Tee Jaye grew up in Ohio, USA. He has loved singing and dancing from a very early age. Although his parents could not afford to pay for singing & dancing lessons or to send him to drama school, Tee Jaye kept on following his dream. When he was only 14, he landed a role in PURLIE The Musical in ‘summer stock’ (in the US, this means theatrical productions performed by a stock company during the summer) and never looked back.
Tee Jaye is an exceptionally versatile performer. He trained as a ballet dancer, has appeared in numerous productions on Broadway and in London’s West End, has worked with Sir Ian McKellan, has had a music career with chart-topping success, has done voice-over work for film & television and has just finished filming with Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman and Sir Tom Courtenay. He is also working on a musical he has written himself.
Most West End musical theatre fans will remember Tee Jaye from his time as ‘Barry Belson’ in Jersey Boys at the Prince Edward Theatre – a role he recently reprised on Broadway.
In this fantastic interview, find out about Tee Jaye’s favourite roles, his latest projects and much much more! Enjoy!
When did you first realise that you wanted to be a singer/an actor?
I think I always knew that I wanted to be in show business from a very early age, 8 or 9 I think. I loved watching TV variety shows and used to sing in front of the mirror with a wooden spoon as a microphone while listening to Broadway cast albums. I think I wore them out, they would skip after a while. I couldn’t afford to buy them, so I would check them out from the library. Sometimes the music would move me so much that I would move the living room furniture out of the way so I could jeté and pirouette across the floor, (I didn’t know the terminology then but certainly knew how to pull it off.) Mind you we didn’t have a very big living room.
Did anyone in particular inspire you to want to be on the stage?
Pretty much everybody I thought I could learn something from. I used to imitate the singer Johnny Mathis a lot. Ben Vereen was my first real stage hero, he did it all, and I thought, that’s the kind of performer I want to be. He was a role model for young black kids who aspired to be in show business.
Where did you train?
I never went to a theatre school. My training was mainly self-taught, believe it or not, in the early years of my life, because my parents couldn’t afford to send me anywhere but to the community hall and that’s because it was free. However I eventually began to work professionally at the relatively young age of 14 in “summer stock” – something I don’t think you have here in the UK. I got my first job in the chorus of PURLIE The Musical and was paid about $300 a week after being introduced to it by a music teacher I had in school. As years passed I gained more experience and training by working with so many experienced professionals who taught me the ropes so to speak. This training whilst working was invaluable as most of it I could never have learned in a school.
When did you make your West End debut and what role did you play?
I made my West End Debut in 1994 in Five Guys Named Moe at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. I was a swing and was fortunate to go on straight away for the wonderfully talented Richard Lloyd King, playing Four-Eyed Moe. I also covered and played the roles of Nomax and Big Moe. My first performance of Big Moe was the night the late Louis Jordan’s wife was in watching the show. No pressure! I later took over the role of Four-Eyed Moe when the show reopened again at the Albery Theatre London (now the Noel Coward Theatre). That production was later filmed live for video distribution. It’s a great thing to have.
You trained as a classical ballet dancer. What would you tell a young boy who is being bullied because he wants to do ballet?
Yes I did train classically and danced in a couple of companies as well as with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. I would say to anyone being bullied, know who you are. Know what you want and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something that you want to do. Surround yourself with positive people and supportive friends. People who are bullies are lost souls with a desire to feel superior. Just remember, their need to make someone else feel bad about doing something they love is because they are lacking in love themselves. We’ve all been given a gift and dreams are to be achieved. When you stop dreaming you stop living.
You have appeared in numerous West End and Broadway productions. How are American audiences different from British ones?
I think that American audiences are more emotive and willing to show their appreciation for what they are seeing. They seem to be more vocal in their reactions to shows. That’s not to say that the British audiences are negative by any means I just think that they are a little more reserved, and that can also be a good thing.
You have worked alongside the brilliant Sir Ian McKellen, as the ‘Genie’ in the Old Vic’s production of Aladdin. What was it like working with such a theatre legend?
Sir Ian McKellen was hilarious! I was in awe of this national treasure and have such huge respect for his talent, and both his involvement and activist roles in so many amazing charities. Top man.
You have been in so many musicals, such as Fame, Cats, Into the Woods, Joseph, Sweet Charity and Jersey Boys – too many to mention! What have been your favourite roles so far and why?
I’ve had the pleasure of playing so many wonderful roles in my career so this is difficult but here are a few. Michael in tick, tick BOOM! at the Menier Chocolate Factory with Neil Patrick Harris and Cassidy Janson was a highlight. I really enjoyed playing the lead role of Purlie Victorious in the musical PURLIE at the Bridewell Theatre London. Mainly because it’s an amazing role for a black actor and it was also when my career came full circle as this was the first professional show I’d ever been cast in. So to go from a young chorus boy to the lead was a wonderful transition.
