Kristin Chenoweth Down Under, an interview with director Richard Jay-Alexander (and a surprise guest appearance!)

Hello blog friends!

I am writing from Maine where I am finally starting to catch up on work (while I am on vacation).  Last year I wrote a blog post about working with the terrific singer/actress Kristin Chenoweth, and I am happy to say that my association with her continues.  This time I was working with Kristin and her team (including extraordinary music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell) on her Australian concert tour.  I was writing and working with her on a sketch with the Avenue Q puppets.

Those cute little puppets love to say really horrible things to shock her, and going to Australia led to a slew of inappropriate Australian themed jokes.  So much fun.  Even better is handing material to someone as funny as Kristin Chenoweth and watching her mine it for additional laughs.  It’s a “pinch me is this real?” moment as a writer.  I’m proud to report that she received rave reviews across Australia and if you want to see the show in America, you have one more chance when she plays the Hollywood Bowl later this summer.  Fingers crossed that she will find her way to New York again with this fantastic show.

Providing me with this terrific opportunity was friend and mentor Richard Jay-Alexander.  Richard Jay gave me my very first job in 1992 as a “swing” in the National Tour of Les Miserables and after years of directing that show around the world, his career exploded in the concert venue.  Read more to find out about Richard Jay’s long career, about Kristin touring Australia, and about his life as guru to the divas.

As a surprise to Richard, I e-mailed Kristin before her opening night in Sydney and asked her what it was like to work with Richard Jay and how the puppet sketch was coming along.  One quick thing, I have to tell you that one of the most charming things about Kristin is her hilarious use of her Blackberry.  She types quickly and doesn’t always edit, so you get funny notes that you sometimes have to read twice.  My personal favorite was last year when the space bar was broken on her Blackberry and I got emails that read like this.

hisharonithinkthesketchisgoingoverwell!!sorrybutmyspacebarisbroken,canyoubelieve??

This is her adorable (and unedited) response about Richard Jay and touring in Australia:

Hi Sharon!  I just lol at the puppets sketch everytime we do it.Tonight is the “first night” of the actual show. Im nervous bec I wanna knock it out of the ballpark for australia.
Rja and i have been together a year now. How hes given me confidence to let certain material “go”. And pushed me to even greater heights. I will never be able to thank him enough!
And u xcan quote me! 

Hilarious, right?

Richard Jay took the time to answer the following questions even as he was preparing to open Barbra Streisand’s European tour.  You think you are fancy?  Richard Jay is fancy.  Two divas on two continents and the show he directed for the hottie Italian pop-opera boy group Il Volo debuting on PBS, and he still answers e-mail.  Fancy.

Hi Richard Jay! We know Kristin had a great tour across America last year.  Why is Kristin touring in Australia?  Does she have a large fan base there? Interestingly, Kristin has a world audience due to her success in television, in films and on Broadway. We are touring because the demand has been great and for the first time in a while Kristin actually has some pockets of time available and we were able to plug in appearances, as it’s something we love doing.

Has Kristin been to Australia before?  Is she excited to go? Kristin is very excited. It’s her FIRST time in Australia and needless to say she can’t wait to hold a koala bear. I know she is particularly excited about playing the Sydney Opera house—because it’s so legendary, but she was also really flattered to be asked to headline this years Adelaide Cabaret Festival. The other cities are Melbourne and Brisbane.

Did you change the show for Australia? The show isn’t essentially changed from what we toured in North America except that we have Australia-centric references. The great thing about being an American star and coming to other parts of the world is bringing what she does to the people who fell in love with her for that very thing.

Many people know Kristin had a serious head injury last year.  How is she doing? Kristin’s injury last year was a shocker for all of us and it’s a long, slow heal.

We know you’ve worked with many “divas” (in the best sense) such as Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and many more.  How do you like working with Kristin?  Did you know her before? If you’re asking me what I love about Kristin, I would have to say everything. We sort of knew each other, only through our profession, up until we began working together a year ago… but I have loved every single minute of it. And for me, she’s like playdough because she can do anything and everything.

What is something people would be surprised to know about Kristin Chenoweth? What would surprise people about Kristin is actually her talent. She seems so down to earth and normal and fun and then when she kicks into gear and displays the versatility of all her gifts… it’s absolutely mind-boggling.

Kristin sings for almost 3 hours in the show, which is incredible.  How does she prepare for show days?  Does she have any special needs?  Kristin takes her work very seriously, which is a pleasure for me. She is incredibly diligent about preparation, she does her homework and she treasures the gifts of that voice that she’s been given with proper vocalization and everything else that goes along with well-being and able to endure the length of a show like this and the versatility of the material.

