When you’ve devoted your career to producing and directing the shows and concerts of such incomparable stars as Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Julie Andrews, you collect some colorful stories. And this Thursday evening at Miami Beach’s Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, Richard Jay-Alexander, dubbed the “diva whisperer,” is ready to share them.
The nickname makes him laugh. “Like dog whisperer, it means I work with a certain breed of performer,” says Jay-Alexander. But, as he is quick to add, “I’ve tried to disclaim it. None of the people I’ve worked with think that they’re anything remotely like the word ‘diva’.”
What? La Streisand isn’t a notorious control freak? “This idea of (her) being a control freak or a perfectionist, I’ve read it over and over,” he says. “That’s not the woman I know. We have been working together for 17 years now. She and I have never raised our voices at each other.
“The best part of the whole thing is when you sit down and you sing at the piano with her. I get to hear them all, trying them on for size. And then the act sort of develops itself.
“I always say that Barbra is Broadway’s greatest export of all time. There will never be a career like hers – ever,” insists Jay-Alexander. “I continue to be in awe. Musically, what she hears, what her ears do, is amazing. I welcome every minute with her. She is, without a doubt, the smartest, most talented person I’ve worked with. I have such tremendous love for this woman, I would lay down in front of the 104 (freeway) for her.”
Jay-Alexander has good stories of his proximity to the stars, but he resists all trash talk. “I feel very protective of everybody I’ve worked with. I’m in the star business, so I protect stars. And I feel that I should be an extension of each star I work with.”
He may have found a few of them difficult, but you will never hear that from him. “I don’t really find anybody particularly more problematic or troublesome. My experience is, with everybody I’ve worked with, it’s really about the work,” Jay-Alexander says. “And when you get respect for the work, there are no issues.”
Growing up in Syracuse, Jay-Alexander’s first contact with show business was through television – The Ed Sullivan Show, Streisand’s Happening in Central Park concert, etc. – and from the original cast albums at his local library. In 1975, he headed to New York to become an actor and was cast in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit and then, more significantly, the American premiere of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.
“I was there at the creation of something brilliant,” he recalls. And he watched how the show was put together, at the craft of the legendary creative team. “So comes time for the tour and I asked, ‘Do you think Peter Hall and the National Theatre and William Morris would ever consider me for directing the tour?’ And I got the job, and that was the beginning of the change. Cameron (Mackintosh) saw that production in Canada, he asked to meet me and the rest is history. He offered me to be the executive director of his North American entity. Executive producer of ‘Les Miz’ and then directing the tour, then working on ‘Phantom’ and ‘Miss Saigon.’”
His first star client was Bernadette Peters, whom he first got to work with through sheer chutzpah. “We met during Song & Dance, the workshop at Williamstown,” he recalls. “I heard it was happening, so I went to the phone book and I called (director) Richard Maltby and said, ‘I’ll work for you for free to see if you like me.’ And he hired me to do the very private workshop and he did like me and the rest is history.
“I learned some of my earliest lessons from Bernadette, and probably the biggest one was truth. You’re beyond criticism if you’re truthful.”
Some of his other marquee clients include:
* Julie Andrews – “When you meet her, you see ‘Mary Poppins,’ ‘The Americanization of Emily,’ you see ‘The Sound of Music.’ Working with her is just joyous. But my favorite memory of her is when we were recording the cast album of ‘Putting It Together.’ And there’s this song, ‘My Husband, the Pig.’ She’s supposed to be mad, and during the playback she said, ‘Why do I always sound so goddamned pleasant?’ Then she went in and tackled it again and killed it. It was just so funny, so supercallifragilistic.”
* Betty Buckley – “She’s so complex, so overwhelming and powerful. She’s like a singing Kim Stanley. The stakes are very, very high with Betty and the voice of course has that crystalline, breaking property that can just sear you. It’s a very, very unique instrument. And she has not been afraid to age, which I find fantastic. Somebody does have to be Helen Hayes, right?”
* Kristin Chenoweth – “Kristin is so talented, she has to be saved from herself. She’s so gifted and so versatile and so funny, she will do anything to entertain an audience. So you have to rope her in. And she gladly accepts the roping in.
“It’s interesting picking keys for her, because she can do them all. Sometimes if it’s too easy or too natural, it doesn’t seem like enough work for her. Kristin is insanely talented and has conquered every medium known to man.”
* Bette Midler – “Bette is so unique, so skillful. She’s got soul, she’s got pathos, she’s got that rat-tat-tat-tat in her. She works really, really hard. She really, really cares. She has a lot of director in her, not unlike Barbra. And a lot of creativity.”
On Thursday evening, Jay-Alexander will be publicly interviewed by his friend of 30 years, Lee Brian Schrager, festival director and executive director of Food Network/Cooking Channel and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
“I did agree to a no-holds-barred evening,” says Jay-Alexander, a little warily. “And there will be Q&A. I’m a little nervous, if I can be honest.” But not so nervous that he will not reel off some entertaining stories. “I definitely have opinions, there’s no doubt about it. And I’m not jaded and that is something that I’m really, really proud of.”
AN EVENING WITH RICHARD JAY-ALEXANDER, Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. Free for members and FIU students, $25 for non-members. 786-972-3175.