I loved playing Rum Tum Tugger in CATS at the New London Theatre simply because it was fun and I had a great time being slightly naughty or some would say “OUTTA CONTROL”… Good times!
The Leading Player in PIPPIN was also another one of my favourites, it was the first show I’d seen Ben Vereen in and I thought, I have to do that show… And I did and I loved working with Fosse’s choreography. Subtle yet sexy.
You originated the role of Barry Belson in the original London cast of Jersey Boys and also played the same part on Broadway this year. Please share a memory or two.
Wow, where do I begin?… I absolutely loved my time in JERSEY BOYS! I must have or I don’t think I would have stayed for 3 years. Being a part of the original London company was great. I will always hold a special place in my heart for that show because I met so many amazingly talented people during my time there. It never felt like I was going to work, I laughed every single day of that job. I love the backstage crew and wardrobe department at the Prince Edward, we had good times.
Doing the show on Broadway was an amazing experience and that was an amazing company of people as well. Very giving and such camaraderie. They made me feel like I really was a part of the Jersey Boys family. To have the chance to do the show on Broadway in a city where New Jersey is just across the river was unbelievable. The audience is completely different there because they get everything! Every joke and nuance because most of them are from Jersey or certainly know all about it! There is also a different energy on Broadway that you can’t describe. You just feel it when you’re there walking through the city. There’s this electricity and buzz that surrounds you. (And it’s not the neon signs.) I love it! It’s always great to go back home.
What other parts would you love to play (in any other musical/play) and why?
I would love to play Mufasa in LION KING, I still can’t believe I’ve never done that show, it’s so beautiful. I love the music and the overall beauty of the piece. Very emotional.
I would like to do more TV and film. I feel that I am so specific when it comes to casting that things have to be absolutely right for me. I just look forward to the challenge of the next thing around the corner whatever that is.
You have just finished a workshop called Praise Singer. What can you tell us about this new project?
This was an amazing week. The response was overwhelming and the caliber of talent was astounding. It’s a gospel musical set at the turn of the century about a young girl who has the gift of song with a healing power. But it is about hope, love and overcoming adversity. A beautifully written piece and I had the chance to work with some of my friends who I’ve known and respected for years. Some of the cast, including myself of course along with Sharon D. Clarke, Clive Rowe, Alexia Khadime, Melanie Le Barrie, Adrian Hansel, Terel Nugent, Sandra Marvin, Allyson Brown to name a few. Loved it! Hopefully there’s a life for it out there the West End could benefit from this new piece of theatre.
You are also working on your own musical, The Bronzeville Project. What’s it about?
The Bronzeville Project is purely a working title at the moment. Without giving anything away, it is a dramatic and heartfelt story about dreams, brotherhood, corruption, betrayals, destiny, fate and most of all love. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent 60s there are four main characters that are combined with elements of my own life. Their journey to stardom doesn’t come without a price and the discovery of something truly profound changes their lives completely. I have a director and producer on board and we are in the process of organising a reading. Very exciting!
Would you like to star in it yourself or direct it?
I have learned in my 31 years of being in this industry that you can’t wear every hat all the time. I want to be the one to watch my baby grow. I am the writer and I want to be around to make changes but I have no desire to be in it, certainly not at this stage. I think there are great actors who would do an amazing job of some these characters I’ve written. I have a vision and so does the director and together I think we can make something truly special.
What is something embarrassing or unexpected that happened to you on stage?
I always think that forgetting lines or missing an entrance is always the worst possible thing that could happen to any actor on stage, both of which have happened to me at some point. Not good.
If you could go and see any West End musical tonight, which one would it be and why?
I still haven’t seen Priscilla Queen of the Desert, I hear that’s fun. I’ve seen most of the things that are out there and some I have no interest in.
You are also a recording artist and had chart-topping success in the 90s under the name Tommie Jenkins. Will there be more albums?
Yes. “Let Me Be Your Love” was my most successful single. It was number one for six weeks in Spain and Europe. I would love to do more recording as I love the process of writing and recording a product that people will listen to and enjoy. So, yes I hope to get back to it.
You have appeared in many films and TV productions. Do you prefer working on stage or in front of a camera and why?
I’ve done a lot of voice over work on many films. I really enjoy being on the stage. There is nothing like that instant gratification from a live audience. Something magical happens when you hear the applause and laughter when something funny happens or the sniffles when they are moved by something so sad or dramatic. However I find working on film incredibly challenging because of the technique used in delivering your performance on such a small scale. Just a simple look in your eyes can be read as something incredible. You can’t do that on a stage when you’re playing to 1200 people.
Your new film is called ‘Gambit’; you will appear alongside Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman and Sir Tom Courtenay. Big names! What’s the film about?
