Broadway star Telly Leung left Hell’s Kitchen nearly two weeks ago to head to Japan. Tomorrow, he will leave the confines of his apartment in Tokyo for the first time after a strict 14 day quarantine. “No walks, no trips to the store. The producers make grocery runs and garbage disposal trips for us. I’ve not been outside this apartment for 14 days,” said Telly.
Telly is in Japan to play Peter in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. “It’s an amalgamation of talent from all over the world. We have Canadians, we have folks from London, we have Michael K Lee from Seoul, I’m sort of the Broadway contingent, we have Celinde Schoenmaker, she’s Dutch. I think they planned it to be sort of the Olympics of musical theater,” he explained. The musical ensemble is Japanese, as are members of the cast.
Telly wanted to share his experience with those back at home in order to help understand that for the rest of the world, COVID is not over. “I think it’s really easy for us to forget as we walk down Ninth Avenue and Restaurant Row. While I’ve been in quarantine, I was sort of living vicariously through all of my friends’ social media in New York — whereas it’s very much an ever-changing situation here in Japan,” Telly explained.
The actor will mark the end of quarantine tomorrow with another mandatory COVID test and a walk. Then he’s off to work in a city and theater environment very different than that of New York. Japan currently has a vaccination rate of just 14% — and is the focus of global attention with the 2021 Olympics due to start in Tokyo on July 23.
“I tasted a little bit of the world being open in June. I was in Hell’s Kitchen when Cuomo lifted everything as New York was over 70% vaccinated. I was starting to feel freer. I was starting to not think about COVID. I was riding the train and there were even times I absentmindedly didn’t Purell after I rode the subway. Now I am here, It’s like having to go back in a hole. I have to be honest, I’m slightly retraumatized and nervous to go back to rehearsal in two days,” said Telly yesterday.
Rehearsals have strict protocols. In cast meetings, performers need to be “one meter apart at all times, but two meters preferably”. Telly and colleagues are getting COVID tested every week. For the show they will be unmasked, but they are masked at all times during rehearsals.
Leung heads into rehearsals tomorrow in a car, as they are not allowed to use public transport. There will be no stage door, no backstage guests, no eating with other people backstage. Any hope of nightlife is curtailed with bars stopping serving at 7pm.
The actual show will only use 50% of the theater’s capacity — with the first five rows not in use at all. Cheering is a no-no too. “You’re not allowed to cheer at all during a rock show, you can clap. You’re not allowed to actually audibly make sound,” said Telly.
Telly reflected on the vaccine hesitancy in Japan — a country with such a trusting culture. “You’re never going to get Americans to not make noise. They’re gonna yell freedom of speech. It’s very different. And yet, there is so much vaccine hesitancy here and issues with trusting the government. It is interesting because I think of the Japanese as some of the most trusting people. In Japan, people don’t lock their bikes, they don’t lock their doors because there’s no crime — which is unheard of for Hell’s Kitchen residents. In Japan, there’s a certain sort of societal trust and yet there is a ton of vaccine hesitancy,” he shared. Leung helped Mayor Bill de Blasio launch a special vaccination center for New York’s performing arts community earlier this year.
“At the end of 14 days, I’ve really developed a sense of dual gratitude. I am grateful that Japan is even letting us foreigners into the country to do this show, and that I am getting a chance to make theater in Asia – where there was never a shut down of theater like there was on Broadway and the West End. But being here has also made me appreciate that despite our mishandling of COVID early on in the US, we ultimately did get the vaccination rollout right – and I feel lucky to be vaccinated,” said Telly.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs July 15-27 as part of the World Musical Concert Series at the Theatre Orb in Tokyo and then in Osaka until August 1.
Telly Leung took over the lead role of Aladdin on Broadway from original cast member Adam Jacobs in June 2017. He’s also appeared in Glee, Godspell, and Rent, starred opposite George Takei in Allegiance, and performed in the acapella musical In Transit. He and his husband, James Babcock, live in Hell’s Kitchen.