Is Telly Leung the next George Takei? Boldly going where only Takei has gone before, Leung plays a younger version of the social media-savvy gay icon’s character in Allegiance, Jay Kuo and Marc Acito’s new musical about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Now in previews and opening November 8 at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, Allegiance stars Leung as Sammy Kimura, who joins the army to prove his patriotism; Takei, whose own childhood inspired the story, plays Sam in the present. With his new album of covers, Songs for You, out November 20, Leung, who made teenage dreams come true as one of Glee’s Dalton Academy Warblers, opens up about his pledge to young gay fans.
By Brandon Voss
You’ve been involved with Allegiance since 2010. Three years after the show premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe, how does it feel to finally bring it to Broadway?
You never know with these things, so I think we’re all still in shock. From the very first reading, I knew this was a special story. This is George Takei’s legacy project, the story he’s wanted to tell his entire life, so it’s been a joy to keep returning to it over the last five years. At its core, Allegiance is about family, and the Allegiance team is really a family. Lea Salonga, who plays my sister, is already like my sister. And in many ways, George has become an uncle to me.
Sharing a role with George Takei must be a thrill in itself.
It’s been a staggering experience to share a character with him. As a gay Asian actor myself, I’ve looked up to him for so long, watching him on reruns of Star Trek and admiring the way he came out to stand up against Prop. 8. It’s been amazing to learn about his personal story and where his fire for equality came from. It’s kind of funny because I’m playing this younger version of his character, but I remember the first time I met George and his husband, Brad. I looked at my partner, Jimmy, and said, “Gosh, I hope we can be like them one day.” They’re relationship role models for so many of us in the LGBT community.
You’ve also become a role model for young gay and Asian actors. Do you feel the responsibility that comes with that?
That’s a heavy question. In my 30s, I am starting to understand that people might look up to me, especially now that I’m in a show with George, who’s so comfortable as a role model. If I really think about it, it’s daunting. I just try to do great work and live my life as truthfully as I can, and if that’s inspiring to people, great. I do a lot of teaching on the side, and I really enjoy reaching out to the next generation of Broadway performers. My parents raised me right, so I’ve always been taught to put my best foot forward.
You made your Broadway debut in the 2002 revival of Flower Drum Song. When did you decide to be openly gay in your professional life?
I’ve been with my partner, Jimmy, for 11 years. He’s not in the business, so he hates being mentioned in interviews and walking carpets with me, but that decision was really about being with him. I was just like, “I’m proud to love this person, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together, and I can’t hide him or us.” Sometimes that strength to live truthfully comes from the person that you love.
Your upcoming sophomore album is called Songs for You. Are those songs for anyone in particular?
In my concerts or club acts, I find that songs take on a different life if I’m singing with a specific person in mind. So I decided to put together an album where all the songs are dedicated to someone special in my life.
The lead single is your cover of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Who’s that one for?
I grew up in Brooklyn, so that song’s for my New Yorkers, my Brooklyn family and friends that I still keep in touch with. My parents still live in Bay Ridge in the house I grew up in. So many people, especially on Broadway, came to New York with two suitcases like in Thoroughly Modern Millie, but I’m a New Yorker through and through. That song’s an anthem for me.
I love that you also did a mashup of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” and “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles.
That’s actually inspired by all the Gleeks. Glee was one of the best jobs I ever had. Because of that show, which was such a phenomenon, I got to meet so many young people — a lot of kids just coming out of the closet — who were really touched by the gay storylines. So that mashup’s for kids who feel scared to be who they are and need the courage to live a truthful life.
Aside from Glee, you’ve also starred in Rent, Godspell, and Wicked, which all have very enthusiastic young fanbases.
I feel like everything happens for a reason, and maybe that’s why I’m an artist. As a young actor, you take the work as it comes, but maybe there’s a greater power putting me in these shows because I’m supposed to meet these young people and make some difference in their lives. And with social media, it’s so easy to tweet the kid who thanks me for giving him the courage to come out to his parents or for showing him that people of color can be on Broadway. You always want your audience to walk away changed for the better.
Next, October 2015.