InDepth InterView: Telly Leung Talks New Album, 54 Below Gig, GLEE, ALLEGIANCE, Sondheim & More
Today we are talking to a breakout Broadway star who has made a name for himself with memorable turns in this century's revivals of Rodgers & Hammerstein's FLOWER DRUM SONG, Stephen Sondheim's PACIFIC OVERTURES and Stephen Schwartz's GODSPELL on Broadway as well as turns in Schwartz's WICKED and Jonathan Larson's RENT in addition to his lauded work on the brand new Broadway-bound tuner ALLEGIANCE, co-starring Lea Salonga and George Takei - and, of course, his easily identifiable uniform-outfitted Warbler on Fox's hit musical dramedy series GLEE - the passionate and gifted Telly Leung! Besides taking a look back at many of his best-loved and most well-remembered roles to date, in this career-spanning conversation Leung and I also dissect the finer points of his new solo album, I'LL COVER YOU, as we look ahead to the splashy release party on December 2 at 54 Below, and he outlines his initial inspiration for the creation of it and recounts the recording process for the unique genre-crossing release. Plus, Leung generously shares some truly thrilling backstage stories involving luminaries such as Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Neil Patrick Harris and more as well as shares his infectious enthusiasm for future endeavors, near and far - after a well-earned vacation in January, that is. All of that and much, much more awaits!
More information on Telly Leung's I'LL COVER YOU album is available at his official site here.
More information on Telly Leung's I'LL COVER YOU release party at 54 Below on December 2 at 9:30 PM is available here.
PC: Lea Salonga has been a frequent participant in this column and she spoke so favorably of you when we last spoke - you two have shared the stage quite a bit over the years.
TL: Oh, my God! I love Lea so much.
PC: How did you two first meet?
TL: We met doing FLOWER DRUM SONG, actually. FLOWER DRUM SONG was my first Broadway show - it was the 2002 revival and she was, of course, the star of that revival. It was my first show and it was also the first show for a lot of people in the cast - a lot of Asian performers made their Broadway debuts on that show, which is so great.
PC: With Lea originally having had one of the most famous overnight sensation stories of all time with the original MISS SAIGON.
TL: Of course. So, you know, Lea took all of us under her wing - and I'm sure you know this since you know her: she loves being a big sister.
TL: That's kind of what she does in life for all of her friends - I mean, it's even part of her e-mail address!
PC: That's true, too!
TL: She's so good at it! She's everybody's big sister. That's her favorite role to play, really - well, that, and, now, mommy. So, she has always been this big sister to me, then and now - so, yeah, it's kind of ironic that ten years later we are actually doing a show where she plays my big sister.
PC: In ALLEGIANCE? No way!
TL: Yeah! In ALLEGIANCE she plays my sister, Kay - I play Sammy, her younger brother. So, it is pretty funny how life imitates art and art imitates life in some ways like that, isn't it?
PC: It definitely is.
TL: But, yeah - Lea's always been a big sister to me and really a mentor to me in my career.
PC: What inspired your new album's title, I'LL COVER YOU?
TL: Well, I titled the album I'LL COVER YOU for a few reasons: first of all, there's the song from RENT that is titled "I'll Cover You" and that is my favorite Broadway love song of all time.
PC: A Jonathan Larson classic.
TL: RENT was a show that was really meaningful for me, too - and still is. [Pause.] You know, that was the show that came out when I was a high school student and I remember that original cast and the summer the show came out - and I was one of those crazy kids that like slept with the bums on 41st Street so that I could get my tickets for the front row, because I couldn't afford anything more!
PC: A real die-hard RENT-head.
TL: Yeah - a real RENT-head. I must have seen RENT twenty times that summer! I was the biggest RENT-head in the world.
PC: That's a lot of RENT!
TL: Yeah, it is! So, why I named the album I'LL COVER YOU is a lot because of RENT and my experiences with it, and, also, because I wanted it to be an album of cover songs.
PC: To turn the phrase a bit, then.
TL: Yeah, exactly - a little pun. But, that's what it is - it's an album of me covering my favorite music through the years and the artists that have influenced me most and I wanted to cover them in a way so that the listener would hear them again in a new way but still at the same time retain the essence of the song.
PC: And you did! Tell me more about your RENT obsession first.
