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Theater & Dance

Actor Telly Leung on His Broadway Return, Hillary 2016, and Cancer-Sniffing Dogs

Telly Leung
Leon Le Photography

"I’ve spoken with friends who’ve beaten cancer or are in remission, who have said, 'My dog was the first to know.'"

After co-starring with George Takei in Allegiance, Telly Leung has nabbed a number of notable gigs since the musical closed last February.

Leung has performed in everything from the role of Lucentio in Shakespeare Theatre Company's recent all-male production of The Taming of the Shrew, in Washington D.C., to a return engagement at Feinstein's/54 Below back home in New York.

Leung, whose stage and TV credits range from Godspell (the exuberant 2011 revival, which also featured Uzo Aduba) to Glee, has even more on his plate this fall: He's just started rehearsals for another original musical, In Transit, whose creators include Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame, with PitchPerfect alum Deke Sharon providing the a cappella vocal arrangements. On Oct. 10, Leung will join other high-profile troupers at Joe's Pub for Broadway Sniffs Out Cancer, a concert raising funds to train dogs to detect the disease in its early stages.

Meeting at a favorite cafe in the theater district, the gracious, boyishly handsome Leung chatted about his various passion projects, on stage and off.

Out: In your cabaret show, Songs For You (named after Leung's 2015 album), you spoke movingly about the different people who have inspired and helped you, including your parents, Chinese immigrants. They weren't too keen about your pursuing a career in the arts, though.

Telly Leung: At first, I did what they wanted me to do, which was study hard and get good grades, so I ended up going to Stuyvesant High School. But I quickly realized I was surrounded by people who saw the world in physics and chemical equations, and that wasn't me. I wanted to make my parents happy and proud, but I needed to consider what my gifts are.

But they're big fans, you said, so you do make them happy and proud.

I think I've started to. But to this day, every time a show I'm in closes, my parents are like, "OK, are you done now? Is play time over? Will you go to grad school?" They know that performing eight times a week is hard. They'll say (adopts Chinese accent), "Telly, we wish you become professor and teach theater instead." You know, I fought them hard on that, but then I was part of a group of artists that coached students for the Jimmy (National High School Musical Theatre) Awards, and I thought, "I'm good at this." Now that I'm in my 30s, I teach often. I'm an adjunct at NYU, and for a great company called Music Theatre College Auditions.

Tell us about In Transit. It's performed entirely a cappella, right? No accompanying instruments?

No band--the cast is making all the sounds. It opens December 11, and we begin previews about a month before that (on November 10). It takes place in New York City, on the subway system, and you find out how these different lives and stories are interconnected. My character, Steven, is engaged to Trent, who's played by Justin Guarini, but Trent is not fully out to his very religious, Southern mother. It's easier for Steven, who grew up with very liberal parents, so that causes some friction.

How did your own parents accept your being gay?

My mom had an easier time than my dad. Coming from a traditional Chinese home, where the son is supposed to get married and make grandchildren -- that was very important to my father. But he's come a long way. My partner Jimmy and I have been together for 12 years; and with Chinese parents, they don't always say "I love you" or "I'm proud of you," but they show it in different ways. My dad called me from Costco -- my parents live in Brooklyn, and they love to shop at Costco -- and he said, "There's a sale on apples. Does Jimmy like apples?" That was his way of saying, "I accept Jimmy as someone who's a partner in your life."

Has being the gay son of immigrants informed how you look at our presidential candidates?

I was at a fundraiser (for Hillary Clinton) with Cher, and she said that the only community that has accepted her and stuck by her through her entire career is the gay community. She said, "I fear for you if the other person wins." And it hit me hard: All those rights we've fought for and won--during the Obama administration, but also going back to Stonewall--that would all go away under Trump and Mike Pence. Especially Pence, who has a record of being anti-LGBT in Indiana. And Hillary is just the most qualified person, man or woman, to seek this office, in my lifetime. Nobody has Hillary's record. In my business, in show business, your resume counts. It's baffling to me that wouldn't be the case here. But I'm optimistic that when the American people see the debates, they'll really know what their choice is.

And now you're an advocate for cancer research. Broadway Sniffs Out Cancer came together as you were losing a friend to lung cancer.

Another friend, Jenny Parsinen, who was associate choreographer on Allegiance, told me she had lost her mother-in-law to cancer, and that she's involved with this group that's training dogs to sniff out cancer. It makes sense: They can sniff out bombs and drugs, so why not cancer, in a drop of blood? So we're going to raise money for two organizations, one in New York and one on the West Coast. It's not FDA-approved right now, but the long-term plan would be to have it covered by insurance, something that could be part of a yearly physical.

Do you have a dog, or did you?

Growing up in small New York apartments, we never had a pet, except for a fish--who I named Fish. But I love dogs, and I've spoken with friends who've beaten cancer or are in remission, who have said, "My dog was the first to know."

You spoke of your love of teaching. Do you see more of that in your future?

Definitely. To me, teaching and acting on stage are very similar: You gather people in a room for a certain amount of time, and you hope that your audience, or your students, leave changed after that time together. I want to retire teaching, I think. When I perform now, I'm collecting experiences so that I'll be able to pass them on.

Purchase tickets to Broadway Sniffs Out Cancer on Oct. 10 here.

Elysa Gardner formerly covered theater and music for USA Today. She has also contributed to Rolling Stone, Los AngelesTimes, TheNewYorker, and VH1.

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