Richard Jay-Alexander has seen it all and worked with everyone when it comes to Broadway and musical theater. Here, finally, he’s in the mood to chat.
Unique doesn’t quite cover it. When my thoughts turned to my dear friend, Richard Jay-Alexander, I was amazed how many adjectives rushed to mind at once. Yes, Jay-Alexander is a legendary musical theater director—a real Broadway baby—who has collaborated with every mega superstar diva who can carry a tune and set foot on the Great White Way (Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Kristin Chenoweth and on and on), but there’s so much more than that. Richard Jay-Alexander is incredibly accomplished, of course, but he’s also strikingly, unapologetically still accomplishing. He wants more. And then he wants some more after that.
The effect of that ethos when one first meets Jay-Alexander is to either gravitate towards his energy and relish in his unbridled enthusiasm, or take a step back and assess this fast-talking firebrand. Best part? He pays no mind either way: There are things to do and people to see—and that’s why I’m happy to report that I drink from the overflowing Jay-Alexander fountain of “everything is awesome.”
For more than a decade, Jay-Alexander ran iconic Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh’s North American operations as Executive Director, New York helping produce Les Misérables, Cats, The Phantom Of The Opera, Miss Saigon and many others. After decades of directing live performances and producing scores of records—he’s worked with everyone from Ricky Martin to Johnny Mathis and Lea Salonga to Il Divo—it’s his decade-long association with the planet’s greatest star, Barbra Streisand, that has punctuated his latest career highlight. Babs and RJA were made for each other.
Though I could delineate in great detail how this Syracuse, NY native with a Cuban mom and Spanish-American dad would fall in love with musical theater after seeing a performance of Bye Bye Birdie as a kid arrived in the world’s greatest city and came to embody and become synonymous with musical theater itself, I’d rather let the man speak for himself. A minute into our conversation, you, too, will see why Broadway loves Richard Jay-Alexander, and how Richard Jay-Alexander loves it right back.
That’s why so many adjectives flew at me at once. Richard Jay-Alexander has a lot to say—and it’s riveting.
You’ve worked with so many of the world’s greatest stars: If you close your eyes, what has been the single-most thrilling career moment that involved a superstar?
There have been many. I mean, after a rehearsal period, the excitement, the nerves and, then, hearing an overture for Bernadette Peters at Carnegie Hall or watching Bette Midler fly in on a horse or watching Barbra Streisand come up from under the stage… Each and every one has been absolutely thrilling! But, honestly, over the entire 40-year stretch of my career, so far, it would have to be Opening Night of Les Misérables at the Broadway Theatre, on March 12, 1987. I was the Executive Producer and the Associate Director and so excited that the night before, I didn’t sleep a wink. I was like a kid on Christmas Eve. And, boy, oh, boy, that was some spectacular and truly a historic night.
What’s your approach to directing a musical concert or event? Is there a blank canvas moment you build from or do you start with an idea in your head?
No two stars are alike. No two careers are alike, but one of the things that make me different is that I understand the career of the person I’m facing. My knowledge of their music and career choices is instrumental in building the house. It’s the truest form of collaboration and storytelling and it always comes directly from the performer and is adapted for the stage and for staging. Everything matters: Clothes, hair, make-up, lighting, staging, arrangements, colors—everything. When I’m in this mode of thinking, I always wish an audience could be me for a moment, alone in the room, with a mesmerizing talent, a force, a person so special to truly understand how we care so much and how much work goes into what we bring them and what they’ll see on the stage. Those quiet, intense, intelligent, caring moments are where the “magic” gets born. A lot of performers say the love the process. Trust me, they don’t. But the people I’ve been lucky enough to work with, never stop giving, working or caring and that’s what makes me work even harder. The satisfaction is indescribable.
OK, tell us some incredible celebrity anecdotes—you of all people know this: Give the people what they want!
You’ll just have to wait for the book! [Laughs] Which, interestingly, people seem to think I have in me. I’m not really sure people would be interested in such a book, but I will admit, it has crossed my mind and there has been some interest expressed. Then, I guess, I could “give the people what they want!” [Laughs]
How did your Cuban-born parents influence your life, your work ethic, your “get on with it” of it all?
That’s an interesting question. My Mom was born in Havana. My Dad was American, born of Spanish parents. He fell madly in love with her, in Cuba; and the rest, as they say, is history. I spend a lot of time in Cuba, up until 1959, when we moved into our home in Syracuse, NY. I was six years old. I’m one of five children. I grew up around a lot of love and support. My Dad was a CPA and educator, heading the Business Administration Department at LeMoyne College, a Jesuit university in Syracuse. Education was very important in our family and all of us went to college—it’s a family must. I was Broadway crazed and my Dad had no idea about that and was worried, but applied his knowledge to me, specifically, and allowed me so many opportunities. During college, he even drove me to the American Midwest to do Summer stock theater. When I think about it, it actually makes me cry. My Mom? Well, she just loved everything I did—my biggest fan. In college, when I played “Toby” in The Medium (he’s a mute gypsy boy) and I got shot, my Mom said to everyone, “Well, I guess Dickie isn’t gonna sing in this one.” That story still makes me laugh out loud. When my Mom saw my first apartment in Manhattan on East 94th and 2nd Avenue she cried and told me to come home. My rent was $135 a month. The year was1975.
