Interview with In Transit star Telly Leung
Telly Leung is currently starring as Steven in the Broadway premiere of In Transit at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
He has previously appeared on the Great White Way in Allegiance, Godspell, Pacific Overtures, Rent and Flower Drum Song, and off-Broadway in Manhattan Theatre Club's The World of Extreme Happiness. He starred as Angel in RENT at the Hollywood Bowl and as Wes in the hit TV series Glee.
We caught up with Telly to talk about his latest, truly unique Broadway experience:
Thomas Hayden Millward: So, the musical uses the New York Subway as a symbol for all its characters trying to get from A to B in their own personal lives. Could you describe to us a bit about your character of Steven’s personal journey?
Telly Leung: Sure. Steven’s personal journey in the whole thing is he is one half of a gay couple. Steven and Trent have been together for three years. Trent is being brilliantly played by Justin Guarini. They are engaged to be married and planning for the wedding. Steven comes from a very accepting, liberal family, whereas Trent comes from a very religious, conservative family from Texas. Now that the wedding will soon be upon us, it is time for Trent to tell his very religious, conservative mother that Steven – the person he’s been living with for the past three years – is indeed not his roommate, but his fiancé. So we make a trip home to tell his family who I really am and what’s really happening, but it doesn’t quite go as planned. The inability to do that causes a rift in our relationship and we question whether or not we should get married at this time. It’s actually a story that is very close to my heart. I’ve been with my partner for 12 years. He comes from a very conservative, Indiana upbringing and I come from a very conservative and traditional Chinese upbringing. So this is a story that hits pretty close to home for both of us.
THM: Could you tell us a bit more about your own personal journey at the moment? What is your “Point B” – your destination – which you’re trying to get to in your own life?
TL: Well, I’m a born and raised New Yorker. We are always trying to get from Point A to Point B. We are so focused on the destination sometimes. New Yorkers are known for kinda not stopping and smelling the roses because everybody is always five minutes behind. The thing about New York that’s so great is that it’s a city with this amazing pulse because all of the people are working at the top of their level. They are operating at the highest speed to get as much work done as possible. It’s a city with such drive and such a passion. But sometimes we can lose sight of the simpler things in life and the things that really matter. My character Steven definitely goes through that as well. As somebody who is completely out as a gay man and as someone who is politically active, in that activism and liberalism he loses sight of the fact that his partner doesn’t come from that. He has to have some more compassion and some more patience and that’s what marriage is all about.
THM: Although the idea behind the musical may be a simple one, I can imagine that putting the production itself together is anything but simple, because of the acapella aspect to it?
TL: We had six weeks of rehearsal in a rehearsal room to stage the show. The first ten days was just music. We just sat and learned the music because there is an 11-part harmony for the entire show! Nobody stops making sounds for 90 minutes. It was kind of a daunting task at first. But now we’ve got the hang of it, I think all of us find great joy and satisfaction in singing together like that. It was definitely hard at the beginning, but now it’s exciting to do every night.
THM: Having spent time as Wes – one of ‘The Warblers’ on TV’s “Glee” – who famously sang acapella on the show, did that prepare you at all to take on a fully acapella Broadway musical?
TL: Well what I loved about “Glee” is that there is something about the power of music that brings people together. I think that was really the message of that TV show and that is the reason why the show did so well… not only here in the US, but in the UK and all around the world. It was such a phenomenon. I think in many ways ‘In Transit’ is doing the same thing. New Yorkers are kinda known for having their blinders on. They kinda ignore the people around them. But I will also say as a New Yorker that when something happens to one of us, we’re also the first to jump to each other’s defence. I witnessed that during a big black-out in New York in either 2003 or 2004 and of course during 9/11 in 2001. It’s actually a very harmonious city when it really matters. The whole “Warblers” story was about these boys who sang as an acapella group in a very accepting, no bullying allowed, safe zone for Kurt and Blaine as gay characters. In many ways I feel that is kinda similar to the story we’re telling in 'In Transit' as well.
THM: The musical is choc-full of all those New York Subway stereotype gags we all love to hate. Can you recall some of these for us and also any personal Subway anecdotes you may have?
TL: There are so many moments when we can feel the audience laughing – not just because it’s a humorous moment – but they are laughing in recognition at all of those MTA transit moments that all New Yorkers experience. What I always say about the New York Subway system is that it is a great denominator for all New Yorkers. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t matter if you are a rich guy working on Wall Street or if you are a waiter, dishwasher or secretary. It doesn’t matter what class or race you are. Everybody has to take the subway in New York City because it simply is – especially in rush hour – the fastest way to get through New York. The culmination of all those masses is always gonna create those stories. That’s what makes the transit system so relatable. Those moments of swiping your metrocard and not getting the exact right speed to get the metrocard through – that just happened to Hilary Clinton when she was on her campaign trail and she tried to swipe her metrocard (laughs)… There’s that very funny video of her trying to ride the subway and she was experiencing the same thing. She couldn’t get through the turnstile. And seeing our dear rodent friends on the subway track – that’s very common. You learn to live with that. Our audiences are finding it so funny because it’s true.
THM: What do you think makes a trip to see ‘In Transit’ a truly unique experience on Broadway?
To have an entire show that is completely sung in acapella, that is completely new for Broadway. We have a phenomenal vocal arranger called Deke Sharon, who has been called “The Godfather of Acapella” and that’s so true. He comes from the music world where he has this vast knowledge of music and harmonics and he takes the traditions of acapella – everything from Gregorian chant to Barbershop – and he finds a contemporary way of making it very relatable. He’s done it with “Pitch Perfect” and he’s done it with “The Sing Off” on television. Now he’s bringing that sound and that marriage of genres to the Broadway stage. I’ve done Broadway shows where we have used acapella in certain sections of the show, but to use it for an entire evening of storytelling, that is completely new. So I expect audiences to come and hear something they’ve never heard before on a Broadway stage.