THE LEADING MEN: The Men of Godspell — "All Good Gifts"-Giver Telly Leung

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: The Men of Godspell — "All Good Gifts"-Giver Telly Leung
 
The Playbill Leading Men columns this month focus on the disciples of Broadway's Godspell. Telly Leung chats about his relationship with Stephen Schwartz, the Godspell creative process and "Glee."

Telly Leung
Telly Leung Photo by Chris Macke

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"All Good Gifts" certainly do surround Telly Leung, who seems to thank the Lord every day that the Daniel Goldstein production of Godspell finally landed on Broadway. Leung began preaching the parables back in 2006 when the Goldstein-directed production was seen in a limited engagement at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. When Leung and the Godspell company were to make the leap of faith to Broadway in the fall of 2008, America's economic crisis put all dreams on hold. Now, after a five-year wait — during which he closed the Broadway production of Rent and dropped by Dalton Academy for a stint on "Glee" — he feels blessed to reunite with Jesus and the gang at the Circle in the Square.

Leung is not only connected to Academy Award-winning composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz after originating the role of Boq in Chicago, and singing "All Good Gifts" night after night in the revival of Godspell — the two also happen to be graduates of Carnegie Mellon University. Schwartz, who teamed up with John-Michael Tebelak in 1970 to create the cult classic musical as a CMU master's thesis project, happened to return to Carnegie Mellon and offer a performance master class at the same time Leung was an undergrad. Read more about it.

You were part of the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Godspell, also directed by Daniel Goldstein in 2006. Can you tell me about your journey with the show since then?
Telly Leung: It's been quite a journey, actually. [Laughs.] In 2006, when I did the show, it was right after I finished playing Boq in Wicked in Chicago. I opened the Chicago company as Boq, and it was the job that brought me back home to New York. I said, "Yay, I'm so excited I get to come back home, and it's going to be at the Paper Mill," which is only a short van ride or train ride away [from New York City]. And, it was another Stephen Schwartz show, so I was so excited.

Leung in Godspell.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

My relationship with Schwartz has actually been a long one. I met Stephen back in college. I went to Carnegie Mellon, which is where Godspell kind of all started. Stephen also went there, and he would come back every year and do master classes with the senior students, so that was my first time meeting Stephen. Ever since then I've done a ton of his shows and he's always been a great supporter, a mentor and a cheerleader for me. Anyway, we did this great production [of Godspell in 2006]. Paper Mill Playhouse is such a short rehearsal period, but we still created that show from scratch in very much the same spirit that they did back in 1971. You had the songs in a particular order, you had the parables in a particular order, but what you did with the parables and how you did the story-telling was very much up in the air and created by the originality and ingenuity of the group you assemble. Paper Mill was a joyful month of rehearsal and a joyful month-long run. In 2008, they started talking about a Broadway revival, and that they were going to revive Danny's version. We were all stunned. This two-month gig that we just thought was going to be two months of pure joy — that I made long, fast friends with — all of a sudden was now going to be a Broadway show. Well, with the 2008 revival that was supposed to be at the Barrymore Theatre, six days before we were supposed to start rehearsals, we were told that the show had been indefinitely postponed and cancelled... I know people turned down jobs for it. Everybody had counted on that job happening, and then six days before, they pulled the plug. It kind of went from being the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Then, the story ended happily in 2011 with this revival in the perfect theatre, in the perfect space, with the perfect situation... It's kind of really interesting to look back on it and go, "That was the plan. Everything was supposed to happen for a reason." As wonderful as it felt in 2006 and as terrible as it felt in 2008, it all was supposed to end happily — here — in 2011. It was a long journey, but I'm glad that the journey had a happy ending.

