GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Timothy J. Alex of 'Elf'
Timothy J. Alex has only a few screen credits, but they include a role in one of the best-selling videogames of all time and a scene with one of the biggest soap stars of all time. On stage, he’s worked with virtually all the top choreographers of this era and, before he even made it to Broadway, was in many of the most buzzed-about musicals of the ’80s and ’90s during their Toronto runs. He’s been in seven previous Broadway shows and now has become part of the legendary Christmas in New York festivities with a role in Elf.
The new musical marks Alex’s return to Broadway after a nearly two-year absence (since Roundabout’s revival of Pal Joey closed in February 2009). For much of 2010, he was involved in another new musical, Robin and the 7 Hoods, which, like Elf, is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Robin and the 7 Hoods, adapted from a 1964 Rat Pack movie, had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe this summer and has its sights set on a Broadway bow in the next year or two.
Alex had good luck with his last show that had a pre-Broadway tryout in San Diego, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which he performed at the Old Globe in 2004 and for its entire 18-month run on Broadway in 2005 and 2006. His Broadway credits are a mix of hits and flops, of revivals and new works. He made his Broadway debut in Chicago in the spring of 2001, replacing Jim Borstelmann (the February 2008 Gypsy of the Month), an original cast member of the revival that is still running. Alex left Chicago after just four months to be in “what was supposed to be the next big thing”: Thou Shalt Not, Harry Connick Jr.’s debut as a Broadway composer and director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s follow-up to the record-breaking The Producers. It closed after 2½ months. His next two new shows on Broadway, Sweet Smell of Success and Never Gonna Dance (both adapted from popular films), also failed to last more than three months. In between them, he appeared in the 2003-03 revival of Man of La Mancha starring Brian Stokes Mitchell.
More recently, Alex had his first-ever principal role as a professional—Bill in Kiss Me, Kate at the Paper Mill Playhouse of New Jersey. He’s also voiced the character of Bernie Crane in Grand Theft Auto IV, a 2008 addition to the uber-successful videogame series, and appeared on an episode of All My Children as personal trainer to Erica Kane (Susan Lucci). And if it counts for anything, Alex looks like Mad Men hottie Jon Hamm.
In Elf, he appears as not one but two different Santas—though, as Buddy, the main character, is quick to point out (and make a fuss over), they’re fake Santas. Alex plays the one in Macy’s who gets into a scuffle with Buddy, and another commiserating with other sidewalk Santas over Chinese food on Christmas Eve. He also portrays an elf in the opening scenes, set at the North Pole. Which all should guarantee a—in Buddy’s word—sparklejollytwinklejingley holiday season for Alex. He’s thrilled that his brother, Adam, came from Canada to see the show with his 11-year-old niece and 14-year-old nephew, who saw their uncle perform for the very first time.
Yet there’s more to Elf for Alex than just the yuletide fun. “Being a part of it has been a really healing experience for me,” he says, “because Buddy’s story is my story.” At the beginning of Elf, Buddy is informed by (the real) Santa that he’s not an elf but a human who ended up living among elves after he crawled into Santa’s sack as a baby. As a young adult, Alex too learned a theretofore secret truth about his parentage. When he was about 24, his mother told him that his biological father was not the father who had raised him but someone she’d had a brief relationship with prior to her marriage. Just like Buddy, Alex found out that his biological father lived in New York City and worked in a landmark building there (for Buddy, the Empire State; for Timothy, the NBC building in Rockefeller Center). Buddy journeys to New York from the North Pole, and even that’s similar to Alex: “I’m from Canada, and everyone here thinks Canada’s the North Pole.” Also like Buddy, Alex discovered upon meeting his biological father that he has a sibling he didn’t know about. Buddy bonds instantly with his half brother, Michael; Alex has “an incredibly amazing relationship” with his half sister, Karen, who “is absolutely precious to me,” he says.
“So when Santa tells Buddy his story in the first part of the show—this is who you are, this is where you’re from—there’s a parallel to my life,” Alex remarks after sharing his very personal story. “It has been a healing process to be part of this and know that I’m not alone.”
