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The art and zen of being Jason Alexander — the man who has it all

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At 60 years old, Jason Alexander is the perfect physical specimen.

The same Alexander who spent more than a decade inhabiting the neurotic, selfish, overly confident, miserable disaster-artist skin of George Constanza on the enduring self-referential sitcom Seinfeld — the show about nothing that defined a generation by making the banalities of everyday life worth paying attention to.

For Alexander, everyday life involves activities that, had they been written into an episode of Seinfeld, would seem completely natural. For instance, his latest workout routine, which he describes as "deceptively exhausting."

"I just finished a fantastic workout. I've never looked better in my life, which is saying nothing," Alexander says. "It's called foundation training. I think of it as geriatric physical therapy. A guy who is so well-versed in how the body works that he takes someone like me and, in 10 minutes, he goes, 'Ah, OK. So you've done more things on your left than your right. This is how you walk wrong. This is how you sit wrong. This is how you lift wrong.' And then he reprograms everything." 

When it comes to reprogramming technology, well, that's a different story. Alexander recently took to Twitter — as he often does when either railing against Trump and the GOP or when throwing his hat into the casting ring, vying to play the latest incarnation of Batman's waddling villain, Penguin — to give Apple iPhone updates the bird.

"I got in my car yesterday and I tried to make a phone call, and my car kept going, No you won't. No, you won't. I had to reboot the phone, I had to reboot the car. And then I went into my photos and apparently there's a new setup for photos. All I was trying to do was move a photo from the main file into different files. It made antisemitic remarks at me, and that was it," he says. "I'm a Luddite. I'm a complete Luddite." 

While Costanza the aspiring architect may have, sort of, dabbled in marine biology, sitcom screenwriting, hand modeling, real estate, bra sales, computer sales, unofficial car valet, major league baseball, and professional unemployment, Alexander's résumé is just as colorful but is entirely non-fictional. A monkey whisperer, an award-winning magician (no, really), a really good poker player, Duckman, Shallow Hal's misogynistic, fleshy-tailed wingman, literally the worst part of Pretty Woman (for obvious reasons), and a Tony Award-winning Broadway actor. It is the latter entry that brings Alexander to Orchestra Hall for a two-show run.

The performance, which is one of two one-man-style musical shows he takes on the road, is part storytelling, part classic Broadway showtunes, with a healthy sprinkling of audience participation. Unlike his Q&A formatted show, as he's been known to do in the past (and jokes: "I find, if you start wasting the orchestra's time they frown on that"), Detroit will get to experience his singing chops, which, for anyone who remembers Costanza's off-key answering machine number, might seem pretty surprising.

"It was remarkably hard to sing poorly," he says. "I mean, you can do it egregiously wrong and just be terrible. The trick is to be just bad enough that it looks real — and that's harder than it looks. And, actually, in order to do it, like when I was doing some of the George phone machine, I had to rewrite the song a little bit. So I'd hit some wrong notes on purpose," he says. "I would sharpen a note, flatten a note, intentionally, but I had to learn it that way because otherwise I have pretty good pitch." 

The show, which Alexander will share with conductor Robert Bernhardt, pianist and musical director Todd Schroeder, and guest soloist Carrie Schroeder, follows a loose autobiographical thread focusing on Alexander's journey to the Broadway stage, where his love for performance began, to where he is now, which, as of earlier this year, led him to direct a production of The Last Five Years for the Syracuse Stage. Constructed with more humor than a traditional pops orchestra show, Alexander says the show he has curated is not short of touching or "revealing" moments, yet perhaps the most revealing moment is the performance itself, which Alexander says might confuse people who see his name on an orchestra hall marquee.

"I'll be honest and tell you that I'm sure most of the places where I've played this show, when they put it on sale, people go, 'Well, what the hell is he going to do?' Cause they don't think I sing. If they've seen me on Seinfeld singing, they go, 'Oh, he's a bad singer.' So the idea of me being with a symphony orchestra, I think, probably strikes them as odd. And I can literally hear people after I do the first number in the show going, 'Oh my God, he really sings.' I guess to that extent it's a bit of a shock."

