When actor Jason Alexander pairs with the Bay Atlantic Symphony at the Borgata in Atlantic City this weekend for his one-man show, "As Long As You're Asking — A Conversation with Jason Alexander," he won't focus on his time as George on Seinfeld. Instead, the Jersey-born Alexander will concentrate on singing songs from his career's start on Broadway, which includes roles in the original cast of the Hal Prince/Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, Kander and Ebb's The Rink, Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, and his Tony Award-winning performance in Jerome Robbins' Broadway.
What made you think as a kid that you might want to be a magician … and then get out of magic when acting came calling?
What made me want to get in – and this is typical of many magicians – is that I was this geeky, shy kid enamored of magic and had a lot of alone time. I was a little overwhelmed by the world. I think the notion of being able to do these little seemingly miraculous things felt powerful. If I could do something amazing with my hands, I wouldn't have to speak, not really show my personality. I could just let the trick be me. I started really loving it, and getting into it – and then I got out of it, because I had a deep and abiding love of, and respect for, the craft of magic. I realized I wouldn't be good enough, especially considering that I wanted to be a close-up magician, to be able to do things in my hands. But my hands were – still are – small with short fingers that aren't great for cards or coin tricks. About the same time as I was getting out of that, age 13, I began hanging with the theater kids and going to shows. I had just moved from one town in Jersey to another when I got onstage, as a Von Trapp child in The Sound of Music. … I realized there that theater was a great illusion, and perhaps I was better suited to that.
I like that you call theater an illusion. In one of his autobiographies, Stephen Sondheim mentions how you, above any actor he's worked with, played a middle-aged man best. You sing Sondheim in the show you're doing at the Borgata. You directed his Sunday in the Park with George. What does Sondheim mean to you?
Steve was among a handful of giants who made me want to do this. I talk about this in my symphony show, discovering the music of theater through my sister who had an enormous Broadway record collection. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, West Side Story. … Working with him was so overwhelming that I almost missed it. I was 20, he couldn't have been nicer, more generous or gracious, and yet, I quaked in my shoes whenever I got within 10 feet of him. It was also not lost on me that I would be singing his songs in this role for the first time, that I would be its originator, and it's like being anointed, knighted even.
You also originated a role in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, and worked closely with the comic playwright.
He was amazing. I knew my first audition for that play was about as good as anything I would ever do. When they called, I thought they did so to offer me the part – that's how good I was. No. They asked to see me again. I couldn't find what they wanted me to improve. When I finally got the part, Neil told me, "We had to make sure it wasn't a fluke." … He even wrote me a note on opening night: "If I didn't have Danny, I'd want you as a brother." I had only the best of Neil.
The Seinfeld thing. You have worked with Larry David within the last decade — onstage with Fish in the Dark, on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. What is the relation like with him, since you played a version of him as George? Or the rest of the cast for that matter?
It's so hard to describe to people outside the experience. They get disappointed when I tell them that we are the best of work friends, and that that experience lasted so long, and was so intense and honest – we adored being with each other – yet we had no history of being social friends. The workday would end, and we were off and away from each other. Go to our separate corners, especially when they show ended. That said, if any one of us calls the other – and I can't tell you how many times I've called Jerry for endorsements and personal appearances, and he's there, which is the same for Larry, Michael, and Julia – we're golden. It's a wonderful relationship and we can re-create that affection at the drop of a hat.
Is there one Seinfeld thing that people yell at you, or catcall, that you're actually pleased to hear?
I don't mind any of it, to tell you the truth. I know that even the can't-stand-yous are hurled at me with some degree of affection. The only thing is, if you yell 'George,' at me in a public place, I probably won't acknowledge it – not because I'm offended – but because, on many occasions, I have cavalierly turned to acknowledge my praise and kinship, only to find that that same person is calling out to someone actually named George. So, yes, I have been embarrassed many times.