Richard Jay-Alexander: A Guy and His Dolls

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com July 30 2009 12:00 AM ET

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."

Last season's Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls was not particularly well received. Did you see it or study the reviews for research?
I didn't see it and didn't want to pollute my brain, but the names of the stars didn't really speak musical theater to me. I also heard it was very high-tech, and I really believe in my heart that if a show is any good, it will work in a rehearsal room with just benches, chairs, rehearsal skirts, and a piano; the rest is just stuff. I did see the Jerry Zaks production on Broadway in the early '90s and enjoyed it very much, but that's still not what I see in my mind's eye. I want this production to float two inches off the ground, and I want the audience to have a blast.

Speaking of big names, you've worked with some of the most famous female performers in the world, including Bernadette Peters, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand. What makes you so ideally suited to direct divas?
It's a really interesting question, and nobody's really asked it before. I'm not sure I know the exact answer, but I will say this: They found their way to me. It helps that I really know these people and what they stand for, because I'm a fan also. And being an artistic entity myself, I know what people want. I don't pretend to have everyone's tastes, but I have good taste. It's like when Bernadette asked me to do her Carnegie Hall concert for [Gay Men's Health Crisis]. At first she didn't want to do songs from Dames at Sea, Mack and Mabel, and all that, so I said, "Well, I'm not the right guy, Bernadette, because you've got to give the people what they want. This is Carnegie Hall. These are career gigs." The one thing I have learned over the years is that you can't beat truth. We sometimes sell trickery and concepts, but truth will never fail you. That's why I work with people with real gifts.

Do you think that your being gay has helped you work with or relate to these women in any way?
That would be stretching it. I like to think of myself as knowledgeable person who happens to be gay, and it's not really a topic when I'm with them. I once said to Bette, "I'm not gay," because my ongoing joke was that I hadn't dated or slept with anybody in years, and you had to be with men to be gay. She said, "And that's why I love you." But I'm fascinated by the idea of the gay icon, because these singing actresses, as I call them, are dazzling to me too. I never thought of it as a gay thing, but I am wildly attracted to it. Gay people do have a heightened sense of drama, though, and that's for certain. A heightened sense of drama and a good key change will always work your nerve.

These divas do have certain reputations for being, shall we say, somewhat high-maintenance, and Barbra is a notoriously private person. What questions do your gay friends ask about them the most?
I think out of deference, they don't. I don't know if they think I'm going to bite back or whatever, but they don't really ask anything.

Clearly I'm not that deferent.
Well, this is my first interview with The Advocate and it may be my last, so that's fine. [Laughs] I understand that she's so iconic, but I wish everyone knew Barbra like I do. She is the greatest gal, and she's so funny and smart. I sat with her one afternoon talking about all the misconceptions people have about her, and I was just laughing at how absurd they were. That's when the idea was born to do the audience Q&As at her concerts. After we would garner the questions, I'd kneel next to her and read them aloud in her dressing room while she was finishing her makeup. "Dear Barbra, when I was 13"; "Dear Barbra, I brought my grandmother, a survivor from Auschwitz " — and each story was wilder than the next. I'd just read and cry, and she'd look at me, and she got it. You can't possibly comprehend what you mean to people until the people speak.

What's your earliest Barbra memory?
My family belonged to the Columbia Record Club, and one day the Funny Girl Broadway cast album showed up. I was 10 years old and doing my homework when I heard "Cornet Man," and I'm like, "Who the hell is that?" So I looked, and it said "Barbra Streisand," and I remember thinking, Oh, there's an a missing in her name! And that's what started the whole thing. But I've never read one of her biographies or any of that because it doesn't inform what I do. Like when I met Bette, she couldn't believe I hadn't seen Beaches. I've worked with Bernadette since 1985 and I've never seen The Jerk. I don't have that part of the gene — the hunger for the whole library — but I know what I know. And with any great star, you get all the information you need from them.

