Got a star-studded show or an A-list diva in need of direction? Give Broadway veteran Richard Jay-Alexander a call. After helming Les Misérables in Concert last summer, Jay-Alexander returns to the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles July 31 through August 2 to direct a concert version of Frank Loesser's classic 1950 musical Guys and Dolls starring... Jessica Biel? A former Broadway performer, stage manager, and longtime executive director of über-producer Cameron Mackintosh's New York office (where he was in charge of Mackintosh's North American operations), Jay-Alexander has more recently staged concerts and produced albums for a holy trinity of indisputable icons: Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Barbra Streisand. The out 56-year-old opens up to Advocate.com about these famous friends — and defends his curious casting of Justin Timberlake's girlfriend.
Advocate.com: Your Guys and Dolls concert sounds like it's going to be an unforgettable event.
Richard Jay-Alexander: I'm really excited, and I can't believe we got such an amazing cast and the incredible Donna McKechnie to choreograph. I know this is sort of queer, but for me there's just nothing like a musical. It can affect your whole day. Directing Les Misérables at the Hollywood Bowl last year was one of the greatest experiences of my career. When an audience of 18,000 people stands up to applaud, you can actually feel wind.
You've gotten a lot of press for your brow-raising casting of Jessica Biel as Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown. What made her right for the part?
Jessica Biel came to New York to sing for me at musical director Kevin Stites's apartment. I walked in and said, "Jessica, I know you're a movie star, but I wouldn't know a Jessica Biel movie if it punched me in the face." She started laughing and said, "Well, don't start watching them now." When she sang I got chills three times. I said, "I don't know about you, but I think you're ready to put on a pair of false eyelashes and do a musical." She just burst into tears.
Wait, so you never saw her fine work in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry?
I didn't even know she was dating Justin Timberlake. But she's enchanting. She told me about her grandmother who teaches dance in Colorado, and she told me this great story about how her mom used to go to voice lessons when Jessica was a kid and then started putting the money toward voice lessons for Jessica, so this show is sort of a prophecy fulfilled. Someone just had to give her the opportunity. I said to her on the phone, "I'm so excited for you. I'm going to give you one of the greatest experiences of your life." It's not unlike when I put Ricky Martin on Broadway in Les Misérables and people thought I was nuts. At that time nobody had ever heard of Ricky Martin, but my dad is Spanish and my mom is Cuban, so I had heard of him. His grandmother had never been on a plane, and I flew her up from Puerto Rico for his opening night. When he took his bow, he saw his grandmother in the fourth row and lost his shit. I live for that stuff. You're talking to somebody who's been nuts about theater since he was 10 years old. All my dreams have come true and then some, so I feel like everybody's should.
But compared to the rest of the cast, Biel has very little professional stage experience. Are you sure she has the chops to pull off the role?
You know how when somebody opens their mouth you know that they're either born to do something or they're not? All the characters in Guys and Dolls are bigger than life, but Sarah Brown is actually the most earthbound of everybody. Jessica's face is a palette that can be as plain or as gorgeous as you paint it. She also has a natural ear for dialogue, and she's a risk-taker. I remember first singing "If I Were a Bell" with her and letting her loose. When you throw someone a hook and they come back with a fish, that's how you find out if you're dealing with an actor. Anybody who knows me knows that I'm not going to cast a stunt. I know some people want to see her fail, but it's like I told her the other day: "I'm all about 'fuck you' cards, and I'm here to get you one."