Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor, singer and director Jason Alexander is a showbiz icon best known, of course, for playing the beloved and hilarious character George Costanza on the famed sitcom “Seinfeld,” but what many might not know is that he is a Broadway buff, through and through.
Alexander began acting as a young teenager, and made his Broadway debut at the age of 21 performing in the debut production of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” His most recent achievement, however, came on July 24 when he made his Broadway directing debut with Sandy Rustin’s ‘The Cottage.”
Theater is where Alexander really got his start, and he’s not forgotten his roots. The passion for Broadway runs in his blood, and on Sept. 9, he will headline a fundraising gala for the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, performing a whimsical salute to Broadway musicals.
In an interview conducted by email, Alexander talked to us about his experience as an actor and director, his continued appreciation for “Seinfeld,” and why he loves Broadway so much.
Q: You once stated, “Just because the actor is having an emotional experience, doesn’t mean the audience is.” When you’re up on the stage performing live, how do you know when you’ve hooked the audience?
A: The truth is you can’t be absolutely certain ever. There are time honored signs that help you monitor the audience’s experience, but even with these clues, you often don’t really know. I’ve done performances where it felt like I was on fire, but at the end, the overall applause was courteous. Conversely, I’ve done performances where I just wasn’t connecting … but then the audience erupts at the end and you just wonder, “Where did that come from?” But normally, you can read an audience before you even go on. You listen to the ‘buzz.’ Generally, if you perform live, you develop a sixth sense for it.
Q: You recently made your Broadway directing debut with ‘The Cottage.’ What was that like for you?
A: When I was a kid, Broadway was an ultimate for me. It was THE destination. And I was fairly sure it would take decades of hard work to get there. But I made my Broadway acting debut when I was 21 years old, so I have learned to dream big without expectation. Dream like it can happen, but don’t descend into despair if it doesn’t. My business is 99 percent “No,” so I temper dreams and expectations with that. I did feel that I was prepared for Broadway. I’ve been directing for 30 years in every medium, and you don’t direct differently just because it’s Broadway. It’s the same job whether its the Winter Garden Theater or a 99 seat Equity Waiver production. Yes, you feel the pressure of Broadway. It’s big money and big expectations. You don’t want to mess it up. But like every job — you prepare with everything you know to do. And then you begin, one step at a time.
Q: Tell us a bit about the difference in your experience between performing and directing.
A: Both actors and directors enjoy the act of discovery on a project, but actors generally are making discoveries through the lens of their character’s point of view. You are making your choices based on what the script tells you about your character and what you are tasked to do. You have little input or collaboration on anything else. However, the director is making discoveries in every aspect. You refine the intentions of the piece overall, and then you move your actors through the discovery process together. You try to see where they are connecting and where they are lost. You also learn from all these collaborators. If you’re lucky, they challenge you right back and they come up with ideas and possibilities you never considered or imagined, and you have the honor of saying “yes” or “no” or “maybe” or building on their discovery.
I do love acting. I love being part of the acting company and I miss it when I’m directing. But the added challenges and opportunities that I get when I’m directing, where I can bring the sum of my experience and understanding to bear, that’s been ringing my bell and more than most of the acting opportunities I’ve been offered. Not always, but often.
Q: You’re someone who has kind of had to fight against the comedy/sitcom type-cast or against people pushing to fit you in this one box. Do you have a certain resentfulness or defensiveness around these assumptions?
A: I don’t think I’m resentful or defensive. I sometimes am saddened because I see myself as viable for a particular role and I’m excited to show the creators what I see in it, but often I don’t get that chance because they have assumed one of two things — either that I’m not capable of portraying what they see or they fear that the audience will not accept me because I’m so identified by another role. But I could never be resentful or defensive about the perception of me as George Costanza. I am well aware that no one promised me any kind of success when I decided to be an actor. Most wonderful actors are never afforded the opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to have had. My entire career has been a blessing and a gift, ‘Seinfeld’ most of all. It changed my life forever and only for the good. It opened doors. And most importantly, that show and that role have touched more people than I could ever imagine. No actor can hope for more than that.
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Q: What advice do you have for other performers who are trying to test their limits and try their hand in different fortes, but are perhaps getting pushback either from the industry or from those around them?
A: Don’t let anyone else tell you what or who you are. Do the thing you’re passionate about. But … do it for the passion. If your passion and your ability line up on the right thing then magical results can be had. But don’t do it because you will only be satisfied with the magical result. Tell your stories because you must, and approach your passion with humility. Just because you want it doesn’t mean you’re automatically brilliant at it. Learn. Watch. Listen. Make mistakes but learn from them. Critics mean very little to me. Their role is to criticize. That is the lens they approach everything with. But audiences are unbiased. And collectively, they are brilliant. Listen to your audience. If your project doesn’t work for them, it is not their fault. Learn from it all. And don’t let anything stop you.
Q: What is it about the Broadway musical that you love?
A: First of all, it runs every genre from classical to rap. But it is the combination of music and storytelling that gets me. To elevate a moment in a story or a character’s journey by putting the experience into glorious music? There’s nothing better. Some of the most brilliant songwriting in the world was created solely for musical theater. So, I just celebrate it.
If you’re not able to see him at The Bankhead, don’t fret, Alexander still has plenty of things in the works to look forward to. In addition to continuing his directing work with Broadway, he has a few television projects in development, he’s writing a book, and he’s scheduled to star in a new play at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater next Spring. There’s more than enough to go around!
Performing in Brilliance at the Bankhead fundraiser gala
When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bankhead Theater, 2400 First St., Livermore
Tickets: Start $195; 925-373-6800, LivermoreArts.org