GAMBIT is a remake of an old 1960’s film of the same name that starred Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine. Colin Firth plays British art curator called Harry Deane, who comes up with scheme to con one of England’s richest art collectors called Lionel Shabandar, played by Alan Rickman into purchasing a fake Monet painting. In order to bait his buyer, he recruits a Texas rodeo queen played by Cameron Diaz to come to London and pose as a woman whose grandfather liberated the painting at the end of WWII. Very funny!
You are obviously a ‘big name’ yourself but what’s it like working with Academy Award winning actors? Please tell us about this experience.
Well I certainly wouldn’t call myself a big name, I’m just a working actor but thank you. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience with this particular job. Colin Firth was incredible as were the rest of the cast. They just treated me like I was one of them. We are all actors doing a job and have a mutual respect. I did feel pretty good when they complimented me on my performance and also my ability to do stage shows eight times a week. I think coming from the film world they find that very difficult to comprehend.
What’s the best part of being an actor? And the worst?
The best part of being an actor is being able to play roles that are challenging and some that are not so challenging. But most of all we are lucky because we get to do something that we love. For that I am truly grateful and feel blessed. The worst is that we are in a very non secure industry. We don’t always know where our next job is coming from but I’ve learned to enjoy the unknown and the element of surprise. If I always knew what was going to happen, that wouldn’t be any fun.
Is there anyone you would really like to work with?
I would love to work with Denzel Washington, maybe play his brother or something. He’s an amazing actor.
You are an extremely versatile performer. What do you like best – singing, dancing or acting?
I love it all.
What are your long-term ambitions – on the stage or off it?
My long term ambitions are just to keep on working and giving people the pleasure of experiencing my work. I like that there is always someone watching who you will inspire to take that step in to the world of theatre. Sometimes you just make someone happy without realising it.
What do you usually do when you’re not working?
Writing, conversing, and generally having fun. I love life.
You say you really like chicken. Maybe you’d like to open a restaurant and be a chef?
Ha ha ha! Yes, well I do love to cook and I have to say, I’m pretty good in the kitchen.
Despite being a very successful and busy performer, you always seem to be happy to reply to fan tweets etc. How important are your fans to you?
I think that in this day and age, social networking has become a great way of staying in touch and letting people know how you are if you so chose to do so. I like keeping the fans up to date as much as possible. I also think that they’re important because they’re the ones who really support your efforts. I appreciate their enthusiasm and general interest in your work. There are the odd ones that sometimes feel like you owe them something because they are a fan. I believe that no one should come to expect anything. At the end of the day we have lives and want to maintain some privacy as well.
And anything else you might like to add, maybe a message to your fans?
I just want to say to all the fans: Thank you so much for your support over the years and I hope to see you all soon, wherever that may be.
Here’s a quote.
“Be glad of life, because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars.”
Henry Van Dyke (American Educator)
Thank you very much for this brilliant interview, Tee Jaye. All the best for your new projects and hopefully we’ll be able to see you on a West End stage again soon!
Theatre Credits include:
‘Michael’ in Jonathan Larson’s Tick Tick. . . Boom! at the Menier Chocolate Factory,
The title role in the London premier of Purlie at the Bridewell Theatre,
‘Ed’ in the London revival of Whistle Down The Wind,
‘Genie’ in the Old Vic’s Aladdin,
‘Robbins’ in the original workshop of Trevor Nunn’s Porgy And Bess,
‘Tyrone’ in the London revival of Fame,
‘Four Eyed Moe’ in Cameron Mackintosh’s Five Guys Named Moe,
‘Rum Tum Tugger’ in Cats in London & Hamburg, Germany,
‘Brutus T. Firefly’ in Oh What A Night! in London, UK Tour & Australia,
‘CC/Curtis’ in the Broadway National of Michael Bennett’s Dreamgirls,
‘Richie’ in the farewell Broadway National Tour of A Chorus Line & in the Italian version directed by Baayork Lee and the 20th Annniversary production of A Chorus Line at Derby Playhouse UK.
‘Danny Zuko’ in an all black version of Grease,
‘The Leading Player’ in Bob Fosse’s Pippin,
‘Scarecrow’ in The Wiz,
’Wolf’ in Into The Woods,
‘Mortimer’ in The Fantasticks,
‘Snoopy’ in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown,
‘Gad/Butler’ in Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,
‘JJ’ in Work It! a New York inner city tri-state tour sponsored by Patti LaBelle,
‘Daddy Brubeck’ in Sweet Charity,
Follies at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Other shows include Applause Applause, Carousel, Dames At Sea, Godspell, Baby, The Me Nobody Knows, Cotton Patch Gospel, and Out Of The Blue.
Tee Jaye has contributed to many cast and show recordings such as Music Man, Hair, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Follow Tee Jaye on Twitter: @teejaye84
Interview by Sandra Palme (Twitter: @LondonTheatre2)