That idea of knowing your perhaps difficult circumstances are not unique is behind another project that Alex, 46, has gotten involved in. He contributed a video to It Gets Better Broadway, the theater community’s offshoot of the It Gets Better initiative launched in the wake of some highly publicized suicides by gay teens who had been bullied. The It Gets Better Project offers hope and advocacy to LGBT youth through videos in which adults—including Hollywood stars, other public figures and non-celebrities—tell their own true stories of struggling with being “different” when they were growing up. “We all have a story, regardless of color, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual preference, that makes us who we are,” says Alex, who in his video shares hurtful memories of having to put up with homophobic name-calling and physical threats when he was a boy. “The difficult part is the transition of realizing that and getting to the point in your life where you can accept yourself and be who you are and not let the world take you down or dictate who or how you should be. When I was in grade school, I didn’t know that there was going to be a way that that whole awful time in my life was going to make me a stronger person.
“I found creative outlets...I had friends and family around me and people who were supportive,” he continues. “This It Gets Better campaign helps people know that if you don’t have somebody in your immediate circle, there are those of us out there, somewhere, that can get together and you just have to hold on a little bit. Hopefully, if you just have the courage to say something about it, you can find somebody who can relate to your story and you’re able to work through it.”
Alex has no doubt that early exposure to theater, as he had, helps children cultivate tolerance and empathy for others. “There’s something really enlightening about opening a small child to the world of theater,” he says. “I’m who I am today because my mom took me to the theater and taught me to not be afraid of people, to be aware and not be completely naive and coddled, so when I did get on my own, I knew what to do.”
Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario (about 45 minutes from both Toronto and Buffalo), he is the son of an actress, the late Marilyn Alex, who was known locally for her performances at Hamilton Theatre Inc., a community troupe that she cofounded. At age 10, Timothy played one of the newsboys in a Hamilton Theatre Inc. production of Gypsy, alongside his mother as Mama Rose. It was the first of several shows he did at the theater, and his on-site experience substituted for any formal training; he didn’t take dance classes until college. “I grew up backstage,” he recalls. “When she was on stage, I was being taken care of by somebody wasn’t on stage. I was just always running around the theater from when I was very small.”
He did sing in the school choir, and also participated in sports, playing on baseball and hockey teams. In the year following high school, he had the title role in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Hamilton Place, a premier performance venue in the area. He then enrolled in the musical theater program at Sheridan College in nearby Oakville. “There were other university programs centered on theater,” Alex says of his decision to attend a non-degree-granting, three-year school, “but they seemed to come from a very academic point of view—you read about what you wanted to do. This program seemed to be set up so you just did it all the time.” The final year was occupied almost entirely with performing, and Alex played Count Carl Magnus in A Little Night Music in one school production. After college, he started working at Ontario dinner theaters such as Limelight and Cambridge before breaking into “Broadway North,” as Toronto was known at the time.
Today Toronto is more of a tour town, but when Alex was working there in the 1990s, it was the heyday of Garth Drabinsky’s Livent and another Toronto-based megaproducer, Ed Mirvish, when new musicals would have open-ended runs in Toronto—sometimes before opening on Broadway—and many American performers would come up to work in them. Alex’s first Equity-level show was Cats, where he played Tumblebrutus and Rum Tum Tugger in a year and a half with the show. He then appeared in the North American premiere of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, starring Donny Osmond. All the while, Alex was making a lot of American contacts. One of them was costume designer Bobby Pearce, who became a good friend. While in NYC once in the early ’90s, Alex tagged along with Pearce on a visit to Pearce’s friend Nicole Fosse—at the home of Fosse’s mother, Gwen Verdon. Alex vividly remembers entering Verdon’s penthouse on Central Park West: “the first time I went in an elevator that opened up into someone’s home, as opposed to a hallway.” His chat with Verdon led to her passing his name on to some New York-based directors and choreographers, including Susan Stroman, who hired him for his next Toronto show, Crazy for You.
