Song-and-dance man

Los Angeles Times - - Sunday Calendar - Irene Lacher cal­en­dar@latimes.com

Even be­fore Ja­son Alexan­der, 51, be­came a house­hold name play­ing Ge­orge Costanza on “Se­in­feld” in the ’90s, he was an ac­com­plished song-and-dance man in New York, scor­ing a 1989Tony for best ac­tor in a mu­si­cal for “Jerome Rob­bins’ Broad­way.” An oc­ca­sional stage pres­ence in Los An­ge­les, Reprise The­atre Com­pany’s artis­tic di­rec­tor stars in its re­vival of “They’re Play­ing Our Song” at UCLA’s Freud Play­house from Tues­day through Oct. 10.

You’ve been artis­tic di­rec­tor of Reprise for more than three years, but you rarely per­form with the com­pany. How do you choose what you per­form in, and why did you choose “They’re Play­ing Our Song”?

I try to not have Reprise be­come a van­ity house, so I’m very care­ful about when I’m on­stage or when I’m di­rect­ing, be­cause any time I do it, it lim­its the op­por­tu­nity for some­body else. Reprise has an in­ter­est­ing sort of alchemy to cre­ate a sea­son. We try to do some­thing that’s a lit­tle more mod­ern, some­thing that’s quite old, some­thing that has a lot of dance. At the same time, we have very limited pro­duc­tion bud­gets, so we have to do a big show, a small show, a medium show. “They’re Play­ing Our Song” is a rel­a­tively small show, which is un­usual — there aren’t a lot of small mu­si­cals. There are eight char­ac­ters, and it can be done with a rel­a­tively small or­ches­tra, but it re­lies heav­ily on the two leads. Since this show is es­sen­tially two peo­ple, you need at least one of them to have some real star power. And the trou­ble with Reprise is that you only have six days in the re­hearsal stu­dio to get the show staged and un­der your belt. That is hor­ri­fy­ing for most ac­tors. I did not be­lieve that we would find an ac­tor of note

to take that on, and that’s why I took it.

Why did you add songs to this pro­duc­tion?

“They’re Play­ing Our Song” was cre­ated very quickly the first time around. Marvin [Ham­lisch] and Ca­role [Bayer Sager] had been work­ing on a mu­si­cal ver­sion of Neil Simon’s “The Ginger­bread Lady,” and they were hav­ing their re­la­tion­ship squab­bles and Neil thought they were adorable and said, “Let’s do this [show based on their re­la­tion­ship].” It moved from con­cept to pro­duc­tion very, very fast. I’ve heard the term six weeks thrown around. The re­sult is, for me, there aren’t a lot of songs in the show. The av­er­age two-act Broad­way mu­si­cal has 12 to 14 songs, and then there can be en­cores and reprises as well. “Play­ing Our Song” only had eight orig­i­nal songs and sev­eral reprises. It’s re­ally a play with mu­sic as op­posed to a fully fleshed-out mu­si­cal. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if Neil and Marvin and Ca­role were open to flesh­ing out that score a lit­tle more to make it a fuller-feel­ing mu­si­cal?” They all seemed will­ing to give it a shot.

Peo­ple are al­ways tak­ing the tem­per­a­ture of mu­si­cal theater. So how’s it do­ing?

It de­pends on where you are. Cer­tainly in New York, you can’t find a play on Broad­way right now — they’re all mu­si­cals. L.A. is a very strange town for theater in gen­eral, but the things that do make big splashes here are cer­tain mu­si­cals. They tend to be spec­tac­u­lar event mu­si­cals — “Lion King,” “The Pro­duc­ers,” “Wicked.” There’s a def­i­nite au­di­ence for it, and Reprise has had that au­di­ence as our sub­scriber base go­ing on 15 years now. But the truth is, do­ing theater in L.A. is just hard. The prob­lem is in theater, like ev­ery other medium in our busi­ness right now, the busi­ness mod­els are all strain­ing at the seams. And pro­duc­ing a mu­si­cal is a very ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion, and the only way any­one knows to com­pen­sate for it right now is to keep rais­ing the ticket prices. Cer­tainly in New York, but we have to be care­ful of it here too, you can price your­self right out of your au­di­ence.

What do you think is strange about the L.A. theater scene?

What’s strange about it is there are so many peo­ple here in the arts — so many ac­tors, writ­ers and di­rec­tors and peo­ple who over­see the busi­ness end of mak­ing what they hope will be an artis­tic prod­uct. But it’s ex­tremely hard to get and sus­tain an au­di­ence of the­ater­go­ers here. The thing I can­not fathom here is that on any given day, there’s more theater hap­pen­ing in Los An­ge­les than there is in New York. There are more of these lit­tle 99-seat waiver the­aters; there must be 250 lit­tle shows hap­pen­ing this week­end, and that eclipses New York. But none of them are get­ting any kind of real solid, re­li­able sup­port.

I have to ask you the req­ui­site “Se­in­feld” ques­tion: Are you in touch with any of the other cast mem­bers?

Sure. Jerry [Se­in­feld] and Michael [Richards] are in New York, so we don’t catch up that of­ten. Ju­lia’s out here. Ju­lia [Louis-Drey­fus] and I chat­ted at an event three weeks ago. Our old­est sons both went off to col­lege this week, so we were com­mis­er­at­ing. I even ap­proached Ju­lia about do­ing “They’re Play­ing Our Song” with me. She has a gor­geous voice, but she also has a pho­bia about sing­ing live in front of an au­di­ence. She said, “Can we record it?” I said, “You can’t record in the theater.” I haven’t been able to pull her into the right piece, and I think if I keep throw­ing mu­si­cals at her, she’s al­ways go­ing to shy away.

IN CHARGE:

Ge­naro Molina

Ja­son Alexan­der usu­ally leaves the act­ing for Reprise to oth­ers but takes the lead in “They’re Play­ing Our Song.”

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