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Interview: Jason Alexander

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Jason Alexander
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The versatile 'Seinfeld' star showcases his four-decades-long career through story and song on Saturday night

By the time Jason Alexander signed on to play the endearingly maladjusted George Costanza on NBC’s Seinfeld, he had already cultivated a nearly decade-long stage career.

He made his Broadway debut at the age of 20 in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, followed by roles in Forbidden Broadway, The Rink, Personals, and Broadway Bound. In 1989, he won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for his turn in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

Beyond Seinfeld and the cultural cachet that it perpetuates in syndication 20 years after its series finale, Alexander’s lengthy résumé boasts nearly 70 television appearances, including the title voice role in USA’s adult animated sitcom, Duckman, and an Emmy-nominated guest spot on HBO’s acclaimed series, Dream On. His silver screen breakout as Philip Stuckey in 1990’s Pretty Woman opened the door to a broad range of projects – Jacob’s Ladder, Coneheads, The Paper, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Love! Valour! Compassion!

He recently joined the cast of Mister Lovely, a single-camera comedy pilot for Fox, alongside Wendie Malick and Nicole Richie.

On Saturday night, Alexander’s path will bring him to the Ohio Theatre, where he’ll weave his journey into songs and storytelling with the help of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. An Evening with Jason Alexander promises its audience music and comedy with a personal touch – a show that, as he and I discussed in a recent phone interview, has been in the making since he was a teenager.

People who have first gotten to know you as such a lasting fixture in their living rooms may not be aware that your career started on stage. What made you gravitate toward doing theatre work initially?

“Yeah! It was…I kind of tell a little bit of this story in the show. I was a really shy kid. Really shy. And I moved when I was a young teenager, and the first kids that picked me up in the new town were the theater kids. They seemed very friendly! [laughs] And, so, I went in and I had my first experience doing a stage show with a bunch of people, and if you were ever either a part of school theatre or you watched Glee, you know that the minute you open your mouth and you don’t completely suck, you are everybody’s best friend.

And so we were all doing this thing together, and it was an experience I’d never really had before. So, initially, it wasn’t the performing so much as the community of performers that I gravitated to. But, then I just found over time that I liked this…I liked telling these stories. I liked, you know, getting up and being amusing, being entertaining – I’ve always liked singing. It just all made sense. I grew up in New Jersey, so I kept going with these kids to the theatre in New York, and suddenly I just got it into my head that maybe that was a direction you could go. I sort of cavalierly threw myself into it with the abandon of youth – and it all worked out like a Cinderella story!”

And then you made your Broadway debut in a Sondheim musical, nonetheless, when you played Joe in Merrily We Roll Along. What do you remember about that first experience being a part of a major production?

“Oh, well, it was the headiest thing in the world. So, like I said, my fantasies were, ‘If I were really lucky, one day I would have a career in theatre in New York.’ Well, I did that show when I was 20 years old, which was lightyears ahead of when I ever thought I might get a break in show business. And not only was I making my Broadway debut at age 20, I was making it with, you know…Zeus and Apollo! [laughs] I mean, Harold Prince and Steven Sondheim – it just doesn’t get any bigger than that! So, it was a very heady experience, and I learned a ton.

And I talk about this a little bit in the show – I learned a ton, in some ways, because the show wasn’t working. It didn’t work. And watching the guys, those gentlemen, scramble and rethink and bring all their experience to bear in trying to fix the problem and not quite making it. While it was a painful experience at the time, in the grand scheme of life’s lessons it was fantastic, because it taught me that even the gods are mortal and you’re as good as you are at that. You know? Just because you got a homer at the last at-bat does not mean you’re a shoo-in for a homer this time. [laughs] That was a great lesson to learn up front.”

I’ve discussed the fine line between music and comedy with other performers, and how they often meet or dance for many artists in some way. How has that manifested in throughout your career?

Wow. What a smart question! You know, comedy came late for me in life. I had gotten all the way to college without thinking of myself as being particularly funny or being involved in comedy. I had a professor in college who more or less shoved me toward comedy. When I was there, I was already losing my hair, I was overweight, and he said to me, ‘You know, I know you’d be a good Hamlet, but no-one’s gonna hire you to play Hamlet. So, you might want to get good at Falstaff.’ [laughs]

So, then I started looking at comedy and studying funny people and going, ‘Well, why are they funny? How are they funny?’ And a large part of what I discovered was that there is a music to comedy. And I was able, because of my love for music and musical theatre, to imitate some of those sounds and some of those rhythms. They were my entry point into learning about how I could be funny, and how I could play funny people. So, in almost every role I’ve ever done, part of what I’m looking for is the sound and music of that character or that story. If I’m able to find it, I feel like I can get a better result.”

What would you say are your values as an artist – the ethos at your core that dictates how you work?

“You know, they’ve changed over the years. They’ve changed with time. I’ve always tried to have a sense of integrity about the work, about taking it seriously and making sure I was prepared to do the best work that I could do in any given performance, and at every part of the preparatory phase. There is…with a show like this, there’s a mantra that a teacher of mine taught me years ago. And it’s four simple words, but they’re really kind of eye-opening: strength, courage, conviction, and joy.

So, with strength and courage, what most people don’t realize is that even though I do this for a living, there is a certain amount of, ‘Oh my God!’ when you’re about to jump up on a stage in front of thousands of people for any reason. If you’re healthy emotionally, you do have to stop and think, ‘I’m not worthy of this! Why should these people watch and listen to me?’ And you have to get to a point where you are brave enough and strong enough to go, ‘I can do this! I can claim this space.’ So, those are the first two.