After Crazy for You, he was in the original Canadian productions of Sunset Boulevard and Fosse and the world premiere of Ragtime in Toronto. “I really had no desire to move here,” Alex says, “because I was living such a wonderful theater life up in Toronto. I just followed my passion and it kind of naturally led me here. I’d never actually pictured myself in New York City, and I still walk around the streets sometimes amazed that I live here.”
He came to New York to see Ragtime on Broadway after its Toronto run, and on opening night sat next to Rob Ashford. That was the night they met, but they had a mutual friend. Just as Gwen Verdon had done, Ashford later circulated Alex’s name—and he soon got a call from Barry Moss’ casting office about an audition for the national tour of Titanic. He flew to New York on a Friday and went to see the show that night, then auditioned on Saturday and flew back to Toronto on Sunday. On Monday morning, they called to offer him the part.
After he finished with the Titanic tour in 2000, Alex settled in New York and started working on getting his green card so he wouldn’t need to apply for a visa every time he was offered a show in the States (he’d had to pass on a slot in the Broadway company of Titanic because the paperwork couldn’t be completed in time). His first job as a U.S. resident was Pippin, choreographed by Ashford, at the Paper Mill Playhouse. He even got to go on once as the Leading Player, understudying Jim Newman in that role.
He’s done a couple of shows at Paper Mill in recent years, including Pirates! in 2007 and the Patti Colombo-choreographed Kiss Me, Kate in 2008. “I love working at Paper Mill,” he says. “It is like a working vacation, and you get to come home each day and sleep in your own bed.” As Bill in Kiss Me, Kate, his big number was “Bianca,” in which he scaled the set, depicting a backstage, while wooing his leading lady. “I had a blast doing it every time,” says Alex. “I love working environmentally, so if there is something around me to use set-wise or prop-wise, I’ll find a way of using it. By the time the number was over, I had shimmied up a 15-foot support pole to a scaffolding crossover, jumped up to straddle two railings that were a little wider than I would have liked, jumped off to then swing down to meet Bianca and finish the number with a full-on Fred-and-Ginger-style ending.” He adds about his Kiss Me, Kate experience: “I love doing Patti’s choreography because she really can choreograph strong masculine dance. The number ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ was an incredible force of a number and a real thrill to do and sometimes get through because it was so challenging.”
Alex can also offer insights into other leading choreographers in today’s theater, since he’s worked with most of them. “Stroman is precise with everything that she does,” he says. “There’s no questioning where the movement comes from, what the acting intention is.” Rob Ashford is “very athletic and powerful—and exhausting.” As for Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Never Gonna Dance, “I remember hearing [DRS director] Jack O’Brien describe him as ‘lightning in a bottle,’ and I would say that too. Jerry’s powerful and magnificent in the general vision that he has, and the sense of fun that he brings to his work.”
Of Elf choreographer Nicholaw, Alex says, “There’s such a great sense of humor with his movement, and he allows you to kind of incite the movement. It really comes from an acting point of view, and I like to think of myself as an actor first; without acting, there’s nothing to fuel the dancing and the singing.” He adds: “The thing that I like about all of them is that they allow the individual to bring what I can to the scenario, as opposed to being told. There’s guidance, but it’s not from a world of ‘you can’t do it, so I’m gonna tell you what to do.’ There’s a mutual trust and respect.”
Alex has also danced in two shows with choreography by Bob Fosse. Having not been “one of those children who stared googly-eyed at theater,” he wasn’t that familiar with the Fosse style before he did the show Fosse, which was created with input from Gwen Verdon and Nicole Fosse. “I didn’t really come from the world of ’I gotta do that, I gotta do that’ as a child. So when I got to meet the people, then it became somewhat daunting. Gwen was iconic history that you got to talk to.” His one featured bit in Fosse was “Me and My Baby,” a number he later performed on Broadway in Chicago. (In Fosse, he danced it with Andy Blankenbuehler.)
