We connected with magician, poker enthusiast, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical star, and man forever known as George Costanza from television's "Seinfeld" Jason Alexander via telephone in advance of his appearance here in Baltimore at the Meyerhoff for An Evening with Jason Alexander.
Publicity lady: Jason, Joe, you're connected.
Jason Alexander: Hey Joe.
City Paper: Hello Jason Alexander, I apologize for my shouting over my speaker phone.
JA: (Laughs) That's quite alright, I know you need two hands to do this.
CP: (Weighing the double entendre value of that statement so early in our relationship) Oh boy, do I. So you are coming to Baltimore . . . (pause while trying to find the web page with the information)
JA: (Patiently) I am.
JA: That's true (laughs)
CP: Yes, and I'm not looking at the dates you're coming to Baltimore, so I'm trying to, get to—you're coming to Baltimore Thursday Jan. 22 through Sunday Jan. 25.
JA: Correct sir. (Not quite correct, Mr. Alexander and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly, leading the BSO SuperPops, will be at the Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland Thursday, Jan. 22, and then in Baltimore at the Meyerhoff Friday Jan. 23 and Saturday Jan. 24 at 8 p.m, and Sunday Jan. 25 at 3 p.m.)
CP: And you will be . . . (regrouping) You will be the host, and the subject of An Evening With Jason Alexander.
JA: (Laughs) I think that means I entertain myself. I'm the host, and the guest.
JA: Yes, that's fantastic.
CP: I thought you might like to know, I dunno how much you have to do with the stuff that gets sent out to the various venues. The BSO's website lists you as "The vastly talented Jason Alexander."
JA: Wowwww. That means beyond what the eye can see in some ways. (Laughs) That's very flattering, I'll have to thank them for that. I love being vast.
CP: I wanna get one thing outta the way really quick.
CP: Your Official Promo Shot has you sporting a luxurious head of hair.
JA: Kinda wanna run your fingers through that, don't ya Joe?
CP: I wanna touch it.
JA: I can put it in an envelope and send it to you, if you'd like.
CP: You've answered questions about this already elsewhere. My theory—I have a theory about this, OK?
CP: I wanna run it past you. This is a good way for you to separate the vocalist, performer, entertainer Jason Alexander from the wildly successful television-show Jason Alexander.
JA: You are so close to accurate. For the symphony show, the reason that I send the shot of me with hair is that it sets up a really good joke that I do in the show. But when I do the symphony show, I am au natural, even though the photograph has me with hair. The hair, really, became part of my stand-up comedy show, that's called "An Evening With Jason Alexander and His Hair." But you are right, the hair, the toupee in general, entered my life about five-six years ago. I had not been cast in two things, almost back to back, and the reason given to me as "we just can't not see George," and I went, "Really? Are you kidding me?" And that was the first and only time that the whole connection to the character really ticked me off. So I went out and got the hairpiece and made a thing about walking around in public, and being photographed that way, going to premieres that way, so I could kinda shove it up their butt a little, about it, and go, "I don't have to look like that guy, it's called 'being an actor,' and all you need is a little imagination." (laughs) And that's how it came into my life, but then I started having so much fun with it, wearing it to the stand-up shows, and building some material around it—and I still do, when I do the stand-up show, it's an evening with Jason and his hair—and that's about the only time it gets shipped out these days.
CP: (laughs) And it's a good one, it really does . . .
JA: You know what? I gotta tell ya, there was a time when I thought I was gonna be, uh, wearing it sort of permanently (laughs), so I said, "Let's make sure it looks OK." Yeah, the guy does great work and it takes me back to my youth, but it's not really my youth, because I started losing my hair when I was 18, so, yeah, it reminds me of me at 11, basically.
CP: Frank Sinatra, he would put his on to perform, right?
JA: Absol—I love that comparison, I'm gonna use it. (Laughs) "Why do you wear fake hair?" "Because I'm Frank Sinatra!" That's gonna be my go-to answer from now on.
CP: "Good enough for Sinatra, good enough for Jason Alexander."
JA: Exactly, we're both from Jersey, what the hell?
CP: What is this show gonna be? Broadway stuff?
JA: It is, with one exception, of the opening number, entirely Broadway, and it was put together—when they call up and they say, "Would you do a symphony show?" You have to figure out—especially if you're not a "signature singer," I've been on Broadway five times, I don't have a "signature song," and I'm not a pop singer, I've never released an album where I could go "here's some of the stuff I have on my CD, which you can buy in the lobby," it's none of that. So, I took my love of theater music, and my background in theater, and I sort of built a semi-autobiographical evening around that. A lot of the songs are pieces that the audience will know, several of them are probably pieces they don't know—and have proven to be crowd pleasers. Some of them are designed to be funny, some of them are not. So it's a wide variety of musical styles, there is a good deal of me talking to the audience, which has proven to be a lot of fun, and funny, there's a good deal of comedy in the evening.
There is one number—I will never tip what the program is—but there is one number where seven members of the audience may find themselves performing with me. And I will tell you what the grand finale is, I finish the evening with a medley of very well-known Broadway roles that I have been told are not appropriate for me. This is my one chance to do every damn one of them, so I do. It's a lot of fun, we started doing this show with symphony orchestras about two years ago, and we've been all across the country, and I am thrilled with how audiences respond to it. When you start it, you never know, you put an evening together and really only get one shot at this because you have to create orchestral music charts, and that's an expensive endeavor. So you can't do more than you need, you have to pick your show and orchestrate that, and we got very lucky, the show works. And I love that I'm replacing Mandy Patinkin (he canceled back in July), also a Broadway guy, and I'm gonna sing very high, in a lot of Yiddish, just to do a tribute to him.
