Stage Struck: Jason Alexander checks into Syracuse Stage to guide musical

If you haven’t noticed lately that actor-director Jason Alexander is in our neck of the woods, then you haven’t been paying attention.

First came his May 7 press conference at Syracuse Stage, where he is currently in rehearsals at the directorial helm for the Jason Robert Brown musical The Last Five Years, slated to begin its run Wednesday, May 29, through June 16. The next week he hobnobbed with Rebel Radio deejay Dave Frisina, followed by his May 17 opening pitch at the Syracuse Mets game at NBT Bank Stadium, where he got his fastball past home plate.

Alexander’s latest pitch involves the new flourishes he’s bringing to The Last Five Years, which had a 2001 premiere in Chicago prior to its March 2002 off-Broadway opening. Brown’s story of a five-year romance between budding novelist Jamie and aspiring actress Cathy is embellished with two time-spanning threads: Jamie’s side takes place at the beginning of their relationship, while Cathy’s version starts with the couple’s ending and is told in reverse chronology.

Traditionally mounted as a budget-friendly show with two actors and six musicians, Alexander created the idea to introduce a pair of dancers who will represent shadow-like interpretations of Jamie and Cathy, with assistance from choreographer Lee Martino. “With an expanded design concept, the show is no longer a simple undertaking,” Alexander noted. Ken Wulf Clark and Hanley Smith play Jamie and Cathy, with Adrian Lee and Marisa Field as their dancing counterparts. Sam Swinnerton and Carly Caviglia are their understudies.

“This little musical is one of the darlings of musical theater,” Alexander said, “and Jason Robert Brown is considered one of the gods of musical theater these days. He’s given us permission to look at it and do with it in a uniquely different way and I feel like were in the perfect place to do it. There’s a great audience here for theater.”

Jason Alexander (left) with the Syracuse Stage artistic director field questions from the local media. (Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)

A Jersey boy growing up with dreams of being a performer, “I thought I was going to be a fantastic magician,” Alexander recalled. “I’m a terrible magician. But I love magic, and when I realized as a teenager that the theater is a giant illusion, I thought, ‘That’s an illusion I think I can invest in.’”

Alexander’s extensive resume encompasses movies and TV episodes, cartoon voiceovers (Duckman) and plenty of floorboards works including Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, Mel Brooks’ The Producers and his 1989 Tony Award-winning turn for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. He was also a crucial component of the 1990s-era nine-season Seinfeld TV smash, with the antics of his high-strung George Costanza role often stealing the show. “To be on something that becomes a Seinfeld,” Alexander noted, “it opens a lot of doors and it enables you to walk by a lot of doors without thinking about it.”

Still, even a veteran performer can get a little starstruck, especially when it comes to Star Trek. During a get-together after the May 7 press conference with Syracuse Stage’s board of trustees, Alexander delightedly singled out board member Robin Curtis, the former actor-turned-local real estate agent. Curtis played Vulcan Lieutenant Saavik in the movies Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, so Alexander greeted her with the “Live long and prosper” Vulcan hand salute.

“Yeah, I’m a little stupid about Star Trek,” Alexander admitted last week, “mostly just the original series. I’ve watched all of them. But there are too many of my brain cells eaten up by the original Star Trek. I used to be able to do every one of them, line by line.”

When and where did you first fall in love with The Last Five Years

I bumped into it late, that’s for sure. I missed its first production. I heard the recording of Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Butz and fell in love with it musically then. And then there is a bootleg video of the Sherie-Norbert production on YouTube and I stumbled onto that and just went “Oh, they’re really cool.” But I actually first found Jason Robert Brown on Songs for a New World and that’s when I fell in love with him and just gobbled up anything that had his name on it.

This production of the two-character show will feature two additional “shadow reflections” as they offer dance interpretations of those lead characters. Did you have a series of conversations with composer Jason Robert Brown regarding your reimagining of his show, or did he simply trust you and say do whatever you need? 

I had a singular email with him. It’s probably the world’s longest email, where I laid out what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it, to some degree. And he sent me a very nice email back that basically said, “Don’t change any of my notes or words, don’t add any text, only two voices sing, do whatever you want, and it won’t work.” That was his email. So with that blessing, I dove right in.

I didn’t come up with (this approach) because I just wanted to be fancy. There are some song cycles, and I think Jason Robert Brown would agree with it, that tend to be musically glorious yet a little visually dull when you have one person at a time singing a song. So the idea was just to make it more of a theatrical piece. And then to do that, I went, “Well, I’d need more bodies,” and then what would they do and why would they be there.

So it didn’t come out of any sort of ego thing, that just doing the show as its usually done wasn’t enough. I just thought it could fly a little higher if it was more visual and then by stumbling into this idea, it actually adds layers to what the story is about.

Do you know if Brown will attend a performance? 

I have no idea, actually, if he will travel up for this. There’s got to be 50 productions at any given time of this being done. So I’m sure he gets invited to everything single one of them. He might. If he’s just sitting around New York, he might

How crucial is choreographer Lee Martino in helping you achieve your vision of this production? 