Currently understudying Mark Jacoby as Buddy’s father in Elf, Alex did once go on in a lead role on Broadway: He played Freddy at a July 2006 performance of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, covering for Norbert Leo Butz without ever having a put-in rehearsal for the part. “I constantly use that experience as a reference when I feel a little insecurity or fear about something in my life,” says Alex, who still considers that performance his “greatest thrill” and in particular remembers the reaction of his friend Laura Kenyon—who came to his dressing room after seeing the show, “walked right up to me and, after a very brief pause looking right in my eyes with so much love, slapped me hard in the face out of the sheer fact she had no words to describe how amazed and proud she was.”
Alex’s performance as Freddy took place after Jonathan Pryce had succeeded John Lithgow as Lawrence, the other lead character of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Lithgow had also headlined Sweet Smell of Success and provided another treasured moment in Alex’s career during its short run. The day after Lithgow won the Tony for Sweet Smell, the cast was informed half an hour before showtime that the show would be closing. “So we get the notice that we’re closing and the curtain goes up, and the scene starts with John standing at the desk with his secretary,” Alex recalls. “The audience is giving John a standing ovation for winning the Tony, but what they don’t know is we’ve just been given our closing notice. The applause goes on for what seemed days. It went on for so long that John pulled everyone from the wings and had us gather around with him to accept the love from the audience that he was getting. There were no words spoken. He turned upstage and motioned that we all come forward, and he gave us this huge embracing hug. He was sharing what he was receiving from the audience with us, and the audience had no idea. And then we continued with the show. Two weeks later, it closed.”
Alex believes critics had reacted so negatively to Sweet Smell of Success because of its unflattering portrayal of theater journalists and publicists. “In my point of view, the people who review theater looked at it as a personal attack,” he says. He cites different culprits for the other two Broadway flops he was in. “Never Gonna Dance,” he opines, “was, I think, an example of how the general audience member wants to see somebody that they know from TV or film. It was a great show, but because it didn’t have a star attached to it, it didn’t have the run that it could have.” Thou Shalt Not, meanwhile, suffered in part from bad timing. “We were in tech during 9/11,” recalls Alex. “When you have an experience like the world did with 9/11 and you’re doing a show that’s on the dark side, there was perhaps a little fear of how deep and disturbing it could go. In trying to shy away from it, the story maybe got a little soft, and the vision got scattered.” Alex suspects the show, which was produced by Lincoln Center Theater, probably would have closed even sooner if it were not drawing an audience from LCT’s subscriber base. “I’ll be honest, doing Thou Shalt Not was difficult,” he says. “It was not a well-received show at all. Because it was a subscription series, we had to play much longer, and it was challenging to stay upbeat about something that nobody really liked.”
These days, Alex is working in a much more lighthearted environment. In fact, the main criticism he’s faced at the theater of late is reaction to his backstage culinary activity—and that’s all in good fun. Alex enjoys cooking (it’s even listed as a special skill on his resume) and usually brings home-cooked meals with him to work, which he strongly recommends over “‘zombie-ing’ around midtown” in search of food to buy. “When I was doing Pal Joey,” he says, “I would eat during Act 2, and as the girls came huffing and puffing off stage from dancing, they could get a whiff [and] would scream at me that it smelled so good. Some of the girls would even refer to this as torture.” His elaborate meal preparation, and the smells it generated, earned him the nickname Chef backstage at Robin and the 7 Hoods.
Photos of Timothy, from top: outside the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, which is gift-wrapped for the run of Elf; on the right in turquoise, next to Buddy (Sebastian Arcelus), in Elf; far right, backstage at Robin and the 7 Hoods with (from left) castmates Beth Johnson Nicely, Aleks Pevec and Eric Schneider; with his mother, Marilyn, in 1997; in costume for Pal Joey, with the revival’s costar Stockard Channing; as Bill/Lucentio in Paper Mill’s Kiss Me, Kate, with Amanda Watkins as Bianca; left, when he performed Chicago’s “Roxie” on Dancing With the Stars in 2007 with (from left) Gregory Butler, Lisa Rinna and Dan LoBuono. [Elf photo by Joan Marcus]