For Telly Leung, who is currently starring in the ensemble of Flower Drum Song at the Virginia Theatre, the musical is more than a job. Even more than a Broadway debut. It's a tribute, of sorts, to his parents, whose story parallels that of Mei-Li, Flower Drum Song's lead character, portrayed by Miss Saigon's Lea Salonga in this reworking of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
Mei-Li flees to America in the late 1950's after her father falls under persecution from the Communist Chinese government. Leung's parents, Loi Sang and Pik Kwan Leung, also fled the Communist regime as youths. In an interview during an open press rehearsal for Flower Drum Song, the young Leung explained, "My parents were from Communist China. Because the opportunities there were so few, they each felt, 'If I'm going to make a life for myself, I need to leave this place where they're denying kids of their education, their opportunities. Everyone was sent to farms by Mao during the Agrarian Revolution. They did what a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds did at the time — swim from China to Hong Kong, which was a British province at the time. It was democratic there; it was free there." The swim, however, was no small feat. In fact, it took Stephen and Judy Leung, as they are now known, seven hours to swim the great distance between the two countries.
Telly Leung adds, "It's so weird when my mom tells me that story. She says that it's not uncommon. You walk around the streets of Chinatown in New York, and for 50-year-old women and men, that's everybody's story that struggled that way." Interestingly, his parents didn't meet until they were both in Hong Kong. "They didn't know each other in China," Telly explains, "but it just turned out that they did the same [swimming journey]. They were both from the same place in China."
It was in 1975 when the Leungs moved to the United States, and it was in 1980 Brooklyn where Telly Leung was born and raised. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Leung was discovered there in a production of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which was directed by former Grease! star Billy Porter. Porter urged the Flower Drum team to check out his Bobby, and from there came the offer to make his Main Stem debut. In addition to his work in the show's ensemble, Leung is also the understudy for the male romantic lead Ta, played by The King and I's Jose Llana. Should Leung go on in the role, he'll get to play scenes opposite Lea Salonga, whom he has admired for years. "I was a huge, huge Miss Saigon fan. And when [Salonga] returned to the show, ten years later, I saw it again. So this is a dream to be with this team."
Leung is equally excited about working with playwright David Henry Hwang, who has rewritten the musical's book. At a recent press conference, Hwang explained that he had written "the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written had he been Asian-American." "David, for me, is the person I was most starstruck by," Leung admitted. "[He opened] up doors for Asian Americans in theatre. He was the person that I very much revered. He's like a legend. I can't believe that I'm working with David Henry Hwang!"