The Broadway National Tour of Rent, making its brief stop at the Warner Theatre May 26 – 31, includes three original cast members, and the remarkable Telly Leung. Telly first appeared in the Broadway production in 2006 as Steve and Others, and has also stepped into the role of Angel.
Here he talks about how Rent has changed his life, what it’s like to perform on the road, away from him home in The Big Apple, and why Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical is touching the hearts of a new generation of young theatergoers.
Joel: Tell us a little about yourself.
Telly: I’m originally from Brooklyn, NY. I was lucky enough to grow up in New York, where Broadway was just a short subway ride away – so saving up my money to go to the TKTS booth for show was something I did as often as I could in high school. My formal training was in college – at Carnegie Mellon University. I still take classes and voice lessons when I can, but that can be difficult when I’m on tour.
Joel: Since we recorded a podcast with you at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s M Butterfly, you returned to the Broadway cast of Rent, appeared in its closing Broadway performance, which was shown in theatres everywhere, and now are traveling all over the USA with the Broadway tour. What’s it like to be on the road?
Telly: Being on the road has its ups and downs. I love touring the country, and getting to play a new theater every week. I love interacting with people from all over and being a tourist whenever I can. A motto that was taught to me on my last tour (which I still abide by): “Do you have your wallet? Your phone? Your keys? Good! Leave your hotel room and take an adventure!” I try to take as many adventures as I possibly can. Of course, traveling can also be tricky. Different climates and time zones prove challenging to your body as a performer – and plays tricks on your voice. You may feel fine in Philly on a Sunday, and have crazy allergy attacks in North Carolina on a Monday! So, you learn to roll with it. I also get homesick sometimes – and I miss my New York life terribly. But, at the end of the day, I am incredibly thankful to have the opportunity be on THIS tour, telling THIS story eight times a week, with THIS company. Being a part of Rent is truly a gift.
Joel: Let’s go back to the first time you tried out for the show.
Telly: Back in 2006, I appeared in the Paper Mill production of Godspell. My cast mate in that production, Robin De Jesus, had left the company of Rent as Steve & Others (u/s Angel) to be a part of this production and subsequently, the off-Broadway production of In The Heights (for which he was Tony nominated). There was a temporary replacement for 10 weeks playing Steve while they were looking for a replacement – so I auditioned while I was in rehearsal with the person I was replacing! It was a matter of being the right person at the right time and place.
Joel: When did you get the phone call that you had been cast?
Telly: The phone call came at the end of a long day of rehearsals at 42nd Street Studios for Godspell – and I remember fondly sharing the joy of getting the job with Robin and my Godspell company.
Joel: What do you remember about the first time you walked onto the Nederlander Stage?
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Telly: The most vivid memory I have of making my debut in Rent is singing “Seasons of Love” at the top of Act 2, and looking down at the front row. When I was in high school, I slept on 41st street the first summer that Rent debuted on Broadway and got my $20 front row rush seat. This was before they did the lottery system – and it was first-come-first-serve, so I was there from 5 AM in the morning! As I sang “Seasons of Love” on that stage (almost 10 years later) I couldn’t help but look down at the folks in that front row and think, “That was me!”
I remember sitting in that front row, watching that original Broadway cast and the raw honesty with which they sang and told Jonathan’s incredible story. It was the most ethnically diverse cast I’d seen in a Broadway show – Caucasians, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos – and it was a big wake-up call to me. As a New Yorker myself, I identified with the world they created on stage – the melting pot of talent and race that is New York – and I knew deep in my hear that I UNDERSTOOD this world and this show. It was my big Chorus Line “I Could Do That!” moment.
Telly: I love playing STEVE and OTHERS every night! First of all, I get to lead the company in one of my favorite moments in the show: “WILL I”. The song is sung in a round – and I love that the questions: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?” resonate differently in all of us – as performers, peoples, and characters on stage. In fact, I think my favorite moments to perform in the show are the ones that include the entire company: “Rent”, “Will I”, “Seasons Of Love”, and the “Finale”. What I love about Rent is the way that Larson, Greif, and Yearby have created an ensemble show in the truest sense. There are actors that perform one character every night (Mark, Roger, Maureen, etc.) but the story would not be complete without the homeless bag lady, the cops, and the waiter in the Life Café (one of the “others” in the “Steve & Others” track). It is a rewarding challenge to make these less featured characters be as 3-dimensional and significant as the principle characters in the show because they are just as important to the story being told. As a native New Yorker, I’ve encountered the real versions of all of these “others” in my everyday New York life – so it’s incredibly easy to relate to these roles for me.
Getting to play ANGEL once in a while is nothing short of a dream. What a role! When I first started as an understudy at Rent, I was encouraged by the powers that be to not simply understudy and fill a vacancy for the night – but to find my own Angel. When I was first learning the show, I was able to watch three amazing Angels in my time at Rent – Justin Johnston, Shaun Earl, and Andy Senor. I learned so much from watching these three actors. All of these brilliant actors brought their own sense of truth to this character, and I watched the show live and breathe differently when they were playing the role.
