Article by Luis Vazquez
Photo Credit to Irene Bogues

Aladdin is walking into the palace as the prince with a mythical kingdom, a flying carpet and a wish in his pocket. But just like the fictional character, Telly Leung has the air of the leading man and his track record on Broadway makes it seem he has been blessed from birth. But, rest assured, ladies and gentlemen, Telly has been at this for quite a while. It just seems like he has arrived His carpet has seen the road well-traveled. His genie has been hard work. His wish is there for all to see in “Aladdin on Broadway.”

“I’ve never had the opportunity to play a title character in a Broadway musical which is so exciting. I’ve played leads before and supporting leads but to get to be the title character in a show is really, really cool,” Leung said.
As this is his seventh Broadway show and having played physically demanding roles before, Telly understood immediately the demands at this level. “Aladdin doesn’t quite leave he stage, he’s either on the stage dancing or singing or cracking a joke, flying on carpets or jumping on buildings. Physically and vocally it’s a challenge.”

Telly Leung, of Chinese-American heritage grew up a New Yorker in Brooklyn which was made possible by parents who with a couple hundred dollars and a suitcase was able to save a nest egg of money for their only son, Telly. The mother was a seamstress and his father worked in restaurants. They wanted him to target the glamour positions of doctor or lawyer. Telly gave it a go attending Stuyvesant High School, a math and science school with a rigorous workload. Telly preferred the stage. “I did theatre after school. There was just so much this brain could handle of physics and calculus,” Leung said, “I had to go and pretend to be someone else for a couple hours after school.”

Telly was surrounded by the arts and theatre in the Big Apple. He discovered that two hours was not enough and he wanted to immerse himself further. He found that he was drawn to the stage, first as an observer and later grinding his way from one audition to the next.

“It wasn’t in the cards for me. I saved my allowance money and then went to the TKS booth to get half-priced tickets to Broadway shows,” Leung recalled, “I would sleep with the bums on 41st street to get twenty dollar “Rent” tickets with my friends. Somehow it became my profession.”

Telly learned the math equations of making it on stage. You scored one for every hundred roles you tried out for. But they came. There he was as part of the ensemble on “Flower Drum Song” in the presence of legend Lea Salonga. “Pacific Overtures”, “Wicked”, Godspell” and “Rent” followed. Like Aladdin working the streets he was trying to make them proud of their boy. “Allegiance” and “In Transit” were next and then a call to audition for Aladdin came. He was told it would be down the road, a year or two perhaps. Then three months ago, the call came.

“I get the phone call to say, hey, we would like you to start as soon as you can,” Leung reflected, “It was a wonderful surprise because I didn’t know it was going to happen this soon.”

He took over the role of Aladdin from Adam Jacobs who originated the role on Broadway in 2014. Telly was very much like the poor Aladdin, learning lessons of the proper way to approach things. He connected easily to Aladdin. “Aladdin is like many of us, we want to make our parents proud,” Leung explained, “Aladdin has to learn that to be that kind of man, your worth as a human being is not defined by possessions, the clothes you wear, the car you drive or the money you have. It’s defined by something deeper than that. Your actions, how you treat others and whether you are someone who keeps their word and promises.”

Telly came to Aladdin with humility and quickly developed a rapid chemistry with his two co-stars, Courtney Lee (Jasmine) and Major Attaway (Genie). He developed quickly because he was accepted by them and the show didn’t miss a beat. “Aladdin has two wonderful relationships in the show with Jasmine and Genie. They were two phenomenal partners as human beings and as performers are naturally so generous,” Leung said, “I was the new kid coming in three months ago and they welcomed me with open arms and as I was learning the show, they helped me with infinite patience. That helped the chemistry off stage and on stage it is give and take and talking and listening.”

There is a string of songs and numerous lines of dialogue to memorize for the star of a play in addition to dance numbers and it’s quite a feat to be able to retain it all. But sometimes, there is that moment when a error occurs and Telly recalled just such an incident two nights before this interview when technology hit a snafu and you have to improvise.

“Well, it was not really my mistake. The sets are automated, computerized running on tracks. The sets were to be lined up and I climb and jump off the back,” Leung said, “They didn’t come together and I saw I couldn’t jump, they were not close enough. I climbed back down and did an impromptu, interpretive dance like a cat burgler, a ninja Aladdin. It happens. It’s live though so you have to roll with the punches and keep on your toes.”

Speaking of keeping on your toes the role of Aladdin is a full-time workout. The work that goes into looking fit and amazing on stage dispels the notion that actors can gorge on rich food and party to the break of dawn. Telly, like most actors, are pretty vanilla in their private lives.

“We are showing a lot of skin in Aladdin so there is an incentive to go to the gym and workout and be in really good shape,” Leung pointed out, “People think we have glamorous life and parties. We live pretty boring lives. We want to produce the same quality show Tuesday that we did on Saturday so we have to be so disciplined. We take care of our voices, I take voice lessons and we take care of our bodies.”

Telly knows the road that Asian actors have to trek. His body of work is more a testament to a positive approach to auditions. Telly looks at it as an opportunity to provide an option that directors may not have considered.

“You know they may not know they want a 5’-9” Chinese American Aladdin. I have to walk in and convince them. That’s my job as an actor. Why not me?” Leung said, “Let me show you what I can do with it and state my case.”

When all is said and done, the character Aladdin has to resonate with audiences. They have to believe you are the character or they won’t invest their emotions into you. For Telly, who has played both hero’s and villian’s, its about finding the humanity in the man.

“Aladdin is a street rat, and crafty, a very good thief and nimble, quick. At the end of the day he has a deep compassion and empathy,” Leung said, “He spends an entire number stealing a loaf of bread for him and his friends and he ends up giving it to a poor, beggar woman who is hungry. He gets a genie to grant him three amazing wishes and he offers to give that genie the third wish to set him free. That is somebody of great compassion and I feel that is something I have to. As an actor I also developed that. What I do for a living is breathe life into text and make it into human beings.”

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