Leung and Anna Maria Perez de Taglé in Godspell.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

What was your reaction after hearing that they were trying to mount the production again — for a second time around?
TL: [Laughs.] In a way, it definitely was a lesson that I think the whole country was learning. Based on the economic situation all over the country, nothing is for certain... In a way, growing up as an Asian-American kid, my parents, of course, did not encourage show business because of the instability of a life in the arts. They, of course, wanted me [to be] a doctor, lawyer or something that was "more stable" and more financially sound. Well, in 2008, the economy kind of flipped. I had friends who were lawyers and attorneys and working on Wall Street who were being laid off. I think that everybody was experiencing that uncertainty that [actors] feel in showbiz all the time. I think that everybody was saying, "Oh, right. Everything that we love and take for granted can kind of go away. I was in the final company of Rent at the time when I got the news that [Godspell] wasn't going to happen. Now, every night singing "No Day But Today" meant something completely different. There is no day but today. Enjoy what you have today. I think with the upset of Godspell it actually — in a weird way — made me enjoy those last couple of days at Rent even more and appreciate every moment that [I was] on Broadway. I still say to people who are going to be pursuing a career on Broadway, "If you are lucky enough to get here, enjoy every moment that you're here because it's a dream come true every time. You never know when the next time it's going to be." Because of that, everybody in this cast of Godpsell — understanding the long journey that the show has gone through — is definitely appreciating every minute that they have on this stage.

Tell me about working with the cast. It seems like such a tight-knit group. TL: It is a very tight-knit group. I think it's because people like Danny and Uzo [Aduba] and I have had the longest history with this show, but I think everybody is also aware of the difficult journey that this show has been through. Because of that, to see it finally happen, everybody bonded over how lucky we were to even get to do this show, and I think that when you are creating something from scratch... When you're creating something that is completely improv-based and ensemble-based, there's a high level of trust and intimacy that is needed for everybody to work so well together. I think that we definitely took the four weeks of rehearsal and developed that in the rehearsal room, and we keep developing that every night as we do the show. I always look forward to going to do the show, and I always look forward to seeing my Godspell family everyday I go in at half-hour to sign in. I can't wait, in fact. I think what we've done, as an ensemble, is tapped into, "what is the joy of story-telling" and "what is the joy of theatre" and "how can we translate that to the 700-or-so people who are in the house every night and make that joy contagious." The only way we can do that is if we have fun together. And, we found a way to do that on stage and off stage. I look forward to go to work every night.

Leung and Hunter Parrish in the recording studio
photo by Jeremy Daniel

That improv quality that you're talking about — we see a lot of that with Godspell. Things can change from performance to performance. Is it nerve-wracking to create something from scratch and have things change every night?
TL: I think back in 2006, our director, Daniel Goldstein, had a very famous motto that he would use to our cast, which was "Strong and Wrong." He actually printed opening night t-shirts that said "Godpsell — 'Strong and Wrong'." In the rehearsal room, we had to develop this level of trust to work with one another. In developing that trust, we cannot censor ourselves or edit ourselves from trying things. Yes, you put yourself on the line every time you try a joke or you try an impression or you try something in the room, and it might fall completely flat in front of 700 people, but then you count on your castmates to support you and get you through it and suggest other things. You count on the team to find the show together. It is scary, but I think that one of the most wonderful parts of improv is that it's different. You just have to go for it and try it. And, it's theatre — it's ephemeral. That didn't work tonight? Fine. We can all laugh about it, about how that joke totally tanked, and try a new one tomorrow, and know that your castmates will be there in a very non-judgmental way. Strong and wrong. You commit fully and you go for it, and if it falls on its face, fine. Dust yourself off, pick yourself up, try again, and know that folks will be there to catch you. We're still changing the show. As things happen in the news, we're still putting in… Every performance is slightly different. There's a constant dialogue between my castmates and the creative team like, "Did you hear what's happening with Occupy Wall Street? Something new happened. Let's put that in the show." I think the audience goes, "That just happened today in the news. I can't believe it's already in the show." There's a power in that.

