Telly Leung. | EVE REINHARDT
Although he’s still so very young, I consider Telly Leung already a Broadway veteran for all the considerable pleasure he’s given me over the years, with his soulful, honeyed tenor and dazzling energy. He really emerged a star last year in the revival of “Godspell,” and now has a new CD out, “I’ll Cover You” (Yellow Sound Lab). Like the title says, it’s a collection of gorgeously arranged covers, all of which he performs with impressive passion and an uncanny rhythmic sense.
Many of the songs were originally done by women, and Leung told me, “Like, in the case of ‘Firework,’ when you take away all the production, it’s just a really good song. With ‘Before the Parade Passes By,’ I saw Carol Channing in the last Broadway revival of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and she was just so great, such an inspiration and such a committed performer, I thought, ‘That’s what it’s all about. That’s exactly what I want to do.’
Leung also does a sprightly, mambo-flavored version of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” that really cooks, as well as a lovely take on the Indigo Girls’ “Galileo,” which is one of his favorite tracks, and mine as well.
When I was a long-ago aspiring actor, studying at Stella Adler and auditioning, practically the only roles open to Asian actors were Ito in “Mame” and the odd revival of “The King and I,” so it’s been impressive to watch the trajectory of Leung’s career, for, although he was in the underappreciated revival of “Flower Drum Song,” he’s also gotten major roles in shows like “Godspell,” “Wicked,” and “Rent” not based on the color of his skin.
Leung also sparkled in the revival of “Pacific Overtures”: “I got to sing ‘Someone in a Tree,’ which I’d heard was one of Stephen Sondheim’s favorite songs, for the man himself. At the audition, I got about four bars into it, and he said, ‘That’s fine. Thanks,’ which I guess is as high a compliment as you can get [laughs].”
Like many actors of his generation, “Rent” was a major deal, and Leung remembered camping out for ticket: “It was a thrill when I got to actually be in the show in the last couple of years of its Broadway run, and I also got to play Angel at a benefit performance at the Hollywood Bowl with Neil Patrick Harris, Vanessa Hudgens, and Wayne Brady. Playing that role taught me to live every day to its fullest.”
Telly Leung’s new CD out, “I’ll Cover You,” covers many songs best known as being performed by women. | YELLOW SOUND LAB
In 2012, Leung delivered the greatest commencement keynote speech I have ever heard, at his alma mater, Stuyvesant High School (which you can view on YouTube), and he said that made him more nervous than anything he’d ever done “because those kids are so smart and tuned in, I didn’t want to blow it and make an ass of myself.” In the speech, he described his parents, Judy and Stephen Leung, who separately escaped from China during the 1970s Cultural Revolution. They literally swam seven hours from Canton to Hong Kong to freedom, although Stephen was caught and sent for several years to a re-education camp before attempting the swim again and succeeding.
Leung described his parents’ meeting while working at a travel agency: “You’re cute.” “You’re cute.” “You like won ton soup? I like won ton soup!” “You swam seven hours from Canton to Hong Kong? So did I!” The couple married, came to New York with $200, and had a son, whom they named after his mother’s favorite TV star, Telly Savalas of “Kojak” fame.
Leung’s highest profile gig may have been his appearance as one of the singing group the Warblers on “Glee”: “I went out there to audition for the part of Blaine. His was only supposed to be a short story line, but the audience response was so positive that they kept him on, as well as the Warblers. Although I would have loved to have gotten the role, it’s obvious that Darren Criss was perfect for the part, he’s just so good! It’s a dream set, so comfortable and professional, made better by the fact that there are so many friends I came up with in New York, like Lea Michele. I had returned to New York after filming it, and then suddenly had to fly back again to film the special Super Bowl episode, in which we performed ‘Bills’ [magnificently], so that was exciting.”
Leung makes no big deal about being gay. “There’s never been a problem with it for me,” he said matter-of-factly. “I have no desire to be any kind of role model but I’ve been in a relationship for a long time, and if I don’t say much about it it’s because he is not in the business and really has very little interest in it. I’m out to my parents and, actually, it was harder to tell them I wanted to be an actor over their aspirations for me to be a doctor or engineer than it was to tell them I was gay. They’re now happy for my career, but it’s something of an effort to get them to come see my shows. I’m not like Jason Tam, whose parents fly in from Hawaii for everything. And they live in Brooklyn! But some one like George Takei is really an inspiration to me on so many levels, so political and out there.”
