Encores!, the popular City Center series that showcases neglected musicals through splashy and star-studded concert presentations, has two Broadway transfers (Chicago, Wonderful Town) and a special Tony Award to its credit. But Reprise!, the Los Angeles company that brought the Encores! model to the West Coast in 1995, now has something that Encores! does not: a celebrity artistic director.
In late May, it was announced that the actor Jason Alexander — who has a Broadway background (he won a Tony Award for Jerome Robbins' Broadway) but is best know for playing hapless George Costanza on the popular sitcom "Seinfeld" — would become Reprise!'s second artistic head, following in the footsteps of founder Marcia Seligson, who left in 2005 after ten years of service.
In hiring Alexander, the company did not employ a stranger. The performer starred in the very first Reprise! production, Promises, Promises. The show was so successful, it was brought back for a two-week encore run, which sold out. Since then, Alexander had remained close to the troupe. When he heