by Anthony Chase
Multi-talented Jason Alexander sings Broadway tunes with the BPO
Jason Alexander is a major television star, beloved for his portrayal of George Costanza on NBC’s Seinfeld from 1989 to 1998, and ubiquitous on reruns ever since. Many know him as well for having appeared in more than 30 films.
What many people might not know is that he is also a Tony Award winning veteran of the Broadway stage, especially admired for his work in musicals. He will tap into this other aspect of his career when he performs an all Broadway program with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra this Saturday, October 17th at 8 p.m. in Kleinhans Music Hall.
Alexander’s stage credits are substantial. He appeared in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s short-lived but adored 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along as well as in the 1984 John Kander / Fred Ebb / Terrence McNally musical The Rink, which starred Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. He played the older brother, Stanley, in Neil Simon’s 1986 Broadway Bound. He won his Tony Award for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, a 1989 musical revue that required him to provide the narrative continuity (which he also wrote) and to play multiple roles from the legendary director/choreographer’s career each night. That performance also earned him the Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle awards for Best Musical Actor. On Broadway, Nathan Lane starred as Max in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, but the triumphant Los Angeles production was headed by Jason Alexander, opposite Martin Short.
Alexander has been to Buffalo many times before.
“My cousin, Howard Simon is a local star!” exclaims Alexander. “He is the top sports caster in the Buffalo area! And I’m very proud of the young man. He is my little baby cousin.”
Simon’s morning program on WGR, which he co-hosts with Jeremy White, is indeed the number one morning show among the coveted 25-54 male demographic.
“The age range between Howard, his two brothers and me was about five years,” Alexander explains, “so we were very close growing up. I know Buffalo very well. I filmed my first movie ever in North Tonawanda, and I have had occasion to return to the area many times.”
It is interesting to note that the movie to which Alexander refers was the 1981 “slasher” film, The Burning, which has attained cult status and is famed for being the first film produced by what would become Miramax.
The highlight of Alexander’s Broadway career is certainly his star turn in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, a revue of moments from the great director/choreographer’s career that included numbers from some of Broadway’s greatest shows—Fiddler on the Roof, On the Town, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Can we expect the star to recreate some of his award winning performance?
“The arc of this show is somewhat autobiographical,” confides Alexander, “and it is certainly all Broadway tunes, but amazingly it contains nothing from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. I know that sounds shocking! But the songs I did in that show really need to be danced, and you know what? I can’t do it any more. And the songs in Jerome Robbins’ that I wasn’t in? Well,” he says with a laugh, “I couldn’t have danced those even when I was in my glorious twenties!”
There are enticing compensations for this omission.
“I will give you Merrily We Roll Along,” promises Alexander. “That show was an amazing experience for me, and I was so thrilled to have it. In some ways, the fact that it was not a big success was a valuable lesson about growing up as an artist. It is unfortunate that one of Sondheim’s most gorgeous scores is largely unknown, because the show has never had a production that really showcased its assets.”
In a career with so many moments of triumph, it is fun to hear Alexander talk about his less proud moments. Some of these take on the character of legend, as when he famously forgot lyrics during a performance of The Rink in 1984.
“My featured song in The Rink was a beautiful ballad called ‘Marry Me,’” Alexander recalls, “and it is essentially a marriage proposal that I sang to Chita [Rivera]. It has a very simple lyric—‘Marry me. Come on and marry me ...’—and once I sang the first verse there was a little bit of dialogue been Chita and me, and then the orchestra would swell and I’d come back in and sing the exact same lyric again. Well, I’d been doing the show for months and had loved every minute of it, and it was so easy to sing the song to Chita, because I love her so much, and one night, I just got caught up in one of those moments when your brain leaves your body. I did the first half of the song, and then we did the little dialogue, and the orchestra swelled, I inhaled to sing and…I had not one clue what the lyric was supposed to be. So I’m standing there dumbstruck, and the orchestra is playing without me. I started to hum in desperation, and Chita started to giggle. Finally, when she realized I was totally lost, she said so the whole audience could hear, ‘You’re kidding, right? It’s ‘Marry Me!’ You just sang it!’”
Alexander lets out a hearty laugh at this comical memory.
“I’ve often said that Chita is, and always has been, my real role model for how to be a human being, and have a successful heart in our business,” he says. “I went to New York to see her in The Visit on Broadway last season. She remains one of the most extraordinary artists that I have ever worked with, and watching her, now in her 80s do that show was such a delight. That woman is just mind-blowing.”
What about his own career? It’s been a long time since Alexander has originated a Broadway role, and with the success he’s enjoyed on television, it would seem that he doesn’t need to take on the rigors of live performance at all.
“I really kept a lot of theater at arm’s length for many years,” confirms Alexander. “That was because I wanted to raise my boys and doing eight shows a week or being on the road is not the best way to be a daddy. So as the boys got into high school, I started doing this kind of work again, playing with orchestras, or doing standup shows, or short runs in theater, usually not in New York. But now, we’re empty nesters, so I got to spend the summer on Broadway for the first time in 25 years, working for my buddy Larry David.” (Alexander replaced David in Fish in the Dark; it was his first Broadway appearance since Accomplice in 1990).
“We’re opening up those possibilities again,” he continues. “But realize that when I was a kid in New Jersey, my fantasies about a career in this business were all about live theater. I had no particular intention to have a career in film or in television. All that was a happy accident. As an actor, I feel that I understand the stage better than anywhere else that I work. I love being with a live audience. It is grueling and it is challenging, but part of its joy is that once you step out on that stage, it is you and the audience, and your skills and your ability to communicate with that audience are paramount. If it falls on its face, it’s all your fault, and if it goes well, you can take a lot of the glory.
“As for coming to Buffalo [to perform with the BPO], I love singing. It is a thrill, always, to step in front of an audience and to have that kind of musical support. And I find when performing with symphony orchestras, that these audiences really want to be there. They love their orchestra. I’ve had very good experiences doing this particular show. It’s good for audiences and for me as well. I love doing it!”
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