By Jeff Walsh
Telly Leung is a force of nature.
In Godspell, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway (see review), Leung has turned his role into an opportunity to showcase what seems to be almost too many talents. He acts, sings, dances, does impressions, and even when people are coming in after intermission, he's at the piano playing riffs from A Chorus Line, Wicked, Rent, and others, before launching into an Elton Johnesque reprise of "Learn Your Lessons Well" from Act One to get act two started.
When I recently ran into Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Godspell and Wicked, he had nothing but praise for Leung.
"His performance has become sort of famous. He's unbelievable, and the nice thing is he gets to show, in this particular production, the range of talents that he has," Schwartz said. "People who have seen him do one thing or another before, but here he gets to sing beautifully, he gets to be really funny, he gets to do amazing imitations, he gets to play the piano, you see a real range of just how much this guy can do. He's extraordinary in the show."
For how long Leung has been on my radar, it's amazing I'm just seeing him now. I originally planned to see him in Godspell years ago, but then the production was delayed. I planned to see him in an early version of Lysistrata Jones in Dallas, but I got delayed in Vegas instead. When the Rent tour came through the Bay Area, he had left the tour already.
So, for a while, I figured there was clearly some conspiracy at work here and I just wasn't meant to see Leung onstage. But once I moved to New York City, and he's in a show eight times a week, the odds greatly shifted in my favor, so we recently sat down in his dressing room before show time to chat about Godspell and his amazing path to Broadway (sorry Gleeks, I totally blanked on him being a Warbler during the interview):
It's been a long time coming...
I'm glad we're finally doing it.
When we first started talking online, back when you were still in Rent, we said that in a few months, I'd probably see you in Godspell, and that's been how many years now?!
Six years... no, it was supposed to happen in the fall of 2008. That's when Godspell was supposed to happen the first time. But I've been with the show since 2006.
I never saw Godspell performed until seeing your production of it, and there's obviously a lot of energy, but it also has a bit of that same quality as Hair, where at a lot of times, it seems like it's about to go off the rails, but then it gets right back on track, and there's a lot of wiggle room, seemingly, from the audience perspective...
With Godspell, there's no way to approach the piece without being free. Free to express one's self. And free to try things. And free to have the courage to be bold and make bold choices. So, that's what Godspell and Hair have in common.
Nick Blaemire, my dressing roommate, loves to say that they both came at a time when it was subversive theater. It was early in the 70s, and that post-Vietnam idea that theater should really stir and inspire an audience, and make them feel different when they walk out than when they walked in.
With Godspell, the idea that we need to be reconnected to religion, or community, whatever that is... we need to be reconnected to each other as a people, as a nation, as a world, I think that's what Godspell was trying to achieve. And Hair was also trying to achieve that. We're all part of this giant human tribe.
Those two things are so similar because they were so reactionary to the times. And the theater was created for that purpose. Nowadays, I don't know if all theater is created with that purpose anymore, to really wake up an audience and make them think about the world in a different way.
Certainly I've been very lucky to be part of shows that have done that. Rent certainly does that, but there are certain shows that do not, which I will not name. But I think that's why Godspell and Hair have such a cult following, as well. Because the theater is meant to reach you as an audience member.
And it seems what you bring to this role is so specific to you as a person.
It's interesting, because the way Godspell's always been put together is that the cast members are named their actual name. So, when you look at the 1971 script of Godspell, Jeff is actually named Jeff. Gilmer, who sings Learn Your Lessons Well, her name is Gilmer. And the show was built around their specific talents and energies.
Same thing with our cast. You look at the Playbill and it says "All Good Gifts" sung by Telly and company. There is no real facade I'm putting on. It's just the heightened more clown version of myself. It's the most playful, innocent version of me, but it's still very much me.
And Stephen Schwartz has always said, whenever the show is put up, that's how it should be done. You have to find the right combination of people that all play well together, but are different enough to really bring something new, and exciting, and individual to the table, and then create the show around them.
Because there is no real show. Stephen wrote these songs, which are great, catchy pop-rock tunes, and then there are the parables from the Bible, and they go in a certain order. And how you tell it is completely up to that company.