Do you remember the first thing Barbra Streisand ever said to you?
Yes, of course! [Laughs] I’ll never forget it. I was supposed to meet with her at her New York City apartment to talk about ideas that might inspire doing a television special. This was before she returned to the concert stage in May 1993. I remember it like it was yesterday, as it was the month I was turning 40 and I was working on Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together at Manhattan Theatre Club. I was nervous to meet Streisand, of course, and was the only one there, as neither her long-time manager, Marty Erlichman, nor her A&R guy, Jay Landers, had arrived yet. Streisand came down the stairs and said, “Hi, I’m Barbra.” I laughed and re-bounded with, “Hi, no kidding.” It was pretty fantastic. Later that night, Barbra was scheduled to come see the show, which starred Julie Andrews and also there that night were Amy Irving and Liza Minnelli. Yeah, so it was one of those kind of nights.
If you could as for a “second take” on a moment in your career, what would that be?
That is such an interesting thought to ponder, Richard. I’ve had so many “moments” in my life and career and I can’t think of anything I would do over or differently because the “moments” are the “moments.” But, thinking at this moment, I’d say all those types of thoughts would be directed at my Mom and Dad. I have no regrets with regard to my relationships with them. We shared a lot of love. But, that stated, due to the nature of my work, I was the “least show up” member of the family over the years, but always copped to it and it was never the basis of any trouble or ill will. I was there as often as possible. We just lost them both over the last year, so it’s still a little weird to not be able to pick up the phone and call either one of them. They were always interested in everything we all did and everywhere we went or what was happening. They were the greatest parents ever and allowed each of us to be the best we could be.
Who do you want to work with next? I assume you have a short wish list.
Gosh, I never think like that. Opportunities always present themselves and then, if the artist or the material, interests me, I sign on. Just this past year, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of working with Norm Lewis, Deborah Voigt and Well-Strung. Each of them so fulfilling and satisfying in very different ways. I have a lot of different “departments” to me. And, yes, it’s complicated.
The two people who intrigue me that I haven’t worked with are Cher and Madonna. I’ve met them both socially, but what they do and what I do are two very different things. Also, it’s sheer vanity, but I feel like I could teach Ms. Ciccone how to act and connect A to B to C. It frustrates me so, but, if you look at our collective love affair with her over all of these years, we’ve seen her in blinks and bytes and edits for decades, in videos. I’ve always enjoyed her concerts, but I just feel that there’s more in there to be mined. But, like I said, it could just be my vanity.
Describe yourself in three adjectives.
Passionate, Committed, Honest—to a fault.
The world is scary because…
Decency seems to have left the planet. It upsets me that people aren’t polite and decent to each other. Life seemed simpler growing up—manners, respect, good behavior and hard work. Everything is so fast today and people don’t seem to want to learn or work toward goals. Everything is geared toward instant gratification and it should be geared to plain old decency and respect.
The world is beautiful because…
When you least expect it, you can find yourself moved to your core by the simplest of things. I know that I’ve been blessed and live a life that has afforded me certain privileges. I never take it for granted and I always try to find ways to help people and give back.
What would be your fantasy job if you achieved it, you’d say: “Now, I’ve done it all?”
I’d like to helm a Broadway show from scratch. No workshops—straight to Broadway. Do it once and do it right. Also, I’d love to do a movie musical, which I know I could deliver and solve what’s missing from so many. Sounds simple, but it’s actually difficult and either you know your way around a musical or you don’t. It’s like a language. Not everyone understands and too much realism has been creeping in. Musicals need to float two inches off the ground.
Who’s the most underrated star working today? And overrated?
Gosh, Richard! [Laughs] Answering this question can only get me in trouble! Can I plead the 5th? However, each category would have a few choice names in it. Trust me! [Laughs]
In five years, Richard Jay-Alexander is doing what, where and with whom?
Richard, you’re very big on the great questions! [Laughs] I’m at a very interesting chapter of my life. I’ve achieved more than I ever could have imagined, so it’s sort of all icing on the cake now. I do pick and choose my jobs and work. It’s never work if you love what you’re doing and are genuinely interested, engaged and challenged. But I do have some Bucket List items and want to do them while I’m in great health and can still be active and enjoy life. I’ve traveled the globe for work, but there are a few places I haven’t been. Argentina is currently at the top of the list as is going back to my beloved Cuba. In five years, maybe that book will be finished and I’ll be doing a book tour. I hope to see you at your local book seller, Richard, if there are any left! [Laughs]