Richard Jay-Alexander's love for the theatre began in Syracuse, New York, when he was ten, in a high school auditorium at a local production of Bye Bye Birdie.
"The key to my attraction to the theatre was music," says Jay-Alexander, 53, who has been a part of the stage world for nearly 30 years, ten of them as executive director of the New York office of the renowned producer Cameron Mackintosh (Les Misérables, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon), where he ran Mackintosh's North American operations.
"My dad was a C.P.A., he helped do Birdie's accounting, and he shoved me into the auditorium. I saw the 'Telephone Hour' number"—with the memorable lyrics "What's the story, morning glory?/What's the tale, nightingale?"—"and the hairs stood up on my arms. What a feeling!"
From that moment, he says, he knew he wanted to be an actor. "The first thing you see in a show is the acting," he says. "You don't see stage management, lighting design, directing, everything else that goes into a show." So he started singing, dancing and acting. He got a degree in theatre and music from the State University of New York at Oswego. And then, several years later, it was Tommy Tune who helped him decide that working behind the scenes was the best way to express his love for the art.
"At first, after college, I was terrified to come to New York," Jay-Alexander recalls. "Where I went to school, nobody went into theatre. They got a master's degree and taught. So I went to San Francisco for a year." After building up the necessary confidence, he moved to New York, found stage work and got his Actors' Equity card on a tour of the musical The Me Nobody Knows. His first (small) Broadway role was in a play called Zoot Suit in 1979. He got another small part, in the original Broadway cast of Amadeus. It was then he met and befriended Tommy Tune, who was in My One and Only across the street. "A friend had told me to try to get an assistant stage manager's contract—there was maybe an extra $35 attached. The friend said to learn everything about the show and try to get on the tours." So Jay-Alexander was asked to be associate director of the Amadeus national tour.
"But after all that I was in a quandary," he recalls. "I'm an actor, I figured."
One day between matinee and evening performances Jay-Alexander bumped into Tune at Sardi's. "I asked him what he thought. And he said, 'Richard, do it. After I won my Tony for Seesaw, I couldn't get arrested.' It was about understanding when a door was opening."
After Amadeus, Jay-Alexander was assistant stage manager and dance captain of the 1984 Broadway revival of Oliver! and stage manager for Song and Dance on Broadway in 1985, with Bernadette Peters. Both were Cameron Mackintosh shows.
"He had a hunch about me," Jay-Alexander says. "He offered to pay for my theatre tickets if I would write critiques of shows that were opening. And my batting average was good."
Jay-Alexander became associate director and an executive producer of Les Misérables, and he staged more than a dozen productions of the show around the world. Then he was an executive producer for Mackintosh's next smash-hit Broadway musical, Miss Saigon, as well as the executive producer of the Grammy-nominated Five Guys Named Moe original cast recording. In fact, he was in charge of all of Mackintosh's North American operations.
"Working for Cameron was one of the most exciting periods of my life," he says. "Cameron was a wonderful sparring partner. He is not a guy who thinks he knows everything. He actually listened to you and encouraged you and let you fly. He lets people do what they do best, and lets them shine."
Since leaving Mackintosh, he has produced recordings for Peters, Johnny Mathis and Mary Cleere Haran and staged concert productions for performers like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Peters. This year he directed Amy Irving Off-Broadway in A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop. He is also on the board of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. And these days he is helming Streisand's new tour (with special guests Il Divo), which opens in Philadelphia in October.
But what he would really most like to do, he says, is "direct a new Broadway musical from scratch. It's my dream.
"It's the ultimate expression. There are not a lot of things I get jealous at. I'm not a jealous person. But sometimes you watch a show and say, 'If I had done this….'"
Yet it can't be just any musical. "It has to be the right one. I've been offered things and turned them down. You've got to find that magic project. The one you feel you can illuminate."
That's because, he says, "when the lights go down in the theatre and the lights go up onstage, I still feel the endless possibilities. Whether it's on Broadway, or a little garage theatre Off-Broadway, or a small agitprop theatre in Santiago, Chile, at midnight, there's always something to learn."