Back to the Future's Jelani Remy on How Actors Are Like Chefs | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Back to the Future's Jelani Remy on How Actors Are Like Chefs

Plus, that time the actor met Oprah while performing in Ain't Too Proud.

Graphic by Vi Dang

The dynamic singer/actor Jelani Remy is back on Broadway this season in Back to the Future: The Musical, based on the blockbuster 1985 Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment film.

The new musical, which officially opened at the Winter Garden Theatre this past August, casts the New Jersey native in two different roles: janitor Goldie Wilson, who becomes a political figure, and band singer Marvin Berry.

Remy has also been seen on Broadway as Eddie Kendricks in the Tony-nominated Ain’t Too Proud and as Simba in the Tony-winning The Lion King. The Chita Rivera Award recipient has also appeared in productions of High School Musical, Smokey Joe’s Café, Apple Boys, Oscar Michaeux Suite, Love Around the Block, Cabaret, and Mozart: Her Story.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Remy reveals the Broadway star he thinks should have a bio-musical, and how he incorporated singing into a non-singing day job. 

Jelani Remy and the cast of Back to the Future: The Musical Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Where did you train/study?
Jelani Remy: I started my training by watching, admiring, and mimicking performances on TV from The Mickey Mouse Club and Kids Incorporated to the VMAs and Michael Jackson. Once I discovered my love for theatre, I learned a lot from my local community theatre (Pleasant Valley Productions at OSPAC) and The Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star program. For college, I studied for a BFA in musical theatre at Montclair State University, and since, have trained and studied with incredible voice teachers and musical directors throughout my career like Liz Caplan, Jeff Alani, Mike Ruckles, Clem Ishmael, and Kenny Seymour.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
There have been many teachers that have inspired and shaped me. I would have to say that the person who helped me discover my passion was my high school choir teacher, Jen Jessen. She was, and still is, a safe space and inspiration for me. She pushed me to do my first musical, which absolutely changed me. I felt like she saw me. She motivated me to dive into the craft and gave me incredible opportunities. I love her and am grateful that we still are very close and a great team helping the next crop of young entertainers.

Do you have a favorite onstage moment that you are a part of in Back to the Future? What makes that moment special?
“Gotta Start Somewhere”—I mean, Chris Bailey (our choreographer) did the thing! Also, [director] John Rando and [music supervisor] Nick Finlow created this incredible number that starts out with a positive jab to the underdog that is George McFly, and it spreads to the whole cast, which ends up revving up the entire theatre! It’s a journey that ends on such a level of joy!

Jelani Remy Joan Marcus

You've played Simba in The Lion King both on Broadway and on tour. What do you think you learned about yourself as a person and/or performer playing that part?
I will forever be in love with Simba and The Lion King. I grew up with that show. I learned a lot about myself, others, and the craft from doing it for the years I have. One thing I learned is that performers are like chefs—we go through life and experience real emotions and experiences, while having to perform night after night. We bottle them up like spices and then use them for our performances. It’s a tricky recipe because sometimes it can be too much or sometimes too little, but when it’s just right? It's delicious.

Can you share a favorite memory—either on stage or offstage—from Ain't Too Proud?
There are so many! Ain’t Too Proud was, and is, such a powerful and important story, and the people who put that show together, onstage and off, hold a special place in my heart! I sure will never forget when we finished a performance and were greeted backstage by none other than Oprah Winfrey, who ran over and gave me one of the greatest hugs ever. It’s on my Instagram (@itsjelaniremy). Oprah—come to the Winter Garden! I miss you!

Do you have a dream stage role?
I get asked that question a lot, and I honestly feel like every show I have been in has prepped me for the next adventure. It’s all like a dream. However, I would love to be part of telling Ben Vereen’s story.

Derrick Baskin, Jawan M. Jackson, Jelani Remy, Saint Aubyn, and E. Clayton Cornelious in Ain't Too Proud Matthew Murphy

How did you get your first job in the theatre?
Well, it came from a “no.” I auditioned for the Seaweed J. Stubbs standby position in Hairspray, and I didn’t get it. I was bummed but proud that I made it to the end. A few days later, got a call from casting to audition for Jeff Calhoun, who was casting High School Musical, and I went and booked it! It was a lesson in one door closing, and what is right for you will find you.

What is the most memorable day job you ever had?
I was once a spritzer for Bloomingdale’s, Saks, and Barneys with my best friend in college. It was too much fun and an acting challenge all in itself. I apologize to the folks I sang to to get them to purchase deluxe packages for my quota.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
No doesn’t mean no, it means not right now. Ask questions. If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.

What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
More of the business side! Learning about being on the other side of the table.

What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
Performing at the Tonys, The White House, or The Kennedy Center Honors. But I also have to say being an uncle and a son.

Take a Look at Production Photos of Back to the Future: The Musical

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!