Days before stepping into the title role of Disney’s Aladdin on June 13, Broadway favorite Telly Leung is staying mum on the secrets behind that beloved magic carpet. Mostly because he’s content to remain in the dark himself.
“There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to know,” the actor tells ET of the illusion that finds packed houses at the New Amsterdam Theatre gasping night after night. “I remember seeing the show, and as somebody who’s done plenty of Broadway and knows all the tricks, I had no idea how that worked onstage. It really was magic -- it took my breath away.”
Like countless kids of his generation, Leung grew up on the 1992 animated film, which joined Disney’s successful roster of Broadway musical adaptations in 2014. “Instead of having a princess as the hero, it was cool to have this guy as the lead, as a nontraditional Disney prince in a lot of ways,” Leung says, comparing the movie to composer Alan Menken’s others for the studio, including The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, both of which were also made into Broadway musicals.
Though the Brooklyn-born actor admits it may not have registered consciously when he was young, Aladdin also holds significance as a rare non-white lead in the crowded field of children’s stories. “This company is filled with some of the most talented people of color on Broadway, ever,” Leung says. “I happen to be a Chinese-American Aladdin. Adam Jacobs who I followed is mixed-race, there’s a Filipino Aladdin, there’s a Middle Eastern Aladdin; it’s very ethnically diverse.” (Check out ET’s exclusive first look at the actor in character below:)
That the residents of Agrabah seem to hail from all over is a conscious choice by the musical’s creative team, Leung says, including director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who also helmed The Book of Mormon. “They took that artistic license to say we’re living in the age of Hamilton, we’re living in 2017; audiences want to see a world onstage that reflects the world outside that theater too, which is diverse and beautiful.”
Leung’s other recent leading roles on Broadway have also shone a spotlight on issues of visibility. Earlier this year, the actor starred in Frozen composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s a capella musical In Transit, as a gay New Yorker encouraging his fiancé to finally come out to his own family. Last season he appeared opposite George Takei in Allegiance, a fictionalized account of the Star Trek actor’s own experience with Japanese-American internment camps during WWII.
The moral at the heart of Aladdin seems to resonate through each of these stories and beyond, and is one reason Leung points to in explaining its timeless appeal. “Aladdin has to learn that his own worth is not something that’s material, it’s not something that’s outside of him, it’s something that’s inside of him,” the actor says of his character’s emotional journey on the way to capturing Princess Jasmine’s heart. “Your worth is not the clothes you wear, your worth is not the big house you live in, or how much money you have in the bank. It’s something deeper than that.”