'Seinfeld's' Jason Alexander to sing at DSO this weekend
You may not think of "Seinfeld's" Jason Alexander as a renowned stage actor, much less the star of acclaimed musicals. But the 60 year old, who will perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Saturday and Sunday, would like to set you straight.
"In high school in New Jersey, I was a fantastic Nathan Detroit in 'Guys and Dolls,'" Alexander said. "I believe they're still talking about my Fagin in 'Oliver,' and my very impressive Oscar Madison in 'The Odd Couple.'
"If you want," he added helpfully, "I can send you the reviews from the school paper."
That won't be necessary. Confirming Alexander's theatrical and musical bonafides beyond any doubt is the 1989 Tony he nabbed for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" -- just moments before "Seinfeld" and George Costanza took over his life for the next nine years.
Alexander's performance this weekend at Orchestra Hall will be an autobiographical mix of show tunes and comedy that he's been touring the past five years, all loosely organized around his journey to the New York stage.
"I keep the actual songs I'll sing a bit of a secret so they're a surprise," he said, "but the show explains how and why I fell in love with Broadway musicals. There's a lot of laughs and a lot of storytelling. Plus, I choose seven random people from the audience to perform a number with me."
Comedy and musical theater, however, were not on Alexander's dance card when he was an undergraduate at Boston University. At that point, he was dead set on a classical acting career.
But a professor called him in to suggest he consider other avenues.
"In my sophomore year, Prof. Jim Spruill, who's since passed away, said, 'I know your heart and soul is Hamlet, and that you would be a profound Hamlet. But you will never play Hamlet. So I suggest,'" Alexander recalled, "'you look at Falstaff,'" Shakespeare's famously comic wastrel.
He explained: "What he was saying very plainly was, 'You’re short, a little doughy, and losing your hair. Leading-man roles are going to elude you.'"
Some might have taken this as a kick to the teeth, but not Alexander, who immediately started boning up on, as he put it, "what makes funny funny." He added, "It’s served me well, given that my entire career is based on what I’ve stolen from everyone else."
Which raises the inevitable question: Were his years in "Seinfeld" fun? You can almost hear him smile over the long-distance line.
"More than anyone could ever imagine," Alexander said. "I kept saying to my wife that they were going to catch on that they were paying me just to have fun. We'd go to work, laugh our a---- off, and then get a check. It was ridiculous."
"Seinfeld," of course, ceased production in 1998 -- but surely he and Jerry Seinfeld hang out once in a while?
"Very rarely," Alexander said. "Fans are always sad to hear it, but the four of us" -- Alexander, Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards -- "were really workplace friends. We adored each other, and I'll venture we still do. But we had no history of socializing. We didn't shoot a show Friday and then have dinner Saturday."
Nor, he said, were they particularly sad to wind the show up when the time came.
"Jerry is a master of knowing when to get off the stage," Alexander said, "and we all sort of felt, 'Yeah, that's about it. We could do more, but probably wouldn't do better.'"
Playing the same role for nine years in a pop-culture sensation has its drawbacks, of course. Some stars of long-running TV shows have complained they never could escape their character, and lost future roles as a result.
Alexander, whose real name is Jay Scott Greenspan, concedes the point.
"There are times when I just can't get away from the huge global existence of George Costanza, and I’m sure it’s cost me some jobs," he said. "But by the same token, it’s opened up a world I never would have been a part of had 'Seinfeld' not happened."
To be sure, there are psychic payoffs. Alexander doesn't have a swelled head where entertainment is concerned, and freely acknowledges nobody rushes into a hospital yelling, "Is there an actor in the house?" He says he acts because it keeps him happy, like a kid on the playground.
But despite Alexander's tendency to downplay his significance, there are rewards.
"Every week," he said, "and I mean every week, I get people who write or come up to me to say they were going through a very difficult time in their life once, that they didn’t think they’d ever laugh again, and that 'Your show and your character made me laugh and got me through.'"
"Hearing that what you did was more than just silliness, but contributed to the quality of someone's life – that’s something I can never diminish. Most actors don’t get that," Alexander added. "We’re lucky if we make a living."
Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit
8 p.m. Sat. Nov. 2
3 p.m. Sun. Nov. 3