Like I said, Rent is truly an ensemble show – and I watched the other actors adjust their performances to accommodate the understudies when they were on. THIS is the way a long-running show should live and breathe! It gave me permission to just “be” and play on-stage with my fellow actors – and find my own truth as this character. When I am on for Angel, I feel incredibly supported by the rest of the company on and off the stage – and I feel like I can do no wrong as long as I’m interacting honestly and in-the-moment with my fellow cast mates. To me, Angel is someone who has been through the many emotional stages that come with getting diagnosed with a terminally-ill disease (like AIDS), and is making an active choice to live in a place of “love” and not “fear.” He has made peace with the fact that life could end at ANY time. He realizes that to be able to live another day is truly a gift – and he actively CHOOSES to live each day to the fullest, with his heart on his sleeve. That is why he and Collins fall in love so quickly in the show. It is ALMOST love at first sight because they both realize that there is no time to lose.
Joel: Will we see you as Angel at the Warner Theatre?
Telly: I’ve gotten to perform Angel on the tour. I did several shows in Newark and Rochester. Not sure if I’ll be on in DC.
Joel: What role in Rent would you like to play that you haven’t yet?
Telly: This question always comes up within the company. There are TWO roles that come to mind. The first is MARK. I love the way he welcomes the audience into the world of Rent – and I love the way he gets to interact with the audience throughout the show. I also think that the “Mrs. Jefferson & others” track is incredibly fun! She gets to be the bag lady AND sing the solo in “Seasons of Love. I know I’ll never get to play that track – but one can dream, right?
Joel: How has performing in Rent changed your life?
Telly: How can you sing “No Day But Today” eight times a week, and not have that mantra sneak its way into your life? One of my cast mates in the closing company said that performing Rent has actually made him a better person – and I can not agree more. The message in the show – to live life to the fullest and chose to live in a place of compassion and love – is one that has definitely made me a better person, on and off the stage.
Joel: Tell us about performing in DC.
Telly: The last time I performed in DC was in Children of Eden at Fords Theatre. It was directed by the wonderfully talented David Bell. It was a STELLAR ensemble cast. I guess I’m really drawn to ensemble projects!
Joel: Have you ever performed at the Warner before?
Telly: I’ve never performed there. I’m looking forward to it.
Joel: How would you describe DC audiences?
Telly: I think DC audiences are very similar to NY audiences. They are smart and attentive. I also love that everyone in DC is incredibly in touch with politics. The conversations you hear when you leave the theater and walk down the street are all so politically charged. With the recent election, I think the rest of the nation has caught up with DC in political consciousness.
Joel: How many performances of Rent have you appeared in? Have you been counting?
Telly: HA! Sorry. I haven’t counted. I’ve been in Rent (on and off) since November 2006 – so maybe you can help me with the math.
Joel: Which theatre has been your favorite to perform in so far on the tour?
Telly: I loved performing at the Philadelphia Music Hall. It’s a historic landmark – and there’s something very intimate about that theater. I also loved performing at the Pantages in LA. Our next stop after DC is St. Louis. I am very much looking forward to St. Louis because I’ve worked extensively at THE MUNY – one of my favorite venues around the country. I am VERY much looking forward to the Asia leg of the tour in Japan and Korea.
Joel: Who are you seeing in the audiences on the road?
Telly: The most interesting thing about our audiences is that we are now seeing parents bringing their kids to the show. Thirteen years ago, these parents were young high school or college students – and they are now exposing their children to the powerful messages of Rent. It is amazing how this show is crossing generations.
Joel: Have you ever gotten bored with the show?
Telly: I am never bored with Rent. There are times that I may feel tired or less motivated, but for some reason, when the conductor counts “2, 3, 4” and the first guitar licks of Rent starts, it’s like an electric current runs through your body, and you just go along for the ride. The show (and the incredibly score) keeps you going – even if you’re exhausted and it’s the last show of a 5-show-weekend.
Joel: What song is very emotional for you?
Telly: One moment that still touches me emotionally EVERY time is “Without You”. I love the way Michael Greif has staged this moment – to reflect the passage of time with the three couples on stage. As Angel, the passage of time signifies the disease taking him further (and in some ways, closer) to Collins and his friends. As Angel, this moment always feels like a tug of war of emotion. As Steve, I’m actually off-stage for this moment, in the wings, prepping for an entrance. But, hearing Mimi sing this song still touches me deeply.
Joel: Why do you think Rent is still so popular 13 years after it opened on Broadway?
Telly: The message of Rent, the idea of “No Day But Today”, is timeless and universal. It’s this reason that Rent endures over a decade, and in productions all over the world. Rent also has one of the most powerful scores in the music theatre canon – and music like this is timeless.
Joel: Why should DC audiences come and see this production of Rent?
