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'Diva Whisperer' Richard Jay-Alexander opens conversation series in Miami Beach

Theater director, producer and all-around impresario Richard Jay-Alexander has worked with showbiz legends Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Julie Andrews, Kristin Chenoweth and Bernadette Peters.

“They call me the Diva Whisperer in social media,” Jay-Alexander, 64, says from his home in Miami Beach. “I look at the roster of stars, and I guess I understand it.”

You can hear him dish about those bold-faced names and more at “A Conversation With … Richard Jay-Alexander,” a live interview and Q and A session taking place Oct. 26 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami Beach. Jay-Alexander’s appearance will launch the onstage conversation series with local A-listers, which organizers say will also include film director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour,” “Horrible Bosses”) and documentarian Billy Corben (“Cocaine Cowboys,” “Dawg Fight”) sometime in early 2018. Each event will have a different person facilitating the conversation. In Jay-Alexander’s case, the one-on-one will be with his longtime friend Lee Brian Schrager, the founder of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

“I liked that it was a conversation as opposed to just a lecture,” says Susan Gladstone, director of the museum. “The 92nd Street Y has been doing this for some time in New York City, so the concept is very well known there. It’s a concept I always thought was very interesting.”

Gladstone says they gave the idea a trial run in April with a conversation between George Feldenkreis, CEO of Miami-based apparel giant Perry Ellis International, and FIU president Mark Rosenberg. “It was very successful and I thought we could continue,” Gladstone says. “Richard Jay-Alexander was here for an exhibit, and I had worked for many years for the Wine and Food Festival and presented the idea to Lee and Richard, and they were both excited about the concept.”

Then, Jay-Alexander remembers, he and Schrager had dinner together in order to bat around a few topics and try some questions and answers. “Finally, I just said, ‘Surprise me.’ I did promise Lee that I will answer the Q and A with the audience. That may be a little bit more filtered. Who knows?”

Jay-Alexander started his career on the stage as an actor, dancer and singer, appearing in “Zoot Suit” and “Amadeus” on Broadway. In order to get an extra $35 in his paycheck during the run of “Amadeus” in the early 1980s, he added “second assistant stage manager” to his contract on the advice of a friend. “I became fascinated by the craft of putting the shows together and got offered to direct the tours,” he recalls.

About the same time, Tommy Tune was appearing in “My One and Only,” which Tune also directed. The showman encouraged Jay-Alexander to follow his career path, from appearing in shows to directing them. “We were at Sardi’s in between shows,” Jay-Alexander recalls, “and he said, ‘Look, after I won the Tony for ‘Seesaw’ I couldn’t get arrested, until I directed ‘The Club.’ When a window opens, you know?’ And I took his advice.”

He started directing national touring productions for the Shubert Organization, and in 1985 became a stage manager and dance captain for “Oliver!” and then “Song and Dance” on Broadway, the latter a show that starred Bernadette Peters, marking the beginning of a close friendship. “Bernadette Peters’ [1997 live album] at Carnegie Hall is where my entire career trajectory changes,” Jay-Alexander says. “All of a sudden, I was being chased like never before. I had cracked a nut.”

But before Jay-Alexander went on to produce albums and direct concert tours for stars such as Streisand, Peters, Midler, Chenoweth, Johnny Mathis and Ricky Martin, he directed tours of “Les Miserables” and served as executive producer of “Miss Saigon” on Broadway and the touring productions. Both of those shows came from producer Cameron Mackintosh (“Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera, “Mary Poppins,” “Oliver!”). He also did “Five Guys Named Moe” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Putting It Together” which starred Julie Andrews off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club. Along the way, Jay-Alexander was named executive director of Mackintosh’s North American operations.

It was during that time that he made Miami Beach one of his homes.

