Interview: JELANI REMY (currently performing in Broadway’s Back to the Future: The Musical)

Post image for Interview: JELANI REMY (currently performing in Broadway’s Back to the Future: The Musical)

by Gregory Fletcher on November 14, 2023

in Interviews,Theater-New York


Hill Valley has been recreated at the Winter Garden Theatre, where Back to the Future: The Musical opened in September. Speeding up to 88 miles per hour, Marty McFly (Casey Likes) is transported back to 1955 in a time machine, built by the eccentric scientist Doc Brown (Roger Bart). The course of history is accidentally changed, and Marty must race against time to fix the present, escape the past, and send himself … (you guessed it) back to the future. The score features original music by Alan Silvestri (“Avengers: Endgame”) and Glen Ballard (Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”) along with the hit songs from the movie, including “The Power of Love,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Earth Angel,” and “Back in Time.”

Jelani Remy, called a “knockout” in Stage and Cinema‘s review, plays two roles in the New York production: Goldie Wilson and Marvin Berry. Goldie starts off as a café worker in the 50s; through the art of positive thinking, gumption, and drive, he ends up as mayor of Hill Valley in the 80s. The second role is that of the fictional cousin of Chuck Berry, also a performer, whose band is performing at a high school function which crosses paths with Marty.

Born outside of NYC in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, Jelani was struck by the theater bug in a high school production of Grease (cast as Doody in his freshman year) and he’s been on his own positive, driven trajectory landing on Broadway in The Lion King and later in Ain’t Too Proud (The Life and Times of The Temptations).

 Jelani Remy and the Cast of Back to the Future (Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman)

Recently, Stage and Cinema’s Gregory Fletcher got a chance to speak with Mr. Remy about his own magical journey into Broadway history and its future.

GREGORY FLETCHER: Were you involved with the original London production?

JELANI REMY: I was not. I’m brand new to the Back to the Future family.

FLETCHER: How many cast members came over from the London production?

REMY: Only two: Roger Bart, who plays Doc Brown, and Hugh Coles, who plays George McFly [Marty’s father]. They had this beautiful guideline as to what to do with the show, and then they recreated and expanded it for the American cast in New York.

FLETCHER: Did they show a recording of the London production? Did you see it?

REMY: They did not, and I’ve never seen it. I know that they had a fantastic show, and we’re happy to be slipping into it and breathing our own life and energy into the roles.

FLETCHER: What was the audition process like for you?

Photo by Michael Hull

REMY: Honestly, the audition process was scary because I had cold feet about stepping into this iconic story and bringing it to life. How could I possibly step into the giant shoes of Harry Waters Jr? [who originated the role of Marvin Berry in the film]. But as I learned the song, I was like, well, why not? Why couldn’t I? And at the audition, there were people I’d worked with in different parts of my life, so all the fears went away as it felt more like a family reunion. There were some of the producers from Smokey Joe’s Cafe, [2018, at Off-Broadway’s Stage 42] and I’d just come off a working gig for “Hermes,” created by Chris Bailey, the choreographer. And I’ve seen John Rando’s work forever [the director], so it was a nice mix of familiar faces that felt kind of like kismet.

FLETCHER: How much was Chuck Berry on your radar before getting cast to play his fictional cousin?

REMY: I believe that art imitates life, because I’d just worked on the show Rock and Roll Man at New World Stages where Chuck Berry was a character. I didn’t play him, but I deep-dived into his life to help a good friend prepare, so it’s amazing how my art helped me prep for the next thing I’m doing, playing his cousin.

FLETCHER: How much rehearsal time did you have?

REMY: Three weeks of rehearsals, and two weeks for tech, so it came together relatively quickly. And no out-of-town tryout. I guess they used the London version as the out-of-town tryout.

FLETCHER: Did your two characters change much from the film version?

REMY: I think they were amplified for Broadway, made larger than life. Goldie becomes this beacon of light to give George [McFly] and the entire audience a push to do whatever they’ve been holding back. He’s like the underdog story line. Whereas Marvin Berry is like the old uncle who’s seen it all. And who gets all the iconic dialogue in the show.

John Edwards, Jelani Remy, Dwayne Cooper and Kyle Taylor Parker in Smokey Joe's Café
(Julia Russell)

FLETCHER: What did you do to help differentiate between the two roles?

REMY: I bounce a lot of ideas off John Rando. You know, he’s been there before. Also, costumes and wigs help a lot. When I put his mustache on, it transports me. The music, too, helps me differentiate between the two characters. Goldie’s music is like a revival song whereas Marvin has the iconic film music to distinguish himself, like “Earth Angel.” The music definitely transports me.

FLETCHER: You have such a delightful, endearing spirit onstage. Does that come naturally or is that something you’ve learned and cultivated?