What isn't entirely shocking is that the likelihood of a future Seinfeld reboot is slim. In recent years, series with a cult following, not unlike Seinfeld's, such as Arrested Development, Twin Peaks, and Veronica Mars, have all been revived or rebooted. More directly related, though, fellow '90s sitcom-giants such as Friends and Frasier have teased reunions. Last month, Friends star Jennifer Aniston joined Instagram to share a photo of her with her must-see TV castmates who reunited for a selfie, stoking years of reboot rumors. Earlier this year, Frasier's Kelsey Grammer confirmed that a reboot of his long-running series is in the works, though, following the death of actor John Mahoney, who played Grammer's on-screen father, adding that the show will take the characters down a different path than when we left off when the show aired its final episode in 2004. As for Seinfeld, Alexander has a few reasons as to why the series could never really happen again, especially now.

"Jerry [Seinfeld] and Larry [David] kind of always set the pace. They didn't follow in somebody's footsteps. They kind of blaze new trails," he explains. "There have been so many reboots. I don't think that they're interested in being just another one of them. But neither one of them needs to do anything. I mean, Jerry is so happy just doing stand-up and cashing checks." 

He continues, "It's hard work, you know. So I don't think that they're inclined to do it, but also the Seinfeld characters, more than Friends, more than Frasier, more than some of the other really significant comedies of that era, our characters were a little more like cartoons than real human beings. And we were literally in our 30s and 40s when we made the show. So there was something about the immature grownup in their 30s and 40s, you know, the selfish, immature, that had a kind of charm. I don't know how charming it is in your 50s and 60s. I think it just becomes pathetic. Why can't these people get their act together? I think some of us are justifiably afraid that lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. Whatever the magic was that made the show fly so beautifully in its initial run, I think we all could work together again terrifically, but we're all 30 years older and we're different people than we were then."

Though a reboot may not be in Seinfeld's future, the show isn't really going anywhere. In September, just a few months after the 30th anniversary of Seinfeld's premiere, Netflix came out victorious after a vicious bidding war for an undisclosed amount alleged to be upwards of $740 million, giving the platform global streaming rights to Seinfeld for five years starting in 2021. Hulu, the current home to all 180 episodes, shelled out just $130 million for a six-year streaming deal in 2015. The nearly $1 billion price tag is not the only testament to the show's staying power, though neither Alexander nor his former castmates can easily identify why, 20 years after it went off the air, it continues to attract a young audience or what makes it funny in 2019.

"I think if you talk to any of us, I think we've always believed that the show was funny. It really didn't strive for anything other than that. So I believe that it is funny, but why it remains funny, I don't know," he says. "Why it remains interesting and compelling to people, why it attracts a young audience, a young demographic. And I've always wondered what it is they're relating to. I mean, we didn't have cellphones in the show, you know, so I often find that comedy, particularly from another time, another decade, another era, you can admire it, but it doesn't usually speak to you. And for some reason that I can't put my finger on, this show continues to speak to people. Young, old, any ethnicity, and all over the world," he says. "And if I knew why, I would bottle it and do it again." 

The magic of Seinfeld and Alexander's performance as one of the most relatable and unlikable characters in pop culture history, and what the New Jersey native brings to screen and stage might have something to do with his ability to keep audiences guessing. Rather than run from the inevitable reaction or expectation that the man breaking into a spirited rendition of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" backed by a full symphony is the same man who appeared shirtless and writhing on a fainting couch in what could be considered one of the most awkward photo shoots of all time (resulting in an iconic image that remains a fixture of computer screen backgrounds and dorm room walls,) he leans into it. Which is why ending a discussion with a question about soup does not throw Alexander, who, like Costanza, is always on.

"You know, I live in Los Angeles. There's never a soup season. And if it is, it's like, you know, gazpacho. We have no seasons, we just have color shift. We don't have seasons in California or at least in this area. So it goes from a bright blue to hazy blue to gray, and then bluish gray. We don't get, 'Oh, it's snowing. Let's cozy up by the fire and have soup.' It doesn't happen," he says. "What is the soup? What is the Detroit soup? What do I need to do? Where do I need to go?" 

When it's suggested that the Midwest, including Detroit, loves a good chili, not unlike the one Costanza orders when he's denied by the Soup Nazi in a series-defining episode, Alexander knows better.

"Chili is a bad idea before you perform, and I'm happy to go through the rest of my life challenge-free."

Jason Alexander will perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2, and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3 at Orchestra Hall; 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-576-511; dso.org. Tickets start at $34.

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