I first talked to Telly Leung back in 2012 was he was in the cast of Broadway’s “Godspell” as well as his recurring role as Wes on Fox’s “Glee.” During that chat, he brought up a project called “Allegiance” that he was a part of with George Takei and Lea Solanga.
The musical project focused on a family thrown into the internment camps during World War II but made a big statement about what it meant to be an American as well as a statement about freedom. I heard the passion in Leung's voice talking about the project back then so when the production finally made its way to Broadway earlier this year, I had to not only see the show (which I did this fall and loved it) but also talk to Telly again about the journey.
The timing was great for our recent talk about "Allegiance" because the charismatic, always upbeat performer also just released his latest album, "Songs For You," which feature some great mash-ups of terrific music and lush arrangements of other songs both familiar and not-so-familiar. He also talked about what he's learned from Takei and Solanga during this journey with "Allegiance" and what it means to him to have been a part of "Glee."
The obvious first question is how did you pick the songs for the album because it’s such a nice mix?
Telly Leung: When I’m not performing on Broadway or doing a television show and playing a character, I kind of love playing in clubs – cabaret clubs, jazz clubs and concert venues all over the country and it’s just me and my musicians. Instead of Telly as Sammy in “Allegiance” or Telly as Angel in “Rent,” it’s Telly as Telly. And the story that I’m telling is a lot of the stories that are of my own personal and professional life.
Each song on "Song For You" is actually a dedication of somebody that is very near and dear to me, either professionally or personally. Each song kind of has that story to it…I find that these songs are so iconic and take on a whole new life and I can really make it personal. That was kind of the goal of me and my musicians, with this new album, which really makes each song feel very personal and special.
A lot of the songs are your own unique interpretation. How did you go about figuring out how you wanted to sing the songs for the album?
TL: A lot of that is a wonderful product of a collaboration with some of the best musicians on Broadway, which happen to be my band. My musical partners in crime I call them and they include people like Michael Croiter, who is playing drums on the whole album, produced the album [and] who owns Yellow Sound Label. Not only is he my drummer but he is also a musical director for Chita Rivera and he produced many top, Broadway cast albums including “Matilda.”
Mary Ann McSweeney is a bassist that plays on Broadway and the arrangement of "New York State of Mind" was hers and she has been playing with me forever. And also, there's the amazing Gary Adler, who is my musical director, who is playing piano [and] who co-created "Altar Boyz." [Jesse Vargas is also credited with helping with the musical arrangements.]
A lot of the arrangements are the four of us in a room together going, "with 'New York State of Mind,' what if this was not written by Billy Joel but it was written by Miles Davis today?" It's kind of the idea behind that song. And a lot of those ideas came from me, because, having done "Glee" for so long, it's so interesting to find two songs and find a way that they correlate and relate to create a whole new thing. So, a couple of mash-ups on there are arranged by me. And the one that I love, that I'm the most proud of, is the mash-up of "I Am What I Am" and "I Have Nothing."
Lyrically I said it's so interesting. "I Have Nothing" is always intended to be the song, but the first verse of this song actually feels very much in line with the message of "I Am What I Am." And I thought it would be interesting to combine those two musical ideas so that you hear those lyrics were all so familiar with, from, Whitney's version, of course, but that we share them now in a different way, if they are preceded by "I Am What I Am."
Are there songs that hit you harder emotionally just because of their personal meaning to you? Or for whomever you're singing them for?
TL: To me the one that’s the most personal to me on the album is “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I’ve been with my partner now for 11 years and that song is dedicated to him, that song is for Jimmy to me. He’s a regular 9 to 5 guy. He lives in New York but my job is not a regular 9 to 5 job at all. I am constantly packing my suitcase and going somewhere to the job… so that one’s dedicated to him and that one’s very personal to me because even to this day we share our tiny little apartment in New York City and I’ve always had my suitcase in the middle of my living room and it’s always half packed with clothes. A, because I have nowhere else to put the suitcase, and B, because I really never know when one phone call and it’s like, ‘hey, we need you to shoot an episode of blank in L.A, or we need you to go sing a concert X, Y, and Z.’ I just pick up the suitcase and I go and that’s my job.
Having worked on "Allegiance" now for six years and getting to meet George [Takei] and Brad [Altman, Takei's husband]…when Jimmy and I first met George and Brad we said, 'gosh, that's really the goal, isn't it? To find somebody that you're a partner with for so long.' We really look up to them as a couple, to revere and admire and they're kind of role models, not just for LGBT couples but for any couple. It inspired us and it continues to inspire us as we continue to work with them and get to know them and be part of their lives.
That's the perfect segue to talk about "Allegiance." We first talked about it several years ago so it's great to see it finally make it to Broadway.
TL: When I went in to it six years ago at the very first developmental reading, I was like ‘great. I’m so excited to be a part of this, but gosh, I don’t know if this is right for Broadway.’ And then all of us kept getting pleasantly surprised when people started to be really moved by the story and the musical way that they were telling it. One reading became two readings, became three readings, became a workshop, became an out-of-town and every time after another space at the top we said ‘Are we going to get to Broadway?’ It was always a big question mark and it was always a dream of dreams and now we’re here doing it. I wake up every day and I’m still in shock sometimes. A pleasant shock.
What have you learned from working with George and Lea in the process of doing the show?
TL: From George I really learned that putting on a Broadway show is very difficult and committing to doing a Broadway show eight times a week and also being the champion for that show and talking about it with the press and committing yourself with to that kind of responsibility is a lot. But George is doing it because he really believes in the story that we’re telling and he really believes that the story we’re telling will have kind of a reverberation not just in the arts, but in our society as a whole. I’ve definitely learned from George [that] when it comes to creating art, follow your heart and it might be difficult but you must ask yourself every day, ‘is this worth doing?’ And certainly with “Allegiance” it was worth doing.
Lea is a star. The two of us do a lot of the heavy lifting in the show and I've never had that kind of responsibility but she certainly has and she's been so gracious walking me through it and teaching me how to technically get through this kind of show eight times a week. I learned so much from her.
Safe to say you still hear from fans of “Glee?” You probably will be hearing from them forever!
TL: Oh gosh, I love that. I didn’t spend that much time on “Glee” but I really do think that the storyline Darren Criss and Chris Colfer were telling as Blaine and Kurt…it really hit a chord at a time that I think we really needed to hear that story. What I loved about “Glee,” as a show, is that they used their show as a platform to give courage to some of those kids that were going through some of the challenges of coming out and realizing their identity and being bullied for it. And I think that it couldn’t have been more timely and it’s one of those examples of art being more than just entertainment but it is also actually serving a social purpose,
I definitely felt that way being a part of "Glee" during that time and being a part of that story that affected so many young teens that were struggling with their personal identity and their sexual identity. I felt a show like "Glee" that is beamed into everybody's living room every week gave them permission and maybe if it gave even one kid the courage to accept themselves or gave one kid the courage to stand up to somebody who is being bullied, maybe they weren't even gay, maybe they were an ally of somebody who was LGBT and they stood up for somebody…if the arts can be entertaining but also create positive change, that's when everybody wins.
That's really why I think we all are doing what we're doing and I feel the same way about "Allegiance." It's art that is also serving a different purpose, not just to entertain. You will laugh and you will cry through "Allegiance." You will also leave having a different view of what it means to be a part of this society, especially what it means to be an American. I think that can only have a positive change in the world. I am so proud to be a part of "Allegiance." I'm so proud that I was a part of "Glee" at that time, because it really struck a chord with people.