That must be exciting, as an actor, to try different things each night and watch the show progress, as opposed to staying true to your track in a show like Wicked. With Godspell, you get to watch the show evolve.
TL: When Godspell was put together back in 1971, it was based on the unique personalities and energies of that incredible ensemble. That's why when you pick up a Godspell script from [licensing company] MTI, you see the names Peggy [Gordon] and Gilmer [McCormick] and Jeffrey [Mylett], and those are the people who've created those roles for themselves. Our director, Daniel, who assembled a new ensemble of people for 2011, asked, "What is it that you do?" With me, it was, "Well, I play the piano and I speak Chinese and I do impressions at parties for my friends," and he's like, "Great! Let's throw all of that in the show." At the end of the day, it's a show that we completely own as actors.

Leung in Godspell.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

You do get to use all of those skills. You play piano at the beginning of the second act, you perform a parable in multiple accents. How does it feel to compact all of your talents into two hours on Broadway?
TL: I think it's wonderful that it's the first time I've done a role where the role is "Telly." In the Playbill, it actually says, "All Good Gifts" is sung by Telly and Company. It's me. What each of us is giving you, in that cast, is completely and 100 percent us. Either the idea came from us or it is something that we've always done. For example, Celisse [Henderson] grew up in a very musical family — of course she plays the ukulele and the electric guitar and the djembe. That's just her. That's her uniqueness as an artist and as a person. I feel like this is the one show where I don't have to fit into any kind of role or mold. Actually, what's encouraged is to find the individuality in ourselves and use it in the show. With Circle in the Square, it's in the round and there's nowhere to hide. It's such an intimate space. Anything that is remotely false or not honest is even more magnified by that intimacy. I feel so lucky to get to do a show where everything that I do is embraced. In fact, the more you and the more honest you are and the more connected you are to what makes you special as a person — as a performer — is actually encouraged. That is such a lucky, rare opportunity. What have you learned about yourself throughout the creative process?
TL: I have to say, I think there's two very important lessons that I've learned. The first is that lesson of "strong and wrong." Ever since I worked with Danny Goldstein back in 2006, that is something that I feel like I've learned from him that I've used in every other aspect of my acting, which is make the strong choice. It is in the failure and the picking-ourselves-up that we learn as people and as artists. And, two: the power of an ensemble. On that Godspell stage, we are all individually very talented, but when the 10 of us on that stage come together and do something as a unit, 10 minds are better than one. You really cannot do it alone. I think that is the message of Godspell, which is so beautifully translated in the way the show is put together. The show is about community, and the show is about how we need to be better to one another in this world no matter what your religious affiliations are. If you are Christian or not Christian, the show is saying to be good to one another because at the end of the day, we are a large community and we need each other. That, at the core, is what the show is about.

Speaking of religion, what were you able to bring to the piece from your own religious background?
TL: I, actually, did not grow up in a religious home at all. I grew up in a very traditional Chinese home, and there are a lot of elements of Buddhist culture that are certainly in the Chinese culture. I did not grow up a Christian. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was surrounded by a lot of Catholic friends and I certainly went to my fair share of Catholic services, but it was not a part of me. For me, I did not have a religious connection. I had to look at it like, "What is this very charismatic person named Jesus saying?" Whether you believe in God or not, what he is saying are basic human truths: "Judge not lest ye be judged." That spans all religious and race lines. Or: "Always treat others as you would have them treat you." That's just a basic rule that I think all humans need to abide by. I think that's what is powerful about the show. I know it is for me, as somebody not religious going into this process. I have no history or a relationship with Jesus; however, I absolutely connect with what this person is saying. This very wise person actually has a lot of wonderful truths to say and wonderful lessons to teach us.