“I bought this house 25 years ago,” Jay-Alexander says. “I had an apartment in New York, and I had a place in Los Angeles. I like it here. I guess it’s because I’m of Latin heritage, Spanish heritage, whatever. My mom was Cuban. My dad was Spanish. So three years ago, I got rid of L.A. and New York. One year, I was doing my taxes, and I realized I spent 11 days in New York City, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ As you well know, everyone comes through Miami. Whether it’s the South Beach Wine and Food Festival or Art Basel, I don’t miss seeing anyone by living here. Here you can participate as much or as little as you like. In New York City, the pace is still grueling, and I’m getting older. I even love the humidity here. It’s good for your skin.”

So now this is his base, which proved convenient when he recently co-directed with Streisand her tour “The Music … the Mem’ries … the Magic,” which was filmed in December 2016 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

We asked Jay-Alexander to play a word-association game with the names of Streisand and other stars he’s worked with over the years.

Barbra Streisand: “Wow. She’s my girl. Broadway’s greatest export. There will never be another career like Barbra Streisand. She hasn’t missed a musical step. Look at her accomplishments and activism. I loved working with her. She has one of the greatest work ethics ever. I mean, I’m prepared. I love to work. I hate to waste time. She’s the same. She’s passionate about everything. She has some of the brightest, blinding blue eyes. Working with her is one of the joys of my life. And then, she sings. I mean I love her without singing, but then she sings and sometimes I literally swoon and she starts laughing.”

Betty Buckley: “Striking, intelligent, durable, complicated, simultaneously dark and illuminating.”

Ricky Martin: “Sunny, magical, godlike, Marius. His Marius in ‘Les Miz’ forever changed the way I saw that role. I almost fainted, that’s how good he was. He’s just a big ball of light and love. I have such admiration and love for that boy that will not go away. What you see is what you get with him.”

Kristin Chenoweth: “So talented. I have to save her from herself. Gifted. Unique. 4 foot 11. Dynamic range. Complex. Funny. Can sing songs in any key.”

Bernadette Peters: “I owe everything to her. That Carnegie album is legendary with performers. You hear about it every day. I’m so excited about her going into ‘Hello Dolly.’ She’s a real Broadway star.”

Julie Andrews: “Amazing. So amazing. And she’s Julie Andrews. That’s the crazy part. When you first meet her … it’s just crazy to see it face to face. When we did the cast recording for ‘Putting It Together’ [in 1993], and she was doing the song ‘My Husband the Pig’ from “A Little Night Music,’ and it’s an angry song. When she heard the playback, she said, ‘Why do I always sound so goddamn pleasant?’ And she went back in and did it again.”

Johnny Mathis: “I have to say I cried every day, every single day making the Broadway album with him. He would come out and say, ‘Are you OK?’ and I would say, ‘Yeah, but you’re Johnny Mathis.’ And we had Nell Carter, Betty Buckley and Forever Plaid on that album. It’s so good. So good. When he sings, forget it. You know some voices today, I can’t tell one from the other. Some voices are unmistakable.”

Bette Midler: “Bette Midler is miraculous. She has such a skill set. She has soul. She has grace. She has tremendous pathos. She’s very funny and unique. She was doing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and she went to Ruth Mitchell, who at the time was the associate producer, and Bette said I need a raise. She asked for a $25 raise and they said no. Guess what happened next? The baths. Working with her on the ‘Kiss My Brass’ tour … was pretty magical, and we toured the world.”

Donny and Marie Osmond: “Well, what do you say? The minute I saw the show — Dick Clark and his wife were there. He was in a wheelchair — I knew this was history. Marie is amazing. I worked them hard. I particularly beat her up because she was so good, but she didn’t know that she was good. I told her, ‘If you do this part this way, you will get a standing ovation.’ I bet her $100. She got three standing ovations. It happened the very first night. I went up to her and whispered in her ear, ‘I want it in tens.’ I still have it, framed $100, all in tens.”

“A Conversation With … Richard Jay-Alexander” will take place 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., in Miami Beach. Admission is $25 for nonmembers and $18 for JMOF-FIU members (free admission for museum members at the $125 membership level and above and FIU Students with valid ID). To reserve, call 786-972-3175 or go to JMOF.FIU.edu.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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