TL: [Sighs.] Ugh, I just loved it so much! It was the first kind of theatrical experience that I had ever had that really moved me - I remember the first time I saw it I sat in the front row and "Will I?" started; you know, [Sings.] "Will I lose my dignity? / Will someone care?" and I remember just bursting out crying. I didn't really understand the moment, but it was one of those things where the music just touched me and moved me - I couldn't even put it into words or explain why I was having this emotional reaction, but I did.
PC: It changed you.
TL: It did. So, now, fast forward ten years and I was standing on that line and singing "Seasons Of Love" and doing the show on that stage for the final performance.
TL: Yes! It was totally surreal! That show was the first real full-circle moment for me in my career - I made a lot of friends there, too, and we all continue to be a family.
PC: Having participated in the final performance filming of RENT, as well, was that just an enormously emotional experience for you?
TL: Oh, yeah! Totally - totally. RENT was really that full-circle experience for me in general, so, knowing that I was in the final cast and would be doing the closing performance and that they were also immortalizing it forever… [Pause. Sighs.] I mean, when people want to see the original RENT on Broadway, they now can see that DVD - forever. I am so thankful for that.
PC: As we all are, certainly.
TL: You know, I grew up the son of immigrant people in New York City and they didn't know anything about Broadway - Broadway might have only been a short subway ride away, but my parents didn't bring me to a Broadway show, you know? That just wasn't part of their world at all - I didn't grow up in a showbiz family; they probably wanted me to grow up to go to Harvard and be a doctor or something someday. But, what happened was that Broadway was introduced to me through the telecast of INTO THE WOODS on PBS when I was a kid.
PC: A masterful filming that virtually set the bar.
TL: Oh, it was so good! For Great Performances - that's how Broadway was brought to me; a musical filmed on a stage and then shown on a TV screen. I was 7 or 8 years old and I still remember so much about it - especially Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason and Bernadette Peters.
PC: The best of the best.
TL: I mean, Bernadette Peters was brought to me through television - that was my introduction to theatre music. It's all because of Great Performances.
PC: And now you have recorded "Children Will Listen" on your new album.
TL: Right! You know, at the time I was only 7 or 8 so I didn't really understand that it was theatre or theatre music - it was just fairy tale character singing their feelings to me. Something definitely clicked in me seeing that, though.
PC: It made a mark.
TL: So many brilliant people were involved with that show, too - Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine and Bernadette Peters. And, so those people touched even me, in a way- this little kid there watching it.
PC: Billy Porter was in contention for The Witch in the recent 2002 revival. You did a gender-bended turn in COMPANY under his direction once upon a time, did you not?
TL: I did. I'll tell you the story about that: Billy Porter came back to his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, and he wanted to direct what happened to be my senior musical, COMPANY. I played Bobby for him… [Laughs.] A 21 year old Bobby? Hey, it's college!
PC: Whatever works.
TL: So, yeah, Billy directed and he was great - and, one of the choices he made was to change Marta into Marty. So, a man sang "Another Hundred People" instead of a woman and did those scenes.
PC: And Sondheim and Furth approved it?
TL: Yep. Sondheim gave it the OK.
PC: How intriguing. What do you think of the idea of a male Witch?
TL: Oh, I think it's a brilliant idea! Of course, I think it's a brilliant show and I think that there is such great freedom with it - I, myself, think it would be a great idea to try that someday.
PC: Did you consider other Sondheim songs for I'LL COVER YOU at any point?
TL: Oh, I love Steve's music and I feel so lucky that I got to work with him doing PACIFIC OVERTURES and that was a really great experience, so I thought about putting something from that, but I was on the most recent cast recording of it so I felt like I didn't need to do anything from PACIFIC OVERTURES on this because that's already there forever and ever. I definitely wanted to cover "Children Will Listen" because of what that song meant to me - that show and that song have had such an influence on me because they were my introduction to musical theatre; they were my first exposure to Broadway.
PC: Children apparently will listen, I suppose.
TL: [Laughs.] I guess so! My first Broadway show was not in a theater, it was brought right into my living room on PBS. But, yeah, all of these songs on the album I have an emotional connection to - especially "Children Will Listen".
PC: How do you look back at your experiences doing PACIFIC OVERTURES? It's a very unusual show, especially for Broadway these days.