You travel with her on tour.  What are you doing an hour before the show?  What are you doing during the show? When I travel with Kristin on tour, half-hour becomes bible and I don’t even go into her dressing room unless she asks for me. During the show I watch along with the audience, in awe, and then after I usually thank her for hiring me and we sort of revisit the evening’s performance with laughter and tears (good tears). Then she might have a sip of something… and off to bed.

You seem to specialize in directing the great divas.  How would you describe your job and why are you so good at it?  I seem to have found myself in a niche of working with great concert artists, but if you look at the type of people I work with (Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Lea Salonga, Kristin Chenoweth to name a few from a long list)  they are actually all from the theatre, or have done theatre. I love working with people who have tools and gifts and interpretative qualities… which usually means actors who sing. I’m pretty lucky but every time I get a job I always call Bernadette Peters to thank her, because she actually launched my concert career when she asked me to do her Carnegie Hall debut back in 1996.

How did you segue from theater to big concerts? Segueing from theatre to concerts (or for that matter to cabaret or television studio or recording studio or a soundstage) aren’t really that different. You just focus on the task at hand.

You are directing Les Miz this summer at The Muny.  How does it feel to come back to this piece after all this time? Les Miz will always be one of the highlights of my career and my theatrical life. When the history books are written, it will simply be—the greatest musical of all time. Doing it at the MUNY this summer will be my last time with this piece but I love every single one of those characters on that stage from the Victor Hugo novel brought to life so vividly, musically by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil.

You know I’m a big Bette Midler fan, and you directed her (sensational) KISS MY BRASS tour.  What is she like to work with? Doing Bette Midler’s Kiss My Brass tour was another highlight, as I was a huge fan of Bette’s and used to get stoned to The Divine Miss M all the time. When you work with somebody like her you realize why certain people are stars and others aren’t. Her talents are so unique and she has so many different styles of singing in her and unparalleled pathos. Again, here’s an actress who sings. If you listen to early albums and hear pieces like “Surabaya Johnny” or “Hello In There” they still work every single time… and still devastate.

Describe your relationship with Barbra Streisand.  My relationship with Barbra Streisand is now in its 14th year and I don’t think I can talk sensibly about her because it’s too many things to comprehend. But I will say this… every day I go to work with her I am thrilled and come out re-inspired by her level of work ethic and the creativity that happens in the room. Rehearsal is always a safe place, she’s so talented at so many different things that one can only aspire to. And I always say that I like her so much, I forget she sings… and then when she opens that mouth and raises her voice… I die.

Many people would love to live your life.  What is on your to-do list today?  If you think people really want to live my life they should try my list on for today. Video bank meeting, re-editing a show piece, having a meeting about another job before work at the hotel, signing a contract that needs to be sent back to America, answering emails, trying to find time to eat, making sure I’m not late for my pick-up to the rehearsal venue, rehearsing a choir and vocalist before tonight’s rehearsal, arranging theatre tickets for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reading the papers, get my ticket requests in, shower, shave and look nice, check in with every department on the floor to make sure everybody has everything they need, oh yeah… and post on Facebook.

Many thanks to Richard Jay-Alexander for the opportunity, and to his assistant Amy Shaughnessy for facilitating the interview.

But before we go, here is one more e-mail from Ms. Chenoweth as a wrap up for the Aussie experience.  Again, I didn’t edit it because her emails crack me up.

Sharon
Your wit and genius was SO appreciated here! The crowds went nuts for avenue q. I was so proud.
Ive had an incredible time here. Sad to leave.
The audiences were am-az-ing. I feel so honored to have played the Opera House. A bucket -lister.
Thanks for helping make the show suCcessful!!!!!
Much love from “down-under”.
Kc

To learn more about Richard Jay-Alexander, please read his bio here:  http://broadwayworld.com/people/bio/Richard-Jay-Alexander/

To learn more about Kristin Chenoweth at the Hollywood Bowl, please visit here:  http://www.hollywoodbowl.com/tickets/kristin-chenoweth/2013-08-23

About Sharon Wheatley

Mother of Charlotte and Beatrix. Sometimes an actress. Sometimes a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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One Response to Kristin Chenoweth Down Under, an interview with director Richard Jay-Alexander (and a surprise guest appearance!)

  1. Iris says:

    Hi Sharon.
    Great post and interview. I was wondering, you said our last chance to see this show (ie the tour show) would be the HB, but Kristin tweeted at some point the HB would be a new set list. Do you know for certain it will be the tour set? I’d love to see it again, but saw it 5 times last summer, wouldn’t mind a new set list either :p
    Cheers

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