Ask Leung about his “dream role” and he will mention the one he plays in “Allegiance,” a new musical in which he co-stars with Takei, a driving force behind the production. “I play George’s character in his youth in this story about a guy, Sammy Kimura, whose family is sent to an internment camp during World War II. He was a loyal American who served in the US army and became a war hero, but there is a rift in his family with the members who resisted the draft for what America did to them. It’s great to work with George and Lea Salonga, with whom I’m reunited after ‘Flower Drum Song,’ and who was like a mother hen to us all. It’s a wonderful, important show, and we did a four-week workshop at the Old Globe in San Diego and definitely want to bring it into New York.”
Penny Fuller stars in “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti” at 59E59 Theaters. | KAREN GRECO PR
Actress Penny Fuller is returning in “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti” at 59E59 Theaters (59E59.org), and she described her new musical as the story of “a recent widow, whose parents didn’t approve of her husband, but they loved each other. She had one child and was an interesting woman — strong, ironic, with a fabulous sense of humor. But now she has to face being alone and finds out that Ed left her in insurmountable debt, and all kinds of things ensue. But it’s ultimately a great love story about how much he loved her and how well he knew her.
“I had done this as a monologue, written by Jeffrey Hatcher about ten years ago, and always loved it and thought it could make a great musical. So I brought it to [cabaret director] Barry Kleinbort, who got me into cabaret in the first place, and he helped me put it together.”
Fuller won an Emmy award and was nominated for a Tony for playing Eve Harrington in the musical version of “All About Eve,” opposite Lauren Bacall’s Margo Channing: “I’d been flown to New York to audition for Harold Prince for ‘Company’ and was leaving when I ran into this stage manager who told me they wanted me to audition for ‘Applause’ but wouldn’t fly me in. I said, ‘Well, I’m here,’ so I auditioned.
‘They’d given me an early script and on the plane home I thought, ‘Don’t let me get this. It isn’t very good and I won’t have the nerve to turn it down.’ They cast someone else and I was in a beauty parlor on Santa Monica Boulevard with my head in the sink when they brought the phone to me and I heard, ‘They’re going to eliminate the Eve out of town in Baltimore. Can you fly in and do it tonight?’
“So I went, and I’m not that smart but because I hadn’t seen it, I could see the forest for the trees, what was needed. Eve is not your basic ingénue, not young, she has to be desperate and much more of a threat to Margo or it doesn’t work. I remember saying to myself, ‘My goal is to make everybody who knows this movie remember it wrong, and think that she really is a good friend of Margo.’”
As for her legendarily formidable costar Bacall: “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, God let her know that if I’m good it will only help her, and she did. She loved me, and we went through a lot of years together. She knew for whatever reason that I was the right color to help the play and we became good old friends. She’s the best, she’s just scared so she has to act that way sometimes.
“I’d think, ‘You’re insecure? Why?’ But do you know why she does everything with that downturned chin looking up? That’s because [director] Howard Hawks said she was so nervous her head would shake, so he told her to hold her face that way.
“Anne Baxter [Eve in the film] replaced her. It was my last matinee and I was getting ready to go on and I hear this clankety-clank. Someone’s wearing a noisy bracelet! I do the speech in the dressing room about my husband Eddie and the brewery, and I hear that clankety-clank again and look over in the wings. It’s Bette Davis, watching us from off-stage with her clankety bracelets!
“Anne Baxter was wonderful, but she was scared. She was put in the show by the stage manager, and he was pushing her to go here and there. You don’t touch her! I don’t know how I got the nerve, but I went to her dressing room and said, ‘Listen to me, every movie star wanted to play this part. You’re playing it, and you’re the only one who knows what Margo is about. Don’t let these people bother you,’ and it was a great thing for her.
“As Margo, she was different, very womanly, sensual, strong, and dramatic, because Annie was dramatic. The edges were maybe softer but the inner core was as strong. On her opening night, I went to Tiffany’s and found a little silver apple that I had engraved, ‘Goodbye Eve. Hello Margo. Love to AB from PF,’ When I left the show, she gave me one that said, ‘Goodbye Eve. Hooray Penny. Love to PF from AB.”
Fuller is indeed a testament to showbiz survival, as are her two best girlfriends in the business, Linda Lavin and Elizabeth Ashley: “I was Liz’s understudy in ‘Barefoot in the Park,’ and when she was cast as my mother in ‘Dividing the Estate,’ everyone said, ‘How does she feel about that?’ We’re actresses! We’re supposed to do that!
“I could play her mother, but what I hadn’t counted on was her arrival with the dog after the hurricane in my Upper West Side apartment. She and Bill Craver, who was the ‘Barefoot’ company manager, now an agent, stayed with me, so the three of us are there for three days. Ohmigod, we have known each other all these years, and Craver got there first so he got the bedroom and she stayed on the couch!”