Leung on "Glee."
FOX

You've also worked on Wicked, another Stephen Schwartz musical. What excites you about getting to sing his score?
TL: To me, Stephen is brilliant. He's one of the great American songwriters. It's strange how so much of what he's written has expanded beyond the world of Broadway. Wicked is not only a success in the theatrical world, but has touched people that normally are not theatre fans. Show like Wicked and Godspell brought in people who normally would not go to the theatre. I also grew up loving Disney movies — how could you not? His work on "Prince of Egypt" and "Pocahontas" meant a lot to me as a kid. It's an honor to sing his music. He was around in rehearsals a lot. It was so fun to see him work with us and then, for a glimmer, you would see that 23-year-old kid who wrote the show in three weeks with his Carnegie Mellon-mates. He was around for most of our rehearsals, especially through previews, when we were working through things and finding new things to do, and he played with us. He got in the sandbox and played, which I thought was so great and, at first, so nerve-wracking because we're like, "You're Stephen Schwartz. You have the mega-hit Wicked next door, and you have Oscars and Grammys on your shelf." But, he is an artist just like we are and just another kid in the sandbox. Also, the whole original Toronto company of Godspell came to opening night. It was Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy and Victor Garber and Martin Short, and seeing all of them together — all artists that I have admired individually — with Paul Shaffer and Stephen Schwartz, it blew my mind. They went back to their 20s — you see them relating to each other as an ensemble again, which is so incredible and inspiring. You said that you met Stephen Schwartz back in college. Can you describe your first encounter?
TL: It was my junior year at Carnegie Mellon University and he came and did a master class. I was the only kid who was brave enough to actually sing a Stephen Schwartz song for Stephen Schwartz. I said to myself, "When am I ever going to get this opportunity again? I might never meet Stephen Schwartz again." I sang "Lost in the Wilderness" and he had wonderful, constructive things to say. He helped me with that song and I used it for auditions forever and ever. I said, "I might never see this man again," and who knew that through the years I'd see him quite a bit.

Stephen Schwartz
photo by Jeremy Daniel

It seems that your song choice was a good idea.
TL: What's great about him is that he really does give back. He goes out of his way to do master classes and he goes out of his way to do ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] workshops for new writers. He's also inspired me in that way, watching him go, "I'm definitely a success in this business, but I need to encourage the next generation of theatre artists," whether that be actors, like me, or writers. I hope that if I'm in this business long enough, I can also do that for the generation of people coming up after me. At the heart of it, I think he's not only a great composer, but also a great teacher.

Before Godspell you were seen walking the halls of Dalton Academy on "Glee." Tell me about your experience with the show.
TL: At the time they were looking to cast the role of Blaine, which ended up going to Darren Criss. I was in New York working on a show at the time, and I put myself on tape, sent it off to L.A. and thought nothing of it. The [producers] said to me, "We're not going to cast you as Blaine, but Blaine is always flanked by these boys who are his friends. Would you come and do this?" I've been a big fan of the show, and I said, "Absolutely... To get to be on 'Glee,' how cool!" That's how that started. Originally it was going to be two or three episodes, then it became so popular, [it was] seven-eight episodes later. We were on for a huge chunk of Season Two, which was fantastic. I love what that show has done to introduce music to the next generation. The show is actually bringing more young people to the theatre because they hear a song on "Glee" and go, "What's that from? Oh, it's from a musical?" and then they say, "I should look into Broadway" or they go to New York and see something live on stage or even go see that musical at their community theatre. I think what "Glee" has done for music and theatre is amazing. To be a part of that, how cool is that? I kind of wish that I grew up with a "Glee." It's so cool to see young kids at Godspell. The fact that they dig the show, I think, is so cool, and I have to give "Glee" some credit for that. They wet their palettes for something musical.

And, with those diverse audiences that you have been getting — not to mention the lottery winners sitting alongside the stage — the energy at Circle in the Square must be mind-blowing.
TL: I think that's part of the wonderful thing about Circle in the Square — it's an experience. It's not a typical Broadway show. Part of the experience is that I get to see every person in the house. It's not like I'm standing there acting to a sea of darkness and I don't make out people's faces. Actually, I see you, and, in fact, it's encouraged to break the fourth wall and talk to you and sing to you. Not only that, but the audience is watching each other watch the show. Sitting on one side of the circle, you can see somebody else watching the show on the other side of the circle, and it becomes a big communal experience. We kind of hope that people walk away feeling like the show was one big party. I kind of love that. People walk out feeling like they were not just watching the show, they were a part of it.

Michael Gioia's work frequently appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Write to him at mgioia@playbill.com. Read Playbill.com's fall Stage to Screens column about "Weeds" star Hunter Parrish, who plays Jesus in Godspell

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