From the moment Richard Jay-Alexander saw his first musical he was hooked. "When I was in the fourth grade my dad took me to see Bye Bye Birdie, and I went nuts," recalls the executive producer and associate director of the long-running Broadway mega-hit Les Miserables. "It was a bad church production, but I knew then what I was going to do with my life."
In the air-conditioned sanctuary of his cozy Miami Beach home, Jay-Alexander lets the answering machine handle the incessantly ringing phone. Relaxing on a couch in a T-shirt and shorts, he perches his sneakers on a magazine-and-book-strewn coffee table and flashes his engagingly boyish smile. The dark-haired 43-year-old defies the image of a pot-bellied New York producer, a spit-soaked cigar welded to his bottom lip, who conducts business from a dusty back room off Times Square. Jay-Alexander still maintains a Manhattan base, but four years ago he bought a house in South Florida and works as much as he can from his home-office here. One room away from that office, kicking back with a bag of Tostitos for lunch, he recounts a long-term love affair with musical theater and the entertainment industry.
"When I moved to New York in 1975, Chicago was playing on Broadway," he remembers. "When Gwen Verdon came out of the orchestra pit with that gin flask and that little slip on, I thought I was going to die of a heart attack." He shifts to a yarn about dancing in the Seventies blockbuster movie Saturday Night Fever. "The bus would pick us up on 57th Street at four-thirty in the morning," he says, laughing. "The first day of dancing the smoke from the dry ice took all the starch out of our clothes so they had to send us home early and find some other kind of chemical [to keep the clothes fresh]." But one anecdote in particular distills the man to his essence. A magazine reporter recently asked Jay-Alexander what turns him on. "They thought I was going to say underwear or something," the producer says. Then he delivers the punch line with an expert's timing: "And I said talent. I get totally turned on by talent."
His instinct for finding that talent and his commitment to nurturing it were evident early this past month during auditions for Les Miz at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts. It was the first open call ever held in Florida for the Broadway and touring versions of the Tony Award-winning show. New York colleagues wanted to know why Miami, but Jay-Alexander, who has directed and produced every North American production of Les Miz since its 1987 Broadway debut, had held auditions in Washington, Chicago, and Nashville, and sensed he would encounter fresh performers here. "I understand what this means to you," he told the 728 adults and children who showed up on August 5, including hopefuls from as far away as Spain. It was the largest turnout for an open call to date outside New York. "And I need you to be great for me," he said. "I need you to blow me out of the room."
In two days Jay-Alexander cast five actors, including Miami's Aymee Garcia and Alexandra Foucard, and he compiled a list of twenty-eight men and women and eight kids, to many of whom he will offer parts within the next six months. "Florida made me proud," he beams, noting that he hopes to run an open call annually. "I'm going to try to form a panel of representatives from New York talent agencies and have auditions down here once a year, not just for singing but also for acting. I liked the way a lot of people looked and I'd love to hear them do a monologue or see how they handle a cold reading."
Although he started his career as a performer in Broadway dramas like Amadeus, movies like The Warriors, and television commercials, Jay-Alexander embraced a behind-the-scenes role when he went to work for British producer Cameron Mackintosh's company twelve years ago. Cameron Mackintosh Inc. (CMI) spearheaded the success of theatrical blockbusters such as Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon. As executive director of CMI in North America, Jay-Alexander looked after Les Miz (at one point, he was overseeing eleven different productions); executive produced the Broadway, Toronto, and touring companies of Miss Saigon; managed Phantom's tour and advertising; launched less extravagant but equally demanding shows like Five Guys Named Moe; and stood in for Mackintosh when he wasn't available. This past March, Jay-Alexander left the directorship of CMI, but he remains the U.S. producer and director of Les Miz. He still speaks to Mackintosh nearly every day. "Cameron and I see totally eye to eye," Jay-Alexander insists. "But I wanted to become more of an artistic entity, and now I'm a little more mobile."
Such mobility affords him greater time at his Miami Beach digs. There, the "Pop Culture Hall of Shame," an evolving collage of pictures on his refrigerator, features exemplary citizens such as Heidi Fleiss and the Menendez brothers. His framed gold and platinum records and compact discs, awarded for Les Miz and Miss Saigon, hang in the bathroom. (With droll perspective about the trappings of his own and anyone else's achievements, he confesses, "When I see awards take a place of honor in someone's home, I cringe.") And a baby grand piano presides over the house's front room. He admits that he plays, but only for himself.