CP: You talk to the audience, I get the feeling the audience wants to talk to you, because everybody knows you.
JA: I guess, yeah. The only thing I ever, sort of bristled against when they first started asking me to do symphony shows was the sort of formality of a symphony setting, and I wanted to cut through that a little bit, so I have a very fun, funny, honest banter with the audience, and it comes out of doing my stand-up comedy show, where I really am talking with the audience for most of the night. This has that feeling. It should feel like we're chattin' with each other, although if they start talking back to me, I have them thrown out. (laughs) Other than that, it's a beautiful conversation.
CP: A Controlled Conversation with Jason Alexander.
JA: (Laughs) A One-Way Dialogue. (Laughs)
CP: You're somebody who is in an enviable position. You've got this huge body of work under your belt, I'm assuming you've got a few dollars in the bank, you're comfortable.
CP: So you get to do what you want, kinda.
CP: Is there anything that you haven't done that you're scheming to do?
JA: There's nothing that I haven't done. There are lots more that I'd like to do within the world of stuff I've done. As an actor, I am incredibly picky these days, and that's why you haven't seen a lot of me. I get offered a fair amount of stuff, but if it's not interesting to me, if it's not challenging or if it's not with people that excite me, I tend to say no a lot as a performer, because I dont need to perform anymore. It used to be when I was young, that getting up in front of people was some sort of therapy for me. That may be true for a lot of actors, especially actors who perform live in any way. It's challenging, and empowering in many ways, and there are actors who live for the applause. And I think I used to be like that, and then with time and maturity, I don't have that desperate need to perform as much. What that has been replaced with is my passion for directing and writing and working with actors and artists. What I'd love to spend a lot more of my career doing is directing. I've directed in every medium, I love them all equally. Where a lot of my attention and focus is these days, is in the development of projects to direct.
CP: For the stage, for TV.
JA: I have projects for the stage, I have a coupla film projects, I can't say that I have a television project, specifically designed for me to direct, but there are some filmed things I would love to do, and certainly the stage. The stage is where I come from, I never envisioned a career for myself beyond it. It's all been a very happy, lucky accident. I am most at home in a theater, in a live theater. I understand that world really, really well, and I love being there, and between the directing I've done and the teaching I've done, I just love working with a playwright who's trying to tell a story, or musicians who are trying to figure out their score, or actors trying to figure out how to approach a role. It's just thrilling. The art of, sort of, being the puppetmaster to these very talented people and find these stories and find these pieces of theater to share with an audience, that ability to be part of it in a more profound way than just the actor can, has become, really the most thrilling part of my life.
CP: Wow! A lotta people in your position are not like that. It's interesting to hear you say you're over the need for adulation or applause or anything like that.
JA: Well, yeah, that kind. I love being in front of an audience, there's no bigger high than when you're doing something and an audience is really cruising with you, and you're all in sync, it's exciting. And you, when you're on a set, and there's a great vibe on the set and you're trying to get these moments on film, that's thrilling too. It's not from a lack of loving to act, it's just that acting is, like, if I go back to the theater, which I'm actively working toward, is doing something in New York over the summer, hoping to get back to Broadway a little bit as an actor as well and maybe do another series, so I love to act. I love the act of acting. Doing eight shows a week as an actor is a huge commitment, it's physically gruelling, it's vocally gruelling, it's a change in your lifestyle. Directing, what I love about directing, when directing a theater piece, I'm going through the same process the actors are going through. I'm just not saying the words, but we're all doing the same process. When it comes time to finish that process, and now recreate the work eight times a week? I go: "Bye-bye! Have a good time, I'm gonna go out to dinner with my wife now, bye-bye." That is kinda wonderful. (Laughs) Everybody packs for camp, but Daddy stays home, it's a very nice thing.
CP: You're a big poker player.
CP: Baltimore's got a new casino, I dunno if you know, but they got a new casino with a poker room.
JA: Ohh . . .
CP: Yeah, just FYI.
JA: Well, I just got my head handed to me in tournament down in Atlanta. For those of your readers who understand poker, I had "the nuts" full house, and I lost to a hidden four-of-a-kind.
CP: Ohh . . .
JA: That's when I turned to my friend and said, "Clearly, I'm not supposed to play this game." (Laughs)
CP: Maybe you'll change your mind and show up at the casino.
JA: When I can, I do like to go to local casinos. My problem with casinos usually is that they're generally kinda smoky. When I'm performing and using my voice a lot, I can't do that. So I may go check it out, and if it's a smoke-free poker room, you may just see me sittin' down there.
CP: It is, all the smoking is outside.
JA: GOD BL—well then you know what, you might just see me down there. I love to sit at a table, meet the local folks, and take their money.
JA: That's my idea of kinship. Spreading the love, for a small fee.
CP: I think a lot of people would be very proud to say they lost a few bucks to you.
JA: (Suddenly displaying self-effacement consistent with that of professional card hustlers) I have a wonderful reputation based on absolutely nothing, because I tend to lose much more than I win.