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 watching the movie 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 or In Transit compare to the experience of a huge show like Aladdin?
I 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 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 1, 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.
You 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!”
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.
PHOTOS | Leon Le Photography