NEW YORK — Carol Channing has affected a great many people during the course of her great career — none more so than Telly Leung.
The gifted singer and actor was in the seats as a teenager to watch her in “Hello, Dolly” during a pivotal moment in his life. Leung adored musicals, even if his parents wanted him to focus on more lucrative pursuits.
The day after he took his SATs in the fall of 1995, he found himself in Times Square. It was a Wednesday afternoon and it was raining hard.
“I decided to reward myself after the SATs by going to the TKTS booth and buying a ticket to a Broadway show,” he recalls.
He picked the classic musical about a matchmaker with her sights set on a match of her own. “I was totally entranced,” he said. “My life and the show morphed.”
Watching Channing sing “Before the Parade Passes By” — a song about seizing the moment — was especially meaningful. “She was singing right to me. This was the battle call: Before the parade passes by, I’ve got to do what it is what I deep down want to do.”
It sent Leung on a path that would eventually get him on Broadway in shows such as “Flower Drum Song,” “Rent” and “Godspell.” Thanks to Channing, of course.
So it’s no wonder that “Before the Parade Passes By” was included when Leung was assembling songs for his debut solo CD, the 13-track “I’ll Cover You,” released this month by Yellow Sound Label.
Leung, backed by a jazz trio and a string quartet, tackles what at first seems like an odd collection of songs — Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” Stevie Wonder’s “Knock Me Off My Feet,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen,” Katy Perry’s “Firework” and The Beatles’ “In My Life.”
But the 32-year-old New Yorker who was named after TV star Telly Savalas reveals that each song has deep meaning.
“They’re all part of the soundtrack of my life,” he says.
Leung was a highlight of the recent revival of “Godspell” and is a member of the Dalton Academy Warblers on TV’s “Glee.”
The Carnegie Mellon University-trained Leung talked about the CD, “Allegiance” and jazzing up The Beatles.
Why did you choose to arrange these tunes with a jazz quartet and strings?
I thought it’d be really great to explore how to strip these songs down to their bare essentials. You hear them again, in a way. So they’re really rearranged but without losing the essence of what the song is. That was always our goal.
Were you nervous reworking songs by The Beatles or Sondheim?
Definitely, but that’s why I made them so personal. For instance, I chose that Beatles song because my parents said that, as a baby, whenever they put on a Beatles record, I went right to bed. I don’t know what that says about The Beatles but maybe I just had really good taste in music as a kid and I thought, ‘That’s good stuff. I’ll go to sleep now.’ For me, ‘In My Life’ has always been a lullaby.
So what’s the story behind “Papa Don’t Preach”?
I’m an ‘80s kid and Madonna is a huge part of the ‘80s. I love that when you’re a young kid, you learn lyrics to songs, but you have no idea what it means. That was me: Singing ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ at the top of my lungs — a little 8-year-old Chinese kid singing about whether to have an abortion.
What about the Katy Perry song?
I was out in L.A. doing ‘Glee’ at the time. I’m a New Yorker and I hate driving, but when I’m in L.A. you have to drive. The best part of (the) driving culture is that you spend a lot of time in your car listening to the radio. And that Katy Perry song was on every radio station and I loved it. I was like, ‘Why do I love that song so much?’ I realized I love what the song has to say. You might not get that under the heavy dance beat and the production of it. But that’s why I dig the song — it’s a song for the underdog.
AP: Tell us about “Allegiance.” A Japanese internment musical sounds like a tough sell.
Leung: I know. At first hearing it, it’s not a palatable subject for a musical. The first question is, ‘Who’s going to see that?’ But then you realize a really good story is a really good story and that is at the heart of what ‘Allegiance’ really is. The audience walks in with doubts and walks out in tears.
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