“Aladdin” is, at its core, a tale about discovering one’s authentic self. Learning to appreciate one’s true identity and self-worth is a journey virtually everyone experiences at some point in their life, and thus, it can be argued that the story reverberates more intimately today than many of the other stories in the Disney universe.
“At the end of the day I think the story of Aladdin touches people because Aladdin is somebody that... [thinks] he has to wear the right clothes and have enough money and have the right entourage of people, speak a certain way, dress a certain way,” Leung, who began playing the titular role on June 13, told HuffPost. “And through the course of the show he learns that’s not really what being a ‘prince’ is all about. Actually, it’s about the actions that you do and your self-worth cannot come from things that are outside of you – it has to actually come from what is inside of you and what you contribute to the world and your actions.”
In this interview with HuffPost, Leung opens up about his journey to becoming Aladdin on Broadway, how his background informed how he developed the character and what he ultimately wants audiences to take away from the show.
HuffPost: How did you make the role of Aladdin uniquely your own?
Telly Leung: Well, this is my seventh Broadway show and most of my Broadway experiences, except for “Rent” on Broadway, have been originating a role or originating at least a track in a revival of a show. Originating a role has its own challenges in that you are creating a role on the spot ― but it’s also very freeing because you are the first person to do it. [But] “Aladdin” has already been a very established hit – not just on Broadway but all over the world – and there have been many Aladdins before me, not just in New York but all over the world. And so there are certain marks and things that you have to hit that have been created by my predecessors and I think the challenge for me as an artist is to find myself within that… how do I find my individuality within the structure of something that has already existed and existed successfully for many years.
The show seemed extremely queer to me ― it’s a really gay show! There’s also the whole conversation surrounding queer subtext in Disney. Do you personally feel the show has any kind of queer subtext?
I don’t! I always say that the way that the director has directed us and the way that the creators created the show have one intention, but the last element of any theatrical experience is where the audience comes in with their own point of view and their own life experience. I think it’s very interesting that people might see that – as the actor directed in the show, there wasn’t a queer undertone. And I assume you’re talking about maybe the relationship between Genie and Aladdin and all of that.
I think the way our creators have always directed us – there’s an interesting bromance that happens parallel to the romance that is happening between Aladdin and Jasmine. And that’s kind of what makes it very interesting ― Aladdin doesn’t have just one very close relationship in the show, he has two and they’re very different. Even though the relationship with the Genie isn’t romantic in that way, it is very intimate and very close and they are definitely partners in their own way – partners in crime, partners in collaborating, partners in the plot of the show, partners in helping each other out. And so it’s interesting – if you were to ask me who Aladdin is closer to, Jasmine or the Genie, I wouldn’t be able to answer you because the relationships are so different and yet equally close to his heart.
Another thing that struck me is the way the show employs so many modern day references and a lot of internet humor. How did that inform your own artistic choices in the show?
Disney has always done that. Disney has always found a way to make entertainment that’s right for the entire family. And that’s what I love about “Aladdin,” that’s what I love about all of the animated films, that’s what I love about Pixar. Yes, when you originally think of “Aladdin,” you think of a family show and that it’s just for the kids, when actually that’s not right at all. There is the romantic story for that couple that’s going on their date and decides to go to “Aladdin” to go to the theatre for the night as a date night. There’s also jokes in there that are just really for the adults! It is a musical comedy and an evening in the theatre and we know that our audience is filled with people of all ages. So, it’s interesting – people say, “oh, it’s a kid’s show,” and actually, no, it’s not a kid’s show. There’s really something for everyone and there’s a whole level of humor that is understood just for the adults. And I’ve always felt that way watching Disney films – there’s multiple layers to it. Even this film version of “Aladdin” – it came out when I was 12 and I understood it on one level. And now as an adult, watching “Aladdin,” I’m getting so many jokes that I missed because Robin Williams is going a hundred miles a minute. There’s so many references that now I understand and now I laugh at – and it still works.
How did your ethnic background and your cultural experiences inform how you wanted to approach the character of Aladdin?
Disney has always done this – they’ve been kind of at the forefront of nontraditional casting, whatever that means. And also just multiethnic, diverse casting – we have a very diverse cast here at “Aladdin” on Broadway and every company of “Aladdin” is very diverse – they’ve always done that. “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Mermaid” and all of that. It’s something that Disney does very well and I think – with me, personally, I grew up in a very traditional Chinese home. There’s a lot of Aladdin that I relate to when it comes to making your mom proud or making your parents proud. Pursing a life in show business was something that my parents didn’t necessarily want for me ― these kind of blue collar immigrant parents who came to New York City with not very much. My mom was a seamstress, my dad worked in the restaurant business ― they saved every penny so that I could get a good education, go to college and become a doctor or lawyer or something. Being an actor to them was like, “oh my gosh, he’s going to be a starving actor.” That’s not what we wanted for me.
And so it’s difficult – I relate to that part of Aladdin where he feels like he’s letting his parents down. But that, in many ways, my parents and I in our personal lives ― we’ve reconciled that. In a lot of ways I’ve understood that their desire for me to go to Harvard and be a doctor came out of a place of love and concern for me and wanting those things for me that they could not have as immigrants. But, I think as they get older and as I get older, the parents start learning from the kids. I think they realized through me that I am getting a part of the American dream they did not get. They didn’t have options – they came to New York, they crashed on friends’ couches in Chinatown. Most Chinese immigrants worked in either a garment factory or a restaurant when they came to New York City. That was the majority of people and that’s what my parents fell into. I had the luxury of going “mom, dad, this is what I want to do as a part of the American dream that you did not get to experience, I want to do something and if I work really hard at it I can make that dream come true.” Even if its something as crazy as starring on Broadway. And I think that now they’ve seen me do this for seven shows they realize, would Telly be making more money as a doctor or brain surgeon? Maybe. But that’s not what it’s about and that’s not what the dream was about.
What do you want someone coming to the show to take away from your artistic interpretation of Aladdin?
My philosophy about theater is that I want 1700 people to come into the theater and I want them to leave changed in some way ― whether they feel lighter or more entertained or whether they are moved to tears ― I want them to be changed so they when they leave they see the world differently, or they see themselves differently, and I think in going through this journey with Aladdin. I’m hoping that our audience members will leave Agrabah going, “you know what, I can learn something from that kid – but can I look at my life and define myself and my self worth with things that are not necessarily outside of myself but inside of myself and what I’ve done. And my actions.” I think that is at the heart of why Aladdin really touches people.
Aladdin on Broadway is currently running at the New Amsterdam Theater. Head here for more info and tickets.