‘Allegiance’ star Telly Leung talks about the production’s conception and the potential move to Broadway

Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, George Takei, and Paul Nakauchi in "Allegiance."

Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, George Takei, and Paul Nakauchi in “Allegiance.”

In March, it was announced that Allegiance: A New American Musical, would be getting a developmental lab staging in New York in April and May of this year.  The musical, which tackles the often-overlooked topic of the Japanese internment camps that existed in the United States during World War II and the effects that they had on the people whose lives they touched, originally opened at the Old Globe theatre in San Diego in 2012 and now has its eyes set on Broadway.

While many people instantly recognise Telly Leung from his recurring role as Wes on Glee, the actor is no stranger to Broadway, having made his Broadway debut in 2002 as an ensemble cast member in Flower Drum Song; he then appeared again in the 2006 revival of Pacific Overtures and more recently acted in the 2011 revival of Godspell.

While working on rehearsals for Allegiance‘s developmental lab run, Telly is also preparing for a role in “The Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project,” a one-night free concert featuring Asian Americian theatre composers and singers, to be presented on May 19 at Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

When interviewing Telly about his role as a young Sam Kimura in Allegiance, there was a lot to think about, from the importance of understanding history, to the sheer amount of work that goes into propelling a show forwards.

Lea Salonga and Telly Leung in "Allegiance."

Lea Salonga and Telly Leung in “Allegiance.”

SDD: Tell us a bit about your involvement Allegiance – how did you get involved with the show?

TL: I was approached by the show’s composer, Jay Kuo when he was putting together the first NYC reading of the show. At that time, Sammy was a smaller, supporting role, with only one song. Over the last three years, the role (and the show) has grown significantly and developed through several readings, workshops, and a big out-of-town production at the Old Globe theater. I’m sure there will be even more changes in store, before we get to Broadway. Each draft is better and better, and I applaud Jay and this creative team (led by our amazing director, Stafford Arima) for working tirelessly to make this the best show it can be when it reaches Broadway.

SDD: Allegiance centers on a portion of American history which a lot of Americans aren’t very informed on – how do you think that the show might alter that, might get people looking at that part of American history?

TL: When we did our world premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego, I was fascinated by the audience reaction. I heard some of the younger audience members (and student groups) say: “Did that actually happen?” The Japanese-American internment is a shameful part of our American history that isn’t talked about very much in the history books – and I think Allegiance has the power to really shed some light on this dark chapter of our American history.  It is always the hope of theater artists to take the audience on a journey for two and a half hours, and change them in some way. We want them to walk in the theater one way, and walk out different  from how they came in and I definitely think Allegiance is the kind of show that will keep an audience thinking about and talking about the show, even after the curtain falls.

SDD: What was it like on set and working with the other members of the cast?

TL: It was a big “family” reunion. I was reunited with my director, Stafford Arima, after first working with him on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar back in 2004. It was also a big reunion for me with Lea Salonga, who was the star of Flower Drum Song (my first Broadway show) and Michael Lee (who was in my second Broadway show with me, Pacific Overtures). It is a small community of Asian Broadway performers, and we all felt so lucky to be reunited on this show and working together.

SDD: Was everyone expecting the show to have a chance to make the move to Broadway or was that a bit of a surprise?

TL: The “business” part of “show business” is always tricky, and it’s amazing to me that anything gets to Broadway! All the stars have to align for the show to happen: the right house has to be available, the funding has to be in place, all the creatives’ schedules have to line up, etc. I know that if and when the show makes it to Broadway, I will be celebrating with immense joy because I will know that it took years of blood, sweat, tears (and tons of good luck) to get there.

SDD: Was there anything in particular that you learned from working on the production that maybe you didn’t know before, either about the subject matter or something else entirely?

TL: There were many details of the Japanese-American internment that I learned about through Allegiance. Just to name a few:

(a) I didn’t know that they weren’t allowed to have activities in the camps that would appear to be “subversive” – so no Japanese language schools, no Buddhist temples, etc.

(b) I didn’t know that only American-born Japanese citizens could be block leaders in the camps. That usually meant that the younger generation, the generation that was born in the US, were the ones in charge. This is a complete 180 of how thing were run in traditional Japanese societies, where the elders were shown the greatest respect and given the most authority. This must have been very hard for the social and familial dynamics in the camp.

But, the stuff that I really  didn’t know was all the “actor-useful” sensory stuff… like what did it feel, smell, taste, sound like in the camps. For this, I went to the source: George Takei, someone who had actually lived the internment. He was able to give me the details of what it was actually like there – from a sensory point of view, and this is always what’s most helpful to me, as an actor.

SDD: What is one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

TL: I think people are always shocked when I say to them that I don’t see myself acting my entire life. Don’t get me wrong: I love acting. But, I don’t see myself doing it forever. I do a ton of teaching on the side – and I do it because I love it. I’m one of the lucky people that gets to make a living acting, and not teaching. At some point, I’d love for that to be reversed: I’d love to teach full time, and act on the side. Recently, I got to watch myself teach on the PBS documentary Broadway or Bust, and as I was watching myself work with students, I realized that this was my passion. Actors (and theater artists) are always teachers, to some degree, but I think my real calling is not on stage but in a classroom. But, I’m not retiring from acting any time soon.

SDD: If you could pass a message on to anyone who is planning on seeing Allegiance for the first time, what would it be?

TL: I would ask anyone coming to any show to try and “go for the ride.” Theater requires that the audience meet us halfway. TV and film does not. The audience can sit back. But, theater is live – and it requires that the audience suspend their disbelief (ie. that’s not a real tree. That tree on stage is made of cardboard and painted to look like a tree) – and go for the ride. It’ll make the whole evening more enjoyable for both parties.

SDD: A short lightning round! For these questions, just fire back with whatever comes to mind first.

Who was the last person who made you feel star-struck?: Sutton Foster.

What’s your favourite show right now on television?: Downton Abbey.

If you could change places with anyone for one day, who would it be?: Oprah.

Biggest pet peeve: Someone not covering their mouth when they cough or sneeze.

What is your favourite word?: Yes!

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