TL: Yeah - I know what you mean. I feel like it was a show that was definitely ahead of its time when it came out in the 70s…
PC: You can say that again!
TL: But, you have to remember that when we were doing the revival, we were at the height of the Iraq war, so it felt really, really timely in a lot of ways.
PC: Understandably so.
TL: We opened in 2005, so we were doing it in a post-9/11 world - a world where American was at war again and flexing its imperial powers in some ways and trying to influence the Middle East this time.
PC: A lot of prescient parallels.
TL: I felt like the show had a lot of resonances - it had a certain place in the world and something important to say again. I don't know - it's such a bold, bold piece and I think that what Steve and John Weidman set out to do was very brave. I mean, if you pitched that musical today… there is nothing commercial about that show!
TL: "Let's make a million dollars on PACIFIC OVERTURES!" Yeah, I don't think so. [Big Laugh.]
PC: It's a risky property.
TL: Yeah, but, you know, those three men followed through on a real artistic vision doing that show originally - Steve Sondheim, John Weidman and Hal Prince. What they originally wanted to do was to talk about American imperialism on Japan and Western imperialism on Japan and tell it through Japanese eyes. Back in the 70s, Kabuki theatre was the means by which they did it. So, then, when they did the revival, they found a Japanese director and they said, "Oh, let's see this through his eyes." And that kind of completed the artistic vision that they set out with thirty years ago.
PC: With Noh theatre techniques employed this time.
TL: Correct - it was all Noh theatre. It was more simplified and more approachable, I feel. They both loved working with Amon Miyamoto, the director, from what I remember of it. I was so proud to be a part of that production - it was a cast of all Asian-Americans and that was so thrilling; having this cast of Asian-Americans doing this beautifully crafted work by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, and, then, working on a show that was the first Broadway musical to ever be directed by an Asian person, too.
PC: A landmark.
TL: It was a real landmark for us, yeah. And, cheers to the Roundabout for taking a chance and doing a revival of it - you know, they do these revivals knowing they will close after a while and might not be huge successes like some of the other things that open on Broadway in any given year. But, you know, that's why not-for-profits exist and I am thrilled that the Roundabout took a chance on a show like PACIFIC OVERTURES - difficult shows to do, but ones that definitely need to be revisited.
PC: The cast recording from the revival is superb. What was it like recording Sondheim's self-confessed personal favorite song of his own, "Someone In A Tree"?
TL: Well, that's an interesting story: when we rehearsed that, I remember my particular boy-in-a-tree was infused with a lot of energy and I would inject laughter and Japanese phrases into what the boy would say and I remember Steve saying, "No. I need this to just be musical. You can actually add a laugh here, but not here, OK?" And he was so specific! You could tell it was one of his favorite songs. And, then, there were other things he'd be a stickler about and other things he totally was free with - like, for instance, we would be working on something and he would say, "Oh, that key's not comfortable for you? Let's change it to make it fit you better." And, at first, I was actually amazed that he was so open like that, but he was - "If we need to change the key, let's change the key," you know?
PC: Open to new interpretations.
TL: Very open and very specific. You know, some composers are very adamant - "This song is in this key for a reason." But, Steve was really easygoing about, you know, "I want the best key for the singer, so let's find what works best." It was very interesting to me to see what he was specific about and what he wasn't very specific about - but he had very specific suggestions for "Someone In A Tree", for sure. That's the one he had the most notes for - I sang "Pretty Lady" and some other stuff in that show, but "Someone In A Tree" was the one I remember getting specific notes from him about where he wanted certain cut-offs and what words he wanted stressed and that kind of really specific stuff. I could tell that he really loved that one - it was one of his babies.
PC: "Next" was updated and reworked a bit for the revival, as well. What do you remember about the rewrites for that?
TL: Yes - "Next"! He changed some of the lyrics for "Next" and he also changed some of the lyrics for "Welcome To Kanagawa".
PC: That's right.
TL: I loved to see that - someone on the level of Steve Sondheim still working on his craft and making things better, always.
PC: It's inspiring.
TL: It was really great - to see him seeing it all with new eyes and working with Amon; John Weidman, too. That was such a joyful process to work on that and I could tell that it was a joyful process for them and was probably thirty years ago when they first did it. But, I think they had fun revisiting yet.
PC: Would you be open to an INTO THE WOODS role someday - perhaps a Prince?
