Jason Alexander :: Back to Boston, This Time with the Pops
If you ever watched "Seinfeld" (and if you haven't, under what rock have you been living?), you may have had the chance to see Jason Alexander's George Costanza sing and dance, but it wasn't pretty.
"I had to sing and dance badly," quips Alexander, who ironically won the 1989 Tony Award for Best Actor in A Musical for his performance in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," where he narrated this retrospective on Robbins' Broadway career. That was just prior to beginning his10-season stint on "Seinfeld' that would make him a household name. "There was an episode where [George] couldn't get 'Master of the House' from 'Les Miz' out of his head, so he kept singing it throughout the show, and another where I had to do some Gene Kelly-esque dance down the street, swinging on a lamppost."
But the most remembered musical moment for George, which influenced outgoing answering machine messages nationwide was George bleating "Believe it or Not," the theme song for the 1980's TV comedy "Greatest American Hero," on his outgoing answering machine message.
There is a skill to singing and dancing badly that is best developed from an ability to sing and dance extremely well, something most people are unaware Jason Alexander can do, extremely well. But prior to his "Seinfeld" days, from 1989-1998, Alexander had a pretty active stage career, dropping out of Boston University his junior year to take some film work, but then landing the role of Joe Josephson in Stephen Sondheim’s "Merrily We Roll Along," first in the 1979 workshop at the age of 19, then in the ill-fated original Broadway production in1981, which closed after 16 performances. Next he appeared in the 1984 Broadway production of "The Rink," opposite Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, and in Neil Simon’s 1986 comedy "Broadway Bound," opposite Linda Lavin and Phyllis Newman, which ran for nearly two years. He followed that triumphantly with "Jerome Robbins’ Broadway," in 1989, just as "Seinfeld" was preparing to launch, changing his career dramatically.
Though residuals from Seinfeld, which airs continuously in syndication around the world, could enable Alexander to never work again, he supplemented and followed his Seinfeld run with more challenging film and stage work, most notably the role of Albert Peterson in the 1995 TV Movie of "Bye Bye Birdie" opposite Vanessa Williams and Tyne Daly, where he really got to stretch his song and dance chops. Gay audiences may remember his over-the-top performance as theater queen Buzz Hauser in the 1997 film version of Terrance McNally’s "Love, Valour, Compassion," a role created by Nathan Lane on Broadway. That wouldn’t be the last time Alexander followed in Lane’s footsteps, having played Max Bialystock, in the Los Angeles 2003 sit-down production of "The Producers" opposite Martin Short’s Leo Bloom.
Alexander has also branched out into directing, being the only "Seinfeld" cast member to also direct the show (three episodes), has also directed a production of "Sunday in the Park with George," for the Los Angeles theater company Reprise, where he also recently became the Artistic Director. Alexander will get a chance to show the east coast some of his song (and, perhaps, dance) moves in his upcoming appearance with the Boston Pops Orchestra at Symphony Hall on Thursday, May 30.
EDGE had a chance to catch up with affable and self-deprecating Alexander, who spoke about Sondheim, Broadway, and coming back to Boston:
EDGE: You went to Boston University. For what?
Jason Alexander: For three years as an undergrad, but my matriculation was trumped by my career, an acting gig. My first film, and it ran the summer of my junior year, and it went longer, and I met the woman who became my wife and suddenly my diploma took a back seat.
I was a theatre art major. I’d love to tell you it was advanced physics, but I’m a functional idiot so I studied acting. BU eventually gave me an honorary degree.
EDGE: What got you interested in acting?
Jason Alexander: I started out with an interest in performing when I was six and my first foray in front of an audience was as a magician, not as an actor.
EDGE: Can you still perform any of your old tricks?
EDGE: Jason Alexander: Yes, I can (he says in a cocky sing-song way, not unlike George Costanza). When I moved out to LA, I was invited to come out to the Magic Castle, and four or five years ago, they lured me to perform there, and I won Parlor Magician of the Year.
EDGE: The TV movie ’"Bye Bye Birdie’ showed the world you could sing and dance. Were you happy to get that part?
Jason Alexander: I was shocked to get that part!!! When they called, I thought they would give me the Paul Lynde role, which I did in high school. I never thought of myself as playing Albert. It put me back with Gene Saks, who directed me in ’Broadway Bound,’ and I knew Ann Reinking. It was great fun, and I enjoyed it.
EDGE:. Did you have any dancing moments in ’Jerome Robbins’ Broadway?’
Jason Alexander: I knew enough to squeak through. My dance moment was a number I did with Faith Prince, called ’I Still Get Jealous’ from ’High Button Shoes,’ this old fashioned soft shoe. I thought, compared to any of the gargantuan dance moments in that show, it was rather insignificant, but it became an audience favorite.
EDGE: When you were in the Los Angeles Production of ’The Producers’ with Martin Short, had you ever thought of switching roles?
Jason Alexander: It’s so funny that you say that. When Marty and I first said that we would do it, we asked them if we could switch roles each week, but they wouldn’t go for it. I thought we would each be great in both roles.
The ’Merrily’ Experience
EDGE: What was it like performing in ’Merrily We Role Along,’ on Broadway, your first show out of the gate?
Jason Alexander: The experience was extraordinary. Outside of it being a runaway success, which is wasn’t, it was everything a young actor could dream of, and I got to watch these giants in the industry sweat, because they had to work it out. It was flawed. I learned more than if it was a smooth ride. Because of that, it drew the cast together. We were a bunch of kids, and they wanted us to have a great experience, and they kicked themselves that they couldn’t bring it off for us. For most of the cast, who didn’t go on to more theater, it was a once in a lifetime experience.
EDGE: You had a much later connection to Sondheim, singing at his 75th birthday party.
Jason Alexander: I did some stuff from ’...Forum" and "Merrily....’" Angela did ’Sweeney Todd’ with Len Cariou. I’d love to say that Sondheim is one of my people, we are not friends, but I can’t believe he calls me, thinks well of me, it’s one of those little gifts of my career that I hold very dear.
With the Pops
EDGE: And you went on to direct ’Sunday In the Park with George’ at Reprise. Did you have to interact with Sondheim during that production?
Jason Alexander: No, I was talking to [book writer] James Lapine during it. We had challenges to that production, due to Reprise’s limitations, and the slight alterations to the book had to be approved with James. Kelly O’Hara and Manoel Felciano were our leads, and I was so hoping we could bring it to Broadway, but the British production was coming to NY. I thought the British production was beautifully evoked, but I thought Kelly and Mano had achieved more of the heart of the show.
EDGE: What can we expect when you appear with the Boston Pops?
Jason Alexander: It will be a nice little reunion. I performed with them almost 20 years ago in Boston and at Carnegie Hall. My part of the show will be all theater music, all stuff that is particular to me or tells a story I like to tell. In each case I have a connection to the music. Even though it is someone else’s music, I give my own take on it.
Jason Alexander will appear with the Boston Pops Orchestra on May 30, 8PM at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA. Tickets: $41-$125. For tickets, call 888.266.1200 or visit http://www.bso.org/Performance/Detail/49318.