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.
Greater flexibility allows him, as he puts it, "to give as much as I can to the community, rather than being a snowbird. I'm tired of reading about the [Miami] hype, and I would really like to see people make things happen here." With relentless energy, he has thrown himself into fundraising for local charity events, including AIDS Walk Miami. This season he will once again produce a Make-A-Wish Foundation benefit at the Hotel Inter-Continental, which raised $103,000 last year for children with life-threatening illnesses. The upcoming event, on October 25, will feature Jay-Alexander's friend actress Bernadette Peters.
Last winter he coproduced and directed a PBS special starring Andrea McArdle, the original star of Broadway's 1977 Annie, at Miami's WPBT-TV (Channel 2) studios. The project, scheduled to air nationally this December, employed area artists, from camera crew to hair and make-up stylists. It also gave Jay-Alexander a taste for working in video and film. Noting the difference between those media and the theater, which demands on-going fine-tuning, he says he appreciates "getting something right and never having to replace it." But he also concedes, "I'm a stage animal. I love the line through of [live performance]. I love not breaking things up. I love working in sequence and being on a roll. There's nothing more fiery than a stage performance.
"You're talking to somebody who was very influenced by local theater," Jay-Alexander explains, when giving his opinion of homegrown South Florida productions. "If local theater isn't good and strong and present, there's not going to be any encouragement for the future of the theater." He goes out four nights a week, seeing traditional drama and musicals from Palm Beach to Coral Gables, as well as dinner theater, nightclub acts, piano bars, and drag shows.
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Although he heartily supports the local scene, Jay-Alexander has a rigorous producer's view of what works and doesn't work in this town. Sympathizing with the plight of struggling, underpaid performers, he contends that Miami and Miami Beach fail to provide adequate financial support to grassroots companies. "How about a little less money spent on [policing] parking meters and a little more on small theater groups and arts development?" he asks. Equally astringent about companies who forever plead poverty, however, he also insists that vast budgets do not guarantee a production's quality.
"When local groups get upset and say the mega-musical's coming to town to steal their dollars, it's horseshit," he claims. "Whether you see a Phantom or a drama in a little 99-seater, the challenge is excellence. Money plays very little part in it, because if something's good people will go see it. If you give an audience a good experience, they'll come back."
The afternoon has lengthened into evening. Tonight he will travel to Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale to catch a local production of Applause, but he has one more observation to make about the nerve-jangling audition process. "The biggest tool actors can have besides maintaining their physical being is to be truthful," he notes. "The minute they try to be something they think a director wants, to second-guess, they're playing a dangerous game. I'll say to an actor, 'What are you doing right now?' and they'll say, 'Well, I'm up for this and I had a second call back for that.' I respond much more to, 'The truth of the matter is I'm bored out of my mind. I file papers in a job that I hate, and I want to work in the theater more than anything in my life.' That moves me to tears, and usually that person gets hired.