Conviction has to do with you doing something, or saying something, or telling a story, or whatever, and investing in its honesty and investing in its truth. Whatever that truth may be – comedic truth, musical truth, intellectual truth, educational truth. Invest in it and don’t just play at it – really be there.

And the last one, joy, for me, is what I hope in my career…when my career is done and everyone looks at it, is the thing I hope that, even when I’ve done stuff that might have been frightening, or if I were involved in a project that might have seemed silly or seemed low-brow, or was pedantic in trying to preach something, that there was a sense of me wanting to lift the audience in some way. You go and listen to other people’s stories to get away from the weight and burden of your own experience for a little while. And I’m very aware of that. When I go out and do this symphony show – however many are in the audience – they’re there to have an experience with the person in front of them. They’re there to hear music, which already lifts you out of the mundane. They’re there to hear stories. I don’t want to perform at them – I want to engage with them.

So, that’s kind of the mantra for all of it. When I was doing George on Seinfeld, I was thinking, ‘You know, I can make him a character to laugh at. But, can I make him a character to engage with?’ And, it seems to have had a different effect on how people perceive the characters and the work that I do.”

I started watching Seinfeld when it first came on in 1989. I loved it, but I was 13 at the time, and it’s probably safe to say that quite a bit of its nuance was lost on me. As I’ve watched it over and over again throughout the years, it’s given me a lot of gifts as a viewer. Has that been true for you as it’s in the rear view mirror?

“We were aware of some of them even as we were doing them. We were aware that we were an unusual ensemble. We were four very different people in real life, as proven by the fact that we’re not best friends in real life. I go a year, and change, at a time without any real communication with or from the core cast. [laughs] We were never social friends – we loved working together, and we’d shoot our show and go home to our families. We didn’t hang out a lot.

But, there was a magic to the ensemble about enjoying each other’s ability and accomplishments. There were many times early on, before the show was anywhere near being successful, where I know Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] and I would trade lines off with each other, because I’d have something and I’d say, ‘You know, this might be funnier on her,’ or vice-versa. The support for each other, the true meaning of ‘ensemble’ – the collective being more important than the singular – came off in that show.

I learned a lot about comedy from the show. Everybody claims that it’s ‘a show about nothing,’ and I’ve never understood that…”

I completely agree with you. I don’t, either…

“They’re so heavily plotted. When we got into our stride, there were four storylines, or five, every show, and they would dovetail in these amazing ways. But what the guys were focused on, Jerry [Seinfeld] and Larry [David], was the notion that funny trumps everything. You’re doing a comedy – funny wins. Don’t cry at [us] about the character not being able to do ‘a,’ ‘b,’ or ‘c.’ If the character would be funny, then let’s be funny. And they were unafraid of doing comedic, tangential runs that had nothing to do with the main plot. Back when we were doing the show, that was a huge difference between us and other shows.

So, there were many, many things I learned over the years. I was always blown away when our guest cast would come in for the week – someone could have one line, but they found someone who knew just how to spin that line so that it was so unique and so important and so funny. So, I found joy in the smallest things and learned to look for the small details and how much they’re a part of the whole. You know, I…I could go on and on! One day, I’m going to write a book about the life lessons I learned from the Seinfeld show…”

Please do! I’d be first in line to read it.

“And it wasn’t, honestly, until maybe about 10 years afterward that I was able to look at it with some perspective and go, ‘Look at everything I learned from that thing!’”

Given how unconditionally you’ve loved and supported the arts as a performer, teacher, and director, how important are they in bringing people together – especially in a time when there’s so much that’s disrupting our ability to connect and build community?

“You know, Grant, here’s what I’d say about it, especially in light of what’s happening right now not only in our country, but throughout the world. There’s a sense of division and tribalism – my group versus your group, no common ground. What the arts tend to do, in all forms – music, visual art, performance art, dance, music, theatre, writing – is something we’ve been doing since we sat in caves. Somebody gets up and says, ‘Here’s how the world looks to me through my prism. Does any of how I experience this world touch you? Does it educate you? Does it amuse you? Does it engage you?’ And more often than not, it does. And that’s how we, a) learn from each other, and b) bond with each other as a species, as humanity. I think much of our learning and progress throughout centuries has been handed down in this way – we’ve told each other our stories and shared our experiences.

So, to me, any negation of the arts, of that…of what exactly what we’re going to do in Columbus – a couple thousand people are going to get into a room, and we’re going to listen to people who have written songs that delight and ask questions, and talk about pain and hardship and loss, and all the things we understand together in this kind of universal language of music. I will tell some personal stories, and even though they’re unique to me, they may reflect the experience of someone else. And at the end of that 75 minutes, no matter what your topics are, or your religion, or anything else, what I think you come out of there thinking is, ‘Wow, all of us together just had a great experience.’

That, to me, is what the arts are all about, and if we lose it, we are truly going to be pushed into our separate corners – and then there’s no pathway to bring us back to our shared community, our humanity. Our science lives on its own, our technology lives on its own, but our humanity is embedded in the art we make. I fear that if we lose art, we’re in jeopardy of losing our humanity.”

‘An Evening with Jason Alexander’ with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra takes place this Saturday, April 27, 8 p.m. at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Tickets are $26-69, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via Ticketmaster. Follow Jason on Twitter.

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