How would Barbra feel about you fraternizing and singing with famed Barbra drag impersonator Steven Brinberg?
Oh, she knows all about it. Donna Karan was having a birthday party this past year and Barbra couldn't make it from the West Coast, so I got an odd call from Marty Erlichman, her manager, saying, "Barbra wants you to hire a Barbra impersonator and go to the party to mingle around the crowd so people think it's her." So I called Barbra at home, and I asked, "What kind of assignment is this?" She said, "Richard, I can't make it, but I don't want to let Donna down." I said, "These Barbra drag queens look like 'Funny Girl Barbra,' or 'Clear Day Barbra.' Nobody looks like you, so they can't just go mingle." She said, "No, no, I want them to perform!" I said, "Oh, well, that's a different story." I told her about Steven Brinberg, who I've known forever. So she and Marty hired him, Barbra actually wrote dialogue for Steven, and Donna's people even got some of Barbra's clothes out of a warehouse. The party was at Sandy Gallin's apartment on the night of the Sarah Palin debates, and Steven sang a few songs as Barbra, including the funniest version of "Kids" from Bye Bye Birdie because of Palin's kids. He was hilarious. I told Barbra, "You were a big hit and you don't even have jet lag." [Laughs] So yes, she knows about him and she knows I've sung with him. But I sing with the real Barbra all the time. I'm telling you this and I know it's surreal.

Openly gay film directors Todd Holland and Don Roos recently advised gay actors to stay in the closet at Outfest. Do you see the closet as a necessary evil?
I don't see being gay killing anybody's career anymore. Look at Neil Patrick Harris. But I don't think it's about denial; I think it's more about finances and the people handling their careers. I guess if people want to be managed, they have to do what the managers say. But the young people today feel fearless. I taught a master class recently at UCLA, and there was this young kid who celebrated the fact that he was clearly gay with this hilarious song and monologue claiming he was gay, and I just thought, God, how fantastic is that? It's just a different time now. See, it's never enough at the time, but it keeps getting better and better. Young people today aren't worried like I was about being called a fag — when you hadn't even acted on your sexuality yet, and you were too young to even know what it was, but that's how you were perceived. Growing up, I would say, "I'm going to go work on Broadway." And the other kids would make fun of me and say, "Oh, Dickie's going to work on Broadway!" Sure, now you go home and they want to throw you a parade, but is there satisfaction in that? Not really, because the pain never goes away.

You made your Broadway debut as a performer in 1979's Zoot Suit. Were you out then?
I was never a hot pants-wearing, flag-waving kind of person, but you just found your posse, your tribe — people who were like you and places where it was safe to be you. I was in the original cast of Amadeus on Broadway with Ian McKellen, and he and I have remained friends over the years. We saw each other at a fund-raiser later, and he said, "Richard, it's very important that you come out." I was like, "What are you talking about? Anybody who knows me knows I'm gay. I don't need a big coming-out party." Then I did some interview in San Francisco that was really gay, so I showed him and asked, "Is this out enough for you?" In my opinion, he's the greatest actor in the English language. If young actors can't afford to go see him in something, I always buy them tickets.

You can't get much gayer than the music videos you've produced for party promoter and The Big Gay Sketch Show star Jonny McGovern. How did that relationship start?
Jonny McGovern is one of the prides of my life. I saw a slick little ad in Time Out New York about something he was doing at P.S. 122, so I went to see it on a rainy Sunday afternoon and I was enthralled by him. He's really such a clever, intelligent, talented guy. His "Gay Pimp" character is really like a superhero who saves gay kids and tells them not to be afraid of getting beat up in school. I met him after the show and said, "I want to work with you." So we put together a team and I financed the video for "Soccer Practice" in 2003, which got him bookings that took him as far as Tokyo. Then we shot a whole series of them. When Jonny was up for the TV series, executive-producer Rosie O'Donnell, who I'd worked with before, wrote me to ask, "What do you know about Jonny McGovern?" I said, "Hire him."

So you've helped out McGovern, and in addition to McKellen, you've spoken about how much your career has been impacted by power gays Cameron Mackintosh and Tommy Tune. Do you find that gays actively look out for one another in the industry?
I don't clock it because those are just the people that I know, and straight people have been just as kind to me. But, you know, it's also true that if you're out on Fire Island one weekend and Tommy's out there at his house, you do get the opportunity to talk. Work begets friendship begets work.