Let Your Heart Decide

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Issue 15, Volume 110

By Lauren Lee 

It has been 22 years since Telly Leung (’98) graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1998, but Stuyvesant is still a large part of who he is. His mother worked in a garment factory while his father worked in restaurants in New York City and New Jersey. Growing up in a traditional Chinese home, Leung was expected to go to Harvard and become a doctor or a lawyer. Stuyvesant was one step closer to his parent’s dreams. “I had typical Chinese tiger parents. I took the test, and I got in. It wasn’t an option,” said Leung in an email interview.

The possibility of going down the medical path quickly faded after a frog dissection in his freshman biology class. Leung was disgusted at the mere idea of a frog dissection. His true passion lay in the Murray Kahn Theater. “I think I needed to be in a math and science environment to teach me what I didn’t want and to point me [toward] my passion,” Leung said. Being surrounded by kids that were extremely passionate to learn science helped him realize that his true calling was somewhere else.

Leung began to participate in things that he loved to do. He took courses that he enjoyed, such as Julie Sheinman’s acting class and the now-retired Holly Hall’s fifth-period chorus. He also participated in the afterschool musicals that were directed by the mechanical drafting teacher at the time, Vincent Grasso. It was then that Leung really fell in love with theater. And of course, he participated in SING!, where he took on roles as an actor, producer, and choral director. Grasso, Leung’s greatest mentor, taught him his most important lesson in both theater and life: “It doesn’t matter if you’re the star of the show with your name in lights or if you’re the guy [whose] sole job is to sweep the stage every night. Theater is a collaborative art form, and everyone has a vital and important job to do. You can’t do it alone. Therefore, everyone in the theater should be treated with the utmost respect for what it is they do and what they bring to the table.” The idea behind true collaboration stayed with Leung through his academic and professional career as well as in his personal life.

Leung applied to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) under Sheinman’s guidance. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama was competitive. His theater class only had 17 students. “I ate, slept, and breathed theater from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every day for four years. It was rigorous. It was competitive; it was hard. But I felt very prepared for it because of my Stuy work ethic,” Leung said. In the end, going to a STEM-based school didn’t put him at a disadvantage. In fact, it was the reason why he was able to do so well, from the mentors he met along the way to the challenging and heavy workload.

The beginnings of Leung’s career in theater started in CMU where he met CMU alumni and “Kinky Boots” Tony Award winner Billy Porter, who came back to direct the main stage production of Sondheim’s “Company,” casting Leung as Bobby. Leung then made his Broadway debut in 2002 in the revival of “Flower Drum Song,” starring Lea Salonga as a member of the ensemble and an understudy for Wang Ta. The show was definitely one of the most important in his career, but it only lasted four months because of multiple circumstances. A musician strike, blizzards, and the public’s desire for a more carefree musical after 9/11 cut Leung’s debut short.

In 2006, Leung made the final company for Broadway’s “Rent.” “‘Rent’ came out when I was in Stuy. I was 16 when I saw the original Broadway company, and it was the show that made me want to do theater,” he said. “Rent” was a momentous time in his career, as he also made his film debut in Radical Media/Sony’s “Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway” and went on tour with his co-stars for “Rent: The Broadway Tour.” During this time, Leung was at the highest point in his career. “It was always a “dream” show of mine. It’s also a true ensemble show. I’ve gotten to be the lead in a few shows, and it’s great to be “the star,” but I consider myself an ensemble player in everything I do, and I find that I thrive and am happiest in those situations,” he said.

Leung was involved in the development of Broadway’s “Allegiance” from the beginning to the end, through the many years it took to bring the show to Broadway with Salonga and George Takei. Leung had amazing relationships with both of them: Salonga was an older sister figure for him during “Flower Drum Song,” and Takei, a trailblazer for Asian actors, was a mentor for Leung because of his advocacy for LGBTQ+ and human rights. Leung originated the role of “Sammy Kimura” in the “Allegiance” musical, and he eventually played the role in 2015. Being there from the first developmental stages from readings to staged workshops and taking the show out of town, it was it even more rewarding when the musical sold out in its world premiere at the Old Globe Theater in 2012 and premiered on Broadway in 2015. Leung’s Broadway success continued to grow as he landed the role of Aladdin in Disney’s blockbuster “Aladdin” on Broadway in June 2017. This was where he would really shine as he played the role for two years. “It’s rare to be a big, bonafide long-running hit. I was very thankful for the opportunity to tackle the role and thankful for the chance to make 1700 [people] smile every night,” Leung said.

Outside of theater, Leung continued to be musically and artistically active. He appeared on multiple television programs such as “Glee” and the PBS documentary “Broadway Bust” and was a performance coach for the Jimmy Awards, making his face recognizable not only in Broadway but also in the world of television. Additionally, he was featured in recordings of multiple Broadway shows, releasing his first solo album, “I’ll Cover You,” in 2012. He later released his follow-up album, “Songs for You,” in 2016.

From a prestigious STEM-based school to becoming one of the well-known stars in Broadway, Leung has had an amazing career with only more to come. The fact that he came from a science school didn’t deter him from truly pursuing his passion but instead gave him the skills to work hard in the extremely competitive show business environment.

Leung has some advice for students that are still struggling to decide on what they want to do: “Listen to your heart. Listen to your gut.” He suggests that students should allow themselves to grow, evolve, and discover new things in order to find their passion because not everything can be planned. Life is always full of uncertainties that we can’t predict. Leung advised, “Uncertainty is scary. But uncertainty also presents the possibility for discovery, and that can be exciting.”