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Meet Broadway’s New Aladdin: Telly Leung

Category Actor Spotlight

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Telly Leung takes a magic carpet ride into Broadway’s ‘Aladdin’

A Broadway and television star who has wowed audiences in Glee, Allegiance, In Transit, Godspell and Rent, Leung recently stepped into the title character in Disney’s Aladdin. On August 20, see Leung along with the casts of Miss Saigon and Aladdin come together for one night at The Green Room 42 at Yotel to swap songs and raise money for a friend in need. Also, this December he performs his solo concert at the Wall Street Theater.

Telly Leung in 'Aladdin' (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Telly Leung in 'Aladdin' (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

What is the joy of doing Aladdin
Telly Leung:
Joy is the perfect word because Aladdin is pure joy. It’s a good old fashion musical comedy done at the highest degree of the art form. Aladdin has a giant orchestra, a big tap number in the middle, big sets, lavish costumes, comedy themes and villains. It meets all the criteria for the musicals that I fell in love with, like the old Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Hello Dolly and 42nd Street. It’s pure Broadway joy. 

What was your connection with the film? 
I was 12 when the movie came out and it was a huge deal. The film was so highly anticipated because of the success of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Aladdin also had the widest appeal. The hero wasn’t a Disney princess. He was actually a prince. There were all these great action sequences. Boys really dug and related to it. There was a wonderful bromance between the Genie and Aladdin. With Robin Williams, there were so many layers to the comedy.  Before I joined Aladdin, I watched it again for research and I discovered there are all these jokes going a mile a minute that Robin Williams does. Now I understand them as an adult. 

Aladdin has a universal appeal to everybody: boys, girls, men, women, all ages and also cross cultures. My parents are immigrants from China, so English is their second language. When they see Broadway shows, I end up doing a lot of translating during dinner afterwards regarding what happened. With Aladdin, they said, ‘oh, we know this classic story from 1001 Arabian Nights.’ 

What was it like for you to join the cast as Aladdin, the title role? 
As the Sondheim song goes, I was both excited and scared. I was excited because it was my twelve-year-old dream come true to be a Disney character. But it was also frightening because  the audience has a certain expectation of this story. They have a certain idea of what the movie is.  I didn’t want to disappoint people who have the story they know in their heart. I wanted to do them proud. 

What the folks creating the Broadway musical did so brilliantly is that they didn’t try to just recreate the movie on stage. They treated it as its own entity. They said, this is a Broadway musical. It’s not a 90-minute animated film. There are certain things that we can do in animation that we cannot do on stage. So how do we rethink the genie, the carpet, Abu, the monkey. I believe that people who love the movie will recognize all of the parts that they love. But they will walk away from Aladdin, saying that’s a Broadway musical comedy that stands on its own. 

When did you know you had to perform? 
I come from immigrant blue collar parents who never went to college. They wanted me to go to Harvard, be a doctor or lawyer, have a six-figure job and be financially stable. Being a starving actor was not something that they necessarily wanted for me. I did very well in school and tested into Stuyvesant High School. 

How did you make the switch? 
On a Wednesday, the day that I took the SATs, I decided to reward myself by saving up my allowance money and going to the TKTS booth for a half-price ticket. It was 1996 when Hello Dolly was playing at the Lunt-Fontanne, with Carol Channing as Dolly. She is not the best technical singer in the world, but what makes her a star is she makes you feel like she’s singing just to you. I felt that in the giant theater. Watching and hearing her sing about grabbing ahold of life before the parade passes by, was a big life-changing moment. I realized, life is short. Do I really want to be a doctor, or engineer? I want to do what Carol Channing is doing. 

So Hello Dolly helped change your life? 
Rent also came out close to the same time which was a big life changing moment. It was the first time that I saw people who looked like me on stage. When I saw Rent, not only was it music that spoke to me, but it was also this diverse cast that was so representative of the New York that I know. I thought, I see myself in this story.

Ten years later, in 2006, I joined the final Broadway company.  I had three weeks to learn the show. The stage manger teaching me asked, ‘are you sure you’ve never done the show before? You know it very well.’ I said, ‘I’ve been doing the show, in my head, for the last ten years, of my life. I was one of those high school kids who lined up and slept with the bums on 41st Street to get my $20 Rent rush ticket. I must have watched it like, 16 or 17 times. 

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