REMY: Well, I try, thank you. I mean, we get to play on stage, which is really fun. I get to campaign throughout the show with positivity and humor, so it’s easy to tap into all that.

Derrick Baskin, Jelani Remy, Jawan M. Jackson, Ephraim Sykes, and James Harkness
in Ain't Too Proud (Matthew Murphy)

FLETCHER: Prior to this show, you worked as a swing for Ain’t Too Proud and The Lion King, and you worked your way up to leading roles in both shows. I’m wondering if you have any advice to share or any inspiration about being a swing. It’s got to be one of the hardest jobs.

REMY: It is the hardest job; that’s no joke. I had to learn eight different tracks in The Lion King, and I covered the five Temptations in Ain’t Too Proud. But the best thing that I found is being ready for anything. You have to jump in and be the ultimate chameleon, and that’s onstage and within the backstage traffic, too. But when it comes to performing these roles, it’s about bringing your best self to it and remembering that you don’t want to be a carbon copy, you want to be your own. There’s no other you than you. So, make it unique and make it your own, and keep it something you know that you have carefully studied and crafted, and something you enjoy doing.

FLETCHER: Learning the five tracks in Ain’t Too Proud on and off-stage, and the eight in The Lion King—that’s a lot of details to hold in your head and recall quickly as needed. It seems very overwhelming and daunting.

REMY: Not daunting. Just work. You have to understand who goes left, who goes right, and you learn the logistics. And once you get it in your body, you’ll never forget it.

Luke Hawkins, Kathryn Allison, Sam Gravitte, and Jelani Remy in The Brat Pack at Birdland

FLETCHER: How often did you go on as a swing?

REMY: A lot. I mean, in Ain’t Too Proud, I learned a bunch of roles before getting bumped up to Eddie Kendricks when Jeremy [Pope] was leaving the show. So, I learned it all to forget it all. But you never forget.

FLETCHER: Which memorable moments from Ain’t Too Proud do you think of the most?

REMY: One of my favorite moments was coming back to the show, post-pandemic, and being able to step back onstage and tell such a wonderful story, especially after watching the world change a little bit. It definitely changed my delivery, my perspective, and my emotional attachment to the show. The Temptations went through a similar change that we were going through with social injustice. History was repeating itself all over again. How wonderful it was to have music bring everybody together. You know, it was the music that brought different races and backgrounds of people to the dance floor.

Jelani Remy as Simba in The Lion King (Joan Marcus)

FLETCHER: And from The Lion King?

REMY: I think my most memorable moment was being able to finally perform here in New York City, my first Broadway show. I had about 75 people from my hometown there cheering me on. So, it was kind of a surreal experience, like a homecoming.

FLETCHER: How about keeping a role fresh for so long? Any advice or tips for accomplishing that?

REMY: Somebody once told me, “Somebody’s seeing the show for the first time, and there’s somebody seeing the show for the last time, so it’s your duty to give them something to remember.” That always stuck with me.

FLETCHER: What kind of a process allows you to do that? Is it just in the head? Or part of a warm-up? How do you get there?

JELANI REMY (Instagram)

REMY: I’ve fallen back to swimming, and I find that that it’s helped me a lot with breath, support, control, and breathing. Besides working out with kettle bells, I do my vocal exercises, that’s all part of the regimen of getting ready. Also, the cooldowns post show. From doing scales down, to making sure you rest your voice. And making sure to rehydrate because we’re dancing a lot and sweating up a storm.

FLETCHER: How much time before and after the show are you warming up and cooling down?

REMY: Normally about 20-30 minutes afterwards. At least 30 minutes of warm up, sometimes more. I swim at least 30 minutes and then do some cardio as well.

FLETCHER: Looking at Back to the Future, what have some of your most memorable moments been so far?

Singing in Times Square (Instagram)

REMY: I love “Gotta Start Somewhere.” It’s become my favorite song set up. I love meeting George McFly and then sending him into my perspective. I think it’s really cool. Going from George’s lens, I feel like I opened it up to connect with the audience, and there’s no greater feeling right after that. That alternate connection with the audience, especially during a song and dance number, a big number that just goes and goes and goes and goes, and then all that stuff onstage fills me with the audience. I think it’s such a fulfilling and gratifying experience, and it’s really special that Back to the Future has something like that in the show.

FLETCHER: Would you like to stay with the show for a long time?

REMY: I hope so. I’m really grateful for this one. Look for us at the Macy’s Day parade. I’m headed to a rehearsal for that next. It’s busy, happy times.

FLETCHER: “There’s no other you than you.” You’re a living example and reminder. Onward.

follow Jelani on Instagram (itsjelaniremy)
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