Telly: I encourage everyone to catch this particular cast of Rent. What a thrill it is to see original cast members Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, and Gwen Stewart re-create their performances! I still pinch myself when I think that I’m sharing a stage with them! Also – the rest of the cast is filled with top-notch Rent alums from the last 13 years, and our newest cast members (Adam Halpin, Toby Blackwell, and Lexi Lawson as Mimi) are all stellar additions to the Rent family.
Rent plays at the Warner Theatre from May 26-31st. For tickets, click here.
Performing Rent: School Edition
Churchill High School in Potomac, MD, was one of the first high schools in the country to acquire the rights to Rent: School Edition, which they performed last November.
In the NY Times, (Feb 19, 2009) titled “Tamer Rent Is Too Wild for Some Schools”, Patrick Healy explained the changes that were made for Rent: School Edition. “Rent, … is based loosely on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème.” It centers on a group of artists, straight and gay, living in the East Village. Some are H.I.V. positive; some are drug addicts; some are in recovery.
None of these aspects have been altered for the high school version. The main changes are the deletion of some profane dialogue and lyrics as well as a song, “Contact,” that is sexually explicit. In “Rent,” that song accompanies the death of Angel, a gay drag queen with AIDS; in the high school version, his death unfolds in an earlier song…”
I was blown away by the Churchill production and named two of its cast members, Steve Rigaux, and Sonya Lillenstein as Scene Stealers in this column. Churchill High School will be performing their production in this year’s Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.
I asked Telly to give advice to Churchill HS and to Act Two, and other young companies doing Rent: School Edition .
Telly: I would encourage high school directors to treat the show with simplicity and honesty. There is a reason that this bare bones show of tables, lights, and chairs has survived on Broadway (and on tour) for over 13 years. The power of the show is not in its spectacle, but in its score and story – so keep the focus on those two vital things. Rent can be beautifully told in large theaters (like we’re doing on tour) and in small classrooms.
Joel: What advice would you give a high school actor who was preparing to play the role of Angel?
Telly: Practice A LOT with your heels and your lashes – especially the lashes! I had never put lashes on in understudy rehearsal. The first time I went on for the role on Broadway was the first time I’d ever worn fake lashes – and it really threw me off how much it hindered my vision. But, at the end of the day, by biggest piece of advice would be to focus on Angel’s place in this group of friends. He is, in many ways, the glue that keeps that family together.
Jessica: Hi Telly:
We are thrilled to be coming to see your production on opening night, Tuesday May 26 at the Warner Theatre. We’ve been working on revamping our production for Edinburgh and your advice is well needed right now as all of our attention has been to fundraising lately! One of the original reasons I chose Rent: School Edition for our Fringe production was because of exactly what you said, it’s the message, not the spectacle that I find so powerful.
The Fringe is all about creativity and performance and less about the technical aspects as so many people come from all over the world to share their talents in Edinburgh each August. Our performance space in Edinburgh will have 167 seats, which will be an adjustment from the school’s 1100 seat auditorium, but after working with these amazingly talented students from Potomac, Maryland for most of the year, I truly believe they could perform it anywhere and wow crowds. Thanks again for the advice, and break a leg on your show!
What you said echoes for me as a director, and I am sure with anyone who has seen this captivating story. Allowing the story, to captivate audiences and steering clear of spectacle is essential- especially given the quality of the characters, plot line, and music. This is not to say that aspects of the staging, and interpretation can not be “updated” to a more contemporary take, it is a journey like any other and each cast will find ways to express the characters relationships in a way that is “relevant” to themselves personally.
I think additionally, and especially with anyone directing Rent: School Edition it is even more important to use the production as a vehicle to educate students, I would challenge every director of this production to spend as much time in the “process” as concentrating on the “product”. In this show, musical theatre has the ability to inform and inspire, giving those involved as cast and crew information that will impact their future thinking on issues like HIV/AIDS, Human Rights, Homelessness and so many other issues that are still very relevant..
Keith: Act Two’s Rent: School Edition is being performed by 35 high school students from Montgomery County schools, including private schools Good Counsel High School, Georgetown Prep, Academy of The Holy Cross.. The roles of Mimi and Roger played by Kristianne Oristian and Matt Miller are both juniors at Good Counsel High School in Olney. Collins and Angel played by Troi Sharp and Josh Matteo are both seniors. Troi goes to St Johns College High School and Josh goes to Georgetown Prep. The roles of Maureen and Joanne are played by Emmi Stern, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase HS and Elli Borzilleri, a junior at Walter Johnson. Mark is played by Ryan Kanfer, a sophomore a Winston Churchill.
Act Two performs Rent: School Edition at the Georgetown Prep, 10900 Rockville Pike in North Bethesda, Maryland on Friday, June 5th at 7:30pm , Saturday, June 6th at 2:00pm and 7:30 PM, and Sunday, June 7th ay 2:00 PM.. Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for students and seniors, $15 for groups of 10 and up, and rear balcony unreserved seats are $12. For tickets, click here.