Integral. This is our sixth or seventh show together. It was important that there be a fluidity. She didn’t want there to be a dividing line between what I was doing and what she was doing. So it had to blend, it had to talk to each other seamlessly.

For Adrian (Lee) and Marisa (Field), it’s a little bit of a disservice to relegate them with “they’re the dancers” because there are actually four actors: two are allowed to use mostly their voice and two are allowed to use mostly their body. So not only did the choreography have to be beautiful in and of itself, but it also had to speak to the story and it had to allow them to embody characters that made sense in any given scene that we were suddenly shoving these extra people into.

So Lee and I spent a week in Los Angeles with other dancers before we ever came here, because we didn’t have access to these guys, trying to figure out what this would be, so we wouldn’t be standing around with them and saying, “Well, maybe if you raise your arm and you turn. . . ” So we did a lot of the physical storytelling before we even got here and then it’s just been augmented, and the bar has been raised since getting here.

She’s very patient with me because she’ll do something and I’ll go “meh, nah, hmmm.” I have no idea what I’m talking about and she figures it out.

In June 2016 you directed the dark comedy Windfall as the season finale for Arkansas Repertory Theatre, with its then-artistic director Robert Hupp. Now you’re directing the season finale at Syracuse Stage with Hupp in charge as artistic director. Can you describe your artistic relationship? 

I guess I’m his bitch! (Laughs) I hadn’t done a lot of directing and I still haven’t done a ton of directing outside of Los Angeles or New York. So I’m going to Little Rock and saying, “Wait, there’s theater people in Little Rock, Arkansas?” Bob’s background and his resume and his experience are consummate. And he had put together a team of designers and administrators and technicians to run that theater, and they were just extraordinary. It was so easy and really a rewarding experience.

Then when he moved here, he said, “Think about a musical.” I knew nothing about Syracuse Stage really, I just knew Bob Hupp. If he says come hither, I go.

Can you attempt to describe your feelings after winning the Tony Award for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway

I don’t remember what it felt like on that night except for the moments at the last end of the night. When I was a little kid, I never fantasized anything about film or television: It was always the theater, the theater, the theater. Can I get to New York? Can I work in New York? Maybe if I live long enough, they’ll throw me a mercy Tony, the kind of thing for just being alive long enough.

And at 29, in a show that was about dancers and dance, they handed me a Tony and I couldn’t quite figure it out in the moment. It was like it came too soon. It was like, you think you’re going to go on a trip to a country, and suddenly the country is at your doorstep and you go, “Wait a minute: How did that happen?”

This is the thing you’ve dreamed about since you were a 10-year-old kid, When I got home that night, and we had answering machines back then, there were 20 messages on my machine, which is a lot of messages for me. But it was 20; not 200, not 2,000, just 20. And I was still the same person and I still lived in the same place. I got into bed that night with my wife and she said, “How do you feel?” And I quoted her my favorite line from (the Stephen Schwartz musical) Pippin after he comes back from the war when the leading player says, “How did it feel?” and he says, “I thought there’d be more plumes.”

And what it taught me was that the thing I thought it would represent, it did not. It became some sort of an abstract marker of success, happiness, accomplishment, whatever it may be. And I was the same person. The next day I had to go out and keep doing exactly the same thing. Nothing changed. And I realized it’s a lovely thing, but its truest value is not what you would think it is.

The playbill describes you as “a notorious poker player.” Can you maintain a poker face? 

I don’t try. That’s my secret weapon. So if I look at a professional poker player — and know that I am scared to death on the inside — and they go “You got something?” I say, “I might.” They ask me a question, and I try and answer it. I can’t hide behind the glasses. I don’t know how to do that. They look at me and I go, “I don’t know. They’re good cards. Do what you want to do. I’m just going to play.”

During many episodes of Seinfeld, there seems to be moments when Jerry Seinfeld seems to be on the verge of cracking up while trying to maintain a straight face. Did such moments ever happen? 

That was the show. There was no bigger fan of the show than Jerry Seinfeld. He enjoyed watching the show while doing it.

Regarding the long story arc with George working for the New York Yankees baseball team, did you ever meet then-owner George Steinbrenner?

He did an episode. They needed one line from the actual Steinbrenner and he said “Well, I’m not coming all the way to Los Angeles to do one line.” We had shot the episode with Larry David doing the voice and the man who would sit in the chair like a muppet. So we had to do all those scenes with George Steinbrenner and then throw them away because he was not very good. So we wound up just using the one line and I think that was the end of our association with the Yankees. I think he was not pleased with it.

Have you had time for some sightseeing of the Central New York region? 

I’ve been to the Destiny Mall. I’ve been to Phoebe’s restaurant across the street (from Syracuse Stage’s 820 E. Genesee St. location). I’ve been to the Lemongrass restaurant twice; they are really nice the second time. I’ve been to Wegmans and Price Chopper and the Genesee Grande Hotel.

Wegmans is a little overwhelming, I think. I got a little disoriented there. I think I circled around and went, “Have I been here before? Is there more than one bulk candy area?”


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