Michael K. Lee is a big deal in Korea. The refreshingly modest recording artist is also a Broadway star. It’s a much different path for Lee, who began his college education pursuing medicine at Stanford University. After following his bliss, he made his stage debut in a touring production of Miss Saigon. Acting success followed and currently, he’s soaking up the spotlight as Frankie Suzuki, a revolutionary who opposes the United States internment of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the musical, Allegiance.
Lee shares the footlights with his fellow recording artist and performer, Telly Leung. Leung, who broke onto the Broadway stage in the 2003 revival of Flower Drum Song, plays Sammy Kimura, a soldier who abides by the government’s decision to sequester Japanese-Americans. Allegiance marks the first time Leung has danced on Broadway with a mobile intravenous unit. (It’s quite impressive!) Both Lee and Leung are joined by actor, activist, and Broadway newcomer George Takei, whose personal experiences have guided this completely original story. The two are also reunited with Miss Saigon’s original “Kim”, Tony award winner Lea Salonga.
Allegiance is particularly notable due to the all Asian-American cast, creative team, and director. Lee and Leung recently sat down with Manhattan Digest to talk about the level of diversity on Broadway, the audience reaction to their critically acclaimed show, and their recording careers.
MD: Have you both been with the show from its inception?
TL: Michael has been with it since 2009. I didn’t become involved until 2010, but there were two readings in California prior to that. They’ve continue to write and cut songs from this and it’s been ever-evolving.
MD: You play rivals in the show. I’m guessing that you’re onstage relationship doesn’t mirror your offstage one?
TL: It’s actually the complete opposite. We’re practically family. I’m an only child so Michael and his wife are the closest thing to siblings that I have.
MKL: When I first did the reading, there was another actor playing the role of my brother. Although he was terrific, I knew that the writers and composers were looking for something different. I told them that there is an actor in New York named Telly Leung and luckily, they followed through on the suggestion.
TL: I owe Michael a commission on this job, actually!
MD: And are you getting a commission,Michael?
MKL: (Laughs) I get to stay at his house when I visit New York.
MD: How long have you known one another?
TL: We’ve known each other since the 2005 Broadway production of Pacific Overtures.
MD: What’s been the audience reaction, specifically from survivors of the internment? Why do you think this story resonates so much with them?
TL: Michael and I have both worked with Lea Salonga in other shows and are aware that when she takes her bow, everyone rises to their feet. In this show, it’s interesting how people rise to their feet at the top of the company bow. It’s the kind that happens when people are moved by the story. They are moved by what’s happened to this community. Over 50,000 have seen Allegiance on Broadway. It’s been exciting to see how people react.
MKL: A lot of people don’t know the story. What is remarkable is that, by the end, people have experienced a great musical. I think that there is a collective cathartic moment and that is incredibly satisfying.
TL: That’s a perfect word- “catharsis”. We experience that every night, but our audiences are going on this ride with us.
MD: Michael, talk specifically about “Paradise”, a number which blasts Mike Masaoka. (Masaoka was a real life ambassador of the Japanese American Citizens League and encouraged Japanese Americans to abide by the internment- a position not well-regarded by Lee’s character, Frankie) What kind of comments, if any, have you heard about it?
MKL: There has been a lot of positive response. The creators found a way to take a terrible experience and turn it into a light, jocular parody. It’s fun, but simultaneously dark and very smart.
TL: What’s also so important about that number is that it shows people actually getting on with their lives in spite of the imprisonment. We watch these characters make the best of a bad situation.
MD: How much insight did George Takei have on the show? After all, much of it is based on his own family’s experiences.
TL: Tons! Dramaturgy can only do so much. To talk to someone who has experienced that is so helpful to the rest of the cast and creative team.
MKL: We can do a lot of reading and academic research, but when you have a human being there, it just adds an extra layer of reality and a truth that we have to hold with great responsibility when we step onstage.
MD: Let’s talk about diversity on Broadway. Do you feel that there are more opportunities with non-traditional casting or are casting directors still casting shows with blinders?
TL: It’s gotten better, but we still have a long way to go. This season on Broadway, though, has been filled with people of color who are no longer seen as “the foreigner”. Instead, they are as much a part of the American fabric as our very Caucasian founding fathers. Producers are responding to diverse groups who are hungry to see their stories told through different lenses.
MKL: It’s definitively getting better. But as much as I celebrate diversity on Broadway, I think we just need to take that next step and ask what it truly means to be American. Why not cast an Asian actor as Roger in Rent? The fabric of what it means to be American today is completely different.
MD: With the limited number of Asian specific shows, is the competition more fierce, or is there a shared bond and camaraderie between Asian-American performers?
MKL: Oh. It’s the latter. Because of the lack of Asian specific parts…anytime one of our peers gets to play a part, we all celebrate.
MD: What advice do you have for young, aspiring performers who are trying to break into the business?
MKL: At the end of the day, you have to enjoy the process of becoming the best artist or actor you can be.
TL: I had a wise person tell me once that a career in show business is a marathon, not a sprint. So, in many ways, you have to question whether it is just about being on Broadway or if there is a greater goal. If you’re going to choose this as a career, there is a long game, not a short game.
MD: Michael, do you think you’d have pursued you’re a degree in medicine had you not had your “break” in Miss Saigon in 1994?
MKL: Great question. I realized by the time I was a senior, I knew that my heart wasn’t into medicine. I think my heart would have led me to something more artistic.
MD: Your story of how you broke away from the mold is really inspiring. Telly, what do you think you’d be doing?
TL: Teaching. Somewhere in my thirties, I realized that I really enjoyed teaching people. I feel like I’ll end up somewhere in a classroom. Learning has become a passion of mine. Or I may have gone to culinary school. I enjoy cooking and have good instincts in the kitchen.
MD: Telly, you were a performing arts major at Carnegie Mellon, right?
TL: Yes. I started studying in high school and I had the best voice teachers. I saved my money and would go see as many shows as I could. So I learned a lot by watching.
MD: Telly, tell us about your new album, Songs For You, which you performed recently at a sold out Joe’s Pub?
TL: Each of the 12 tracks on that is dedicated to someone very special in my own life; those who have taught me, or fed me, or have given me something. It’s my musical way of saying “thank you.” ( Both of his albums are available at amazon.com.)
MD: Michael, you’re also a recording artist. Talk about that.
MKL: My management company is going to re-release my first album, which is cool. (“A Voice for Voices: Songs Of the Asian American Experience” is available for purchase via his Facebook page here. )
MD: What’s next for the two of you?
TL: We’ve both just been eating, breathing Allegiance and now we are headed into the gauntlet of a studio recording, but it’s all super exciting stuff.
Allegiance is currently enjoying an open-ended run at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre (W. 48th between Broadway and 8th). For tickets, visit the box office or purchase online.