TL: Oh, I would love that! You know, honestly, I'd do anything to be in that show. It means a lot to me, as we were talking about before.
PC: So, what did not make the final cut for I'LL COVER YOU?
TL: Well, we were very specific with what we wanted. Of course, I love so many songs from so many different genres that there are tons I wish I could have put on the album. There are some songs that I do in my live shows that I could have included, but there are so many others I'd love to do, too.
PC: Such as?
TL: Well, I really love Richard Rodgers and I would have really loved to have done a real Richard Rodgers love song on here, as well. An Irving Berlin, too. I just wish I had more room!
PC: You'd be a sensational Prince in CINDERELLA - I can already hear you singing "Ten Minutes Ago". Would you be open to a role in the new Broadway production?
TL: Oh, I'd love it! I just love all of that music so much. It was a big part of my training - and, my first Equity job was at the Muny in St. Louis; you know, a lot of us have gotten our Equity cards through doing shows at the Muny, like Ashley Brown and Shoshana Bean and Tyler Maynard.
PC: They still do big productions with big stars - one of the last theaters of its kind.
TL: They do. The first Equity job I ever did there was this big revue of Richard Rodgers music. You know, I think that that will be the next album - reinventing some standards and making them a little more palatable to today's ears.
PC: "Before The Parade Passes By" is a good start! Madonna and Stevie Wonder and some Beatles, too - this has it all.
TL: I know! But, I feel like all of the original versions of these songs have a certain resonance to me in my mind. For example, the first song on the album is a Stevie Wonder song - all of those singer-songwriters like Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel and Elton John really inspired me to take piano lessons and that was kind of my thing; I wanted to be that person at the piano singing all the time. So, as a little kid, it was hearing Stevie Wonder sing that song that made me want to take piano lessons - it wasn't my parents forcing me to take piano lessons, it was the other way around. It was something I asked for as a little kid and wanted to do - play piano and sing - so that's what opens the album.
PC: And the last track…
TL: And the last track we recorded live at Birdland - me, singing and playing at the piano, bringing it all full-circle; and, singing a song that was made famous by my favorite singer, Whitney Houston. She covered it from The Four Tops, I think - "I Believe In You And Me".
PC: From THE PREACHER'S WIFE.
TL: Right. You know, as a little kid growing up in the 80s, Whitney Houston was everywhere! That's what everybody wanted to sing - that golden, golden, golden voice had a way of reaching everybody and I think she has had a major influence on a lot of singers of my generation.
PC: Unquestionably. Did you two ever meet?
TL: Oh, I wish! The closest I ever got was getting to go see her live when I was in high school - it was one of those things where I saved up my money all year and then I went with my mom. [Laughs.]
PC: But you saw Whitney live!
TL: I did - at Madison Square Garden! But, yeah, that was the closest I ever got, unfortunately.
PC: Have you shared your reworking of "Firework" with Katy Perry yet?
TL: I haven't, but I would love to hear what she thought! I'd love for her to hear it and I think she'd like what we did with it. So, the idea for "Firework" came out of the idea that I sort of feel like Katy Perry is our hitmaker today - everything she touches turns into a Top 40 hit. Everything!
PC: Many number ones among them, as well.
TL: Oh, yeah! Yeah. There's something about her stuff - you know, some people dismiss her as bubblegum or just pop fluff, but I think that that one in particular is a really powerful anthem for the underdog - that's the way I intended mine to be and I think she did, too. When I was working on GLEE, that was a big theme of the show - bullying and the underdog - and they do a lot of Katy Perry on that show for that reason.
TL: And, it's also, too, that living out in LA you do a lot of driving! New Yorkers really don't drive anywhere, so they don't spend any time in cars - LA is all driving; that's all you do. So, you know, when you put on Top 40 radio in LA, you hear Katy Perry every five minutes.
PC: She's ubiquitous.
TL: All the time - all her songs. Yeah - she's everywhere. So, you know, "Firework" was one of those songs I never got sick of no matter how many times I heard it being played - every time I heard it I would actually turn it up. [Laughs.]
PC: It's a personal anthem for you.
TL: It's so powerful! You know, we really wanted to strip it down for this recording, in a way, so that the lyric would come out even more - that's why we changed some things in the instrumentation of it.
PC: Darren Criss did a stripped-down "Teenage Dream" on GLEE recently, but your "Firework" done that way was recorded first, I surmise, right?
TL: Oh, yeah - he did! I know. Right! Right! But we were definitely first - we recorded this album in July, right after GODSPELL closed.
PC: Was recording "Teenage Dream" as part of the Warblers on GLEE a thrilling experience for you - especially to then see its huge reception worldwide?
TL: Oh, yeah. I look back on my experience on GLEE as just having had a really fun job to do - you know, the really great thing about GLEE is that it reaches so many people around the world; and, its reaching people in a musical way. It's making music cool again in a lot of ways, I think, don't you?
TL: So, because of GLEE, our next generation of artists, our next generation of theater patrons and the people who are going to go buy CDs or DVDs or MP3s or whatever - and our next generation of Tony Award winners and theatre stars - will have been influenced by this show that I had a teeny, tiny part of once. That's an amazing experience to have had. To be able to have been on something that is more than a TV show, that is actually a cultural phenomenon that affects a whole generation of kids and the way they view music and the arts is really cool. It's amazing.
PC: To say the least!
TL: You know, when you step back from having done a TV show like that and you look at what the show has done to the cultural zeitgeist it is something really exciting to see for me. It's done so much for the arts - when I was a kid, theatre was for mostly the nerds and now theatre can be seen as cool again. It's become water cooler in a way and that's really, really cool - and for me to have been a tiny part of it in any way is such an honor.
PC: Your album reflects a similar sensibility to GLEE in a way given the switches in genre - something the fans would appreciate. Has your experience in the cabaret arena like that of Studio 54 opened up your performing palette even more?
TL: I think it has - you know, I often do cabaret gigs and jazz club gigs and I like that kind of intimate space and it's not "Telly Leung As Angel In RENT," it's "Telly Leung As Telly Leung" and I kind of love that whole thing. I think, artistically, the first one that I did confirmed for me that feeling of, you know, "I am enough. I have wonderful stories to share that might inspire others and wonderful music that connects to these stories, too." So, I've tried to pick music on the album that has had the most emotional attachment for me growing up and focus on who influenced me most and I am hoping that because I am picking music that resonates with me that it will also resonate with other people who get the album or see me perform live.
PC: Your "Papa Don't Preach" is pretty extreme in its arrangement and overall intent. How did that track come about?
TL: That track was by Gary Adler. He flushed out all the specifics. But, it came out of the idea that I wanted to do a cabaret act of inappropriate songs - you know, those songs that we as little kids learn and we don't really know what the lyrics mean but we sing them at the top of our lungs anyway because they are catchy songs; for another generation, it might not have been Madonna, it might have been the Beatles. So, it's like, [Sings.] "Why don't we do it in the road?" or "Lay, Lady, Lay"...
PC: Suggestive stuff.
TL: Right! Not stuff that you would want your kids singing, but, when you are a kid, you don't know what you are singing about - you learn the words and you just belt it out. So, for me and my generation, our music was Madonna - and, as you know, Madonna does not have the most family-friendly lyrics in the world. [Laughs.]
PC: Definitely not.
TL: But, at 7 or 8 years old, we didn't know any better! We were just singing the song. So, Michael Croiter came up with the basic groove we did that in - we didn't want to just reproduce the Madonna version. Michael said, "Well, we don't have any Latin flavors on this album at all," so, I said, "That's interesting." And, also, I saw this type of Cuban music called tumbao that I really wanted to get the feel of in the track, so that's what we ended up doing. Gary flushed it out and added all the string parts and all of that to it. It turned out great, I think.
PC: A collaborative effort.
TL: Oh, yeah - this album really was the collaboration of four musicians: me, Michael Croiter from Yellow Sound, Gary Adler, my musical director, and Mary Ann McSweeney, who is on bass and who does a lot of arranging herself, including two tracks for this album. She's a real jazz cat. So, the album is a really cool melding of all of our sensibilities.
PC: What can you tell me about "Cry If You Want To"?
TL: "Cry If You Want To" is a wonderful song written by this singer-songwriter who I love named Casey Scott, but most people know the version by Holly Cole - she was an artist I was introduced to in college who I really loved. I am a huge Holly Cole fan - she has heavily influenced me as a cabaret artist - but, it was always the Holly Cole Trio, you know?
PC: Just like your cabaret set-up.
TL: Exactly. She sings songs she loves and respects and she has that kind of synergy and energy that I like - and you see that generous spirit she has with her musicians and with her fans when she is onstage and I really love that, too. So, I wanted to give a shout-out to Holly Cole - very few people know her and her work, so I wanted to do my favorite Holly Cole song on this album.
PC: How did you decide on that haunting story-song, "Galileo"?
TL: Yes - "Galileo" is an Indigo Girls song. It's on their album RITE OF PASSAGE. You know, to me, the Indigo Girls says the 90s...
PC: No doubt.
TL: It was the time of Lilith Fair and all of that, you know? That song has a certain emotional resonance to me, as well. I love the Indigo Girls as songwriters and they write great guitar-based music - brilliant harmonizing because they are brilliant singers and they write everything on the guitar. So, "Galileo" is this amazing story-song - you know, it's three or four verses and they tell this story of this person who starts thinking about reincarnation and why they are and who they are and why they are how they are; is it because of the past lives they have lived?
PC: Very philosophical questions.
TL: Stephen Schwartz is the best story-song writer of all, to me - "Meadowlark" is the epitome of an amazing story-song and he does them brilliantly. So, I thought, "Why don't we kind of meld 'Meadowlark' and 'Galileo' and make a guitar-based song into a piano-based one with this driving theme and structure the whole thing kind of like 'Meadowlark'?" So, what I was trying to do was to make this song that was very pop and folky and rock into a theatre song and then treating it that way. And, in a way, I think it kind of pops the lyrics more.
PC: It does. Schwartz is someone whose material you have performed quite extensively.
TL: Oh, yeah - Stephen Schwartz is one of my favorite songwriters, as well. I actually first got to work with him back when I was in college. [Pause. Sighs.] It's such an honor to work with Stephen on anything and I have been fortunate enough to work with him on so many things - WICKED and GODSPELL and other things. You know, he's so much of a titan in our world of entertainment - he's won all those Oscars and he is just one of our living musical titans. He's such an approachable, wonderful human being in the rehearsal process and in the room - it takes you kind of by surprise how collaborative he is and how generous of spirit he is as an artist. So, that is something that is surprising, because he is such a force to be reckoned with! The list of what he has done is just staggering and so intimidating, but, as he is as an artist and as a human being is exactly the opposite of that if you can believe it.
PC: He has accomplished so much.
TL: He's a god in so many ways in music - but he's so humble and honest and collaborative. I am humbled that I have gotten to work with him in that way and know him like I have.
PC: Have you ever sung any of the cut Boq material from WICKED, if only just for fun?
TL: I haven't, but I'd love to see some of that stuff! The character was already set by the time I got to do the show, of course - I was in the original Chicago company, which was the third company that they put out; after Broadway and after the national tour. So, on that production they were recreating what worked in New York.
PC: Ana Gasteyer is so talented - and so wickedly smart.
TL: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - Ana is just stellar. We had a great time as a company on that show and a lot of that had to do with how cool Ana was on that. She's the real deal, Ana.
PC: Did you enjoy playing Boq?
TL: Oh, yeah! It's a really fun show - and a smooth show. And, again, to be a part of something that has such a cultural resonance - like with GLEE and RENT. I feel like WICKED is the show for the upcoming generation like RENT was for my generation. You know, some kid who was maybe dragged to see that show by their parents now loves theatre and goes to see other shows because of that and I got to be a part of it all. To be any part of that whole thing is really, really cool to me. It's really humbling and really fulfilling to know that I have influenced people in a good way with the shows and the projects that I have done.
PC: Will you be returning to GLEE as a Warbler anytime soon?
TL: Well, I have been so busy with ALLEGIANCE that they know over there that I am otherwise occupied with other things, so all I know is they are back on the show this month, but I unfortunately won't be on it this time.
PC: What are your thoughts on the seniority of the actors still playing high school age?
TL: Oh, I think you can play however old you need to be! It's just acting. You know, in ALLEGIANCE, I age quite a bit - you just put yourself into different shoes to play different ages.
PC: You returned to do RENT one last time when you did it at the Hollywood Bowl with Neil Patrick Harris directing not too long ago. What was that experience like for you?
TL: Oh, that was incredible! So much fun. I thought Neil Patrick Harris just did brilliantly - you know, he knew that he only had ten days to put up the show and he also knew that he wanted it to be a melding of two communities. He wanted it to be people from the LA community - people like Nicole Scherzinger and Wayne Brady and Vanessa Hudgens; and then all the Broadway people. So, he knew he wanted to retain something of the original RENT, too, so he made sure to bring in RENT alums as much as possible - so, me, Aaron Tveit and Tracie Thoms filled those roles and we were paired with people who had never done the show before. So, I was with Wayne; Tracie was with Nicole; Aaron was with Vanessa - that's how we rehearsed it. I think that it was a really cool thing to be able to, A, revisit this show that we all love, and, then, B, to also bring someone new into the RENT family at the same time. I think it was Neil's brilliant idea to cast the show that way and it made for a really fun rehearsal process and show to do. The people who did that show feel as connected to RENT as those of us who did it on Broadway or on tour do now. I mean, plus: 17,000 people and your face on a huge jumbotron? [Laughs.]
PC: And, Barbra Streisand just made her grand return there, as I'm sure you know.
TL: Oh, I know! I was actually doing my show down the street and I held the curtain because she was causing traffic jams in LA - I was playing right down the street in this great room called the Coterie, right in the heart of Hollywood. [Laughs.] It was super, super fun and I wanted to play a concert there before I came home to do this 54 Below show.
PC: What exactly can we expect from your 54 Below show on December 2?
TL: Well, it's our big CD celebration, so we are really going all-out! We will be doing the songs from the album, for sure, and some other things, too. I am so thrilled to be returning to 54 Below and Studio 54, where I did PACIFIC OVERTURES. I love the whole idea of it - this Broadway cabaret room right here in our neighborhood. So, this show is going to be slightly bigger than my usual cabaret shows - usually it's a trio, but we wanted to recreate the sound of the album, and, as you know, the sound of the album is pretty unique. Again, it's all a combination of styles, so, on the album, we have a trio and we also have a string quartet; I was like, "Let's recreate this sound for the 54 Below gig." So, we are going to have seven musicians onstage with me - it's going to be a huge, huge sound!
PC: How exciting that must be for a big-voiced performer like you.
TL: I am so excited! So, yeah - we are going all-out for 54 Below. We are going to have advance copies of the album there, of course, too, if people want to pick up an advance copy before Tuesday when it comes out officially. I am so excited to be there and so excited that 54 Below exists.
PC: Will there be any special guests?
TL: This show will be featuring my band who are so near and dear to my heart and we are going to talk about the songs and why we picked the songs we picked and a real celebration of this labor of love that we created together.
PC: I should tell you that I'LL COVER YOU has such a positive vibe and pleasant sound - it's a breath of fresh air and a really remarkable release.
TL: Oh, that's so nice to hear, Pat! Thank you so much! That's exactly what I wanted and what we set out to do with it - to make it like a smile.
PC: Lastly, what's next for ALLEGIANCE? Is it coming to Broadway this season or next?
TL: Well, there's no confirmations yet, but, you know, we broke all previous box office attendance records at The Old Globe in San Diego. Though nothing is official, I have hope that the show will go through a little more development and then will premiere again next year - how soon New York will see the show is just a matter of when. When it does, it will be huge. I am so happy people are starting to fall in love with the show - and fall in love with the story!
PC: It's quite a dramatic narrative to musicalize.
TL: It is! This story is so amazing - and this is a story that needs to be told; this story about people who survived this terrible, shrouded time in American history. We shine a light on those people and how they lived through it all - and with such dignity. So, yes, I am so excited that this is a story that will do some good, too - and one that will influence some social change, as well.
PC: It's been a long development process.
TL: We've been working on it a long time - the hard work never ends, though, you know? It doesn't end until you open on Broadway and the show freezes - and I hope that happens soon. I am looking forward to taking a little break anyway - a little vacation; I think I have earned it! I mean, I did GODSPELL and then I went right into recording this album and we are releasing it now and promoting it. So, I am going to lay back a little bit and I would love to do more gigs for the album like I will be doing at 54 Below after that.
PC: This was fabulous and I hope I'LL COVER YOU is a big hit. Thank you so much, Telly.
TL: Oh, thank you so much for doing this, Pat. I really appreciate it. It was great. Bye.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride, etc.