Jay Binder, who died on April 13 at the age of 71, never intended to become the best casting director on Broadway. He intended to become the best director. The curse of his life, and the demon that haunted him for almost half a century, was that he wasn’t one. He just wasn’t. His passion was so overflowing, his sense of discipline and organization was so subservient to it, that he simply couldn’t manage it. He loved actors. He loved plays and musicals. I mean, he loved them the way Romeo loved Juliet. The way Othello loved Desdemona—not wisely, but too well. And that’s how he became, for much of his career, the best casting director on Broadway.
Jay knew the inside and the outside of more American plays and musicals than any person I ever met: their plots, their subjects, their characters, right down to the two cops who only appear on the last page of the script. He knew more actors—what they could and couldn’t do and where their capacity for brilliance lay. And he had an insatiable thirst to find more. And more. He wanted to discover every one. He wept in auditions when an actor moved him, and it took a few moments for him to compose himself after the actor left the room. He was, in Spike Milligan’s memorable phrase, “a skin short.” What got to him really got to him.
The result was that he was an intensely empathic, emphatic advocate for actors and why they were right for certain roles in the shows that he knew so well. And his ability to find the essence of characters in new works was uncanny. Once he got who they were, he had a lot to say about them and how they might be brought to life by one actor or another. He was fond of saying, “One more thing and then I’ll shut up.” But he never actually shut up.
He loved to get a laugh, and often told the story of his introduction to Broadway casting, in which he was interviewed by Edward Albee for his new play, an ill-fated adaptation of Lolita. Albee told Jay it was going to be a very hard play to cast. Jay responded that he knew he could find a young teenage girl to play the sex kitten.
Albee replied, “No, that’s the easy part. I want a one-armed actor.”
Without blinking, Jay shot back: “Left arm or right arm?” For better or worse, he got the job.
The first real triumph of his career was Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, in which he managed to find a cast of 64, many of whom played six or seven roles over the course of the evening. It was an astonishing company, virtuosic and shape-shifting. All credit, of course, to Jerome Robbins for every ultimate decision on that show, but it was Jay who placed the stunning plethora of talent before him and advocated tirelessly with a famously difficult genius of a director. Jay had no fear, other than that he might be fired. He was not fired.
I met him shortly after Jerome Robbins’ Broadway opened, but it was not until 2000, when I became artistic director of New York City Center’s Encores! series, that we really began a partnership. It was a loud and joyful and occasionally infuriating one. For Jay, Encores! was the world’s greatest playground for the world’s most excitable show queen. Three musicals a year, most of which he knew inside and out. And with one-week runs, he could get stars to commit. Tyne Daly, Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Patti LuPone, Vanessa Williams. Kristin Chenoweth. Donna Murphy. Laura Benanti. Peter Gallagher. He got to discover the teenaged Anne Hathaway (in Carnival), who was a singing student of Laura Benanti’s mother. And on and on. Once again, he could cast full-size ensembles of singers and dancers who were brilliant in their own right, and some of whom he knew would in time be in starring roles on the same stage. Kate Baldwin, Danny Burstein, Stanley Wayne Mathis, and others. It was a golden time, and we were a family.
At the same time, for a long while, his Broadway career flourished: eight Neil Simons, The Lion King, Urinetown, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and others. In addition, he was active in many regional theatres and Hollywood.
He wasn’t always right, but he never gave up advocating. This was true to such an extent that, eventually, it began to cost him business. Once the unquestioned dean of casting directors, he eventually became less fashionable than some others. He once explained it to me this way: “A producer got angry with me and said, ‘I expect a casting director to be like a respectful maître d’, leading each actor to me so I can make a decision.’ Well, what can I do? I ain’t no maître d’.”
He was not. He was a tireless fighter for his vision of the best possible company of performers to bring words and music to life onstage. I think I know why, and it’s not for the most selfless of reasons. When it all came together the way he dreamed it, he would sit in the audience and weep, just as he had done in the auditions. The joy of a great night in the theatre was his drug of choice, and he was addicted to it. When it worked at Encores! it was my greatest joy to see, at the end of the evening, that he was a wreck—in the best possible sense. That’s a kind of definition of a man of the theatre; Jay Binder was a unique one.
Jack Viertel (he/him) is a theatrical producer and writer.
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