also some sort of magic that's happening off stage - and you can tell. There are still a lot of original Broadway cast members in that company and it is six years into the run. That’s very telling of what a happy building that place is and what a special comradery there is.
That's really special Telly. So, what’s coming up next for you? I know you’ll be doing Jesus Christ Superstar in Tokyo in October, but aside from that, what is next in the book for you?
I am super excited to be in Tokyo. I'm going to get to play Peter in Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s this huge international production being directed by Mark Stuart of Mark Stuart Dance Company. He's directing and choreographing, and it's being presented by Theater Orb in Tokyo. It’s a wonderful mixture of Broadway stars, West End stars, Canadian musical theater stars, and stars from Asia. Declan Bennett who is a dear friend of mine is playing Jesus, my buddy Ramin Karminloo is playing Judas, and Joanna Ampil is playing Mary. It's just a wonderful company and it’s going to a fantastic experience that I’m really excited about that.
I'm also doing my own concert in Tokyo as well. Japanese audiences are so appreciative and so amazing. I posted about my concert and in 48 hours it was Sold Out. I'm doing it at a club called JZ Brack in Tokyo, it’s sort of their version of a 54 Below or a Birdland Jazz Club. I’m also going to be doing a Master Class while I am there.
After Jesus Christ SuperstarI I’m excited to return to Carnegie Mellon University where I studied and on November 18th I’ll open a brand new cabaret show as well at The Pittsburgh Trust Cabaret called The Telly Leung Quartet where I am going to work with some of my longtime musical collaborators. We have made two albums together so we've formed a little band together. We've been making music together for 12 years and this show is sort of a celebration of our friendship.
Wow, that's all super exciting! Well, we’re all rooting for you and very excited for you. We are enthusiastically awaiting your Broadway return!
I appreciate that, thank you. Hope to see you at The Green Room 42!