Writer Jay Kuo and actor Telly Leung discuss how serious subject matter can inspire and uplift
By Anthony King | SDUN Editor
The Old Globe Theatre dives into a major undertaking with their latest: “Allegiance – A New American Musical,” the epic story of family, love and patriotism set during the Japanese-American internment of World War II. For singer and actor Telly Leung, it is also a story of civil rights and equality, ideals he said everyone should know well.
“We’ve all felt second class in a country that says we are all equal,” Leung said. “As an Asian person I feel that way. As an Asian person in this industry I feel that way. As a member of the LGBT community I feel that way. We’ve all felt that way.”
Leung is currently in San Diego with the rest of the “Allegiance” cast and crew, and said he has been working on the project for over two years. The show began previews at the Old Globe Friday, Sept. 7, with opening night on Wednesday, Sept. 19. It will run through Oct. 21.
Being a world-premiere musical, Leung said that while he has extensive work on Broadway and national touring shows, he has never done anything like this: creating a character and show from scratch.
“The writers, like Jay [Kuo], have started to write around my strengths, which has actually been such a unique and rewarding experience,” Leung said.
Kuo wrote the music and lyrics for “Allegiance,” and said creating a show with specific actors in mind was both refreshing and helpful. “Allegiance” is Kuo’s fourth musical.
“For Telly, he’s got this incredible high tenor. I know what vowels work really well for him,” Kuo said, adding that he took everything – from vocal range to longevity –into consideration in working with Leung.
Calling the process “exciting” and “organic,” Kuo said a lot of changes are made during the last few weeks leading up to opening night.
“It’s one thing to sing it around a table or to look at it on the page. It’s another thing entirely to have the actors that you’ve cast performing it and staging it, with choreography,” he said.
Starring with Leung is George Takei and Lea Salonga, and Leung is quick to point out most everyone in the cast has worked together in the past. He calls the show a “home coming,” and said that while the acting community is very small, the Asian-acting community is even smaller.
“The whole project has been a wonderful reunion for me, with other Asian actors that I’ve worked with before,” he said.
Leung and Salonga first worked together in 2002, on one of Leung’s first forays on Broadway. “There’s no need to develop chemistry because ever since we met during ‘Flower Drum Song,’ I’ve always viewed her as a big sister, as a member of my Broadway family, as a mentor [and] as somebody that inspires me,” Leung said.
Salonga, who won a Tony Award for her work in “Miss Saigon,” is also well known for being the first Asian actor to play Eponine in “Les Misérables” on Broadway and was the singing voice of Mulan in Disney’s animated feature of the same name.
“As a kid, watching Lea accept her Tony on television was so inspiring,” Leung said. “I was one of many Asian people of my generation that, because she won a Tony, [was] inspired to become a performer.”
Born and raised in New York City, Leung said that to prepare for his role as Sammy Kimura in “Allegiance,” he did a lot of research on the history of the camps. The process lead him to realize much of the sentiment of that time – racism, hatred and fear – had been replayed during a time he remembers well: immediately following 9/11.
“We’re trying to find something as close to [the internment] as possible to attach to, [and] we all remember 9/11 and the feeling of fear,” he said. “Fear comes from … what’s different. If we focus on what’s similar, that the key.”
Leung, who has a regular appearance on “Glee” as Wes, one of the Dalton Academy Warblers, said both “Allegiance” and the Fox TV show are good examples of art shedding light on people who do not usually get the spotlight. Leung also linked his professional work to fighting for equality, including LGBT rights.
“This is why we are proud to be American in the first place,” Leung said. “We do strive for those ideals and we believe that, at some point, if we strive hard enough, they can exist.”
There are several special events in conjunction with the Old Globe production, including an art installation called “The Tag Project” and a museum exhibition drawing attention to different perspectives from the internment period. For complete information and to purchase tickets for the run, visit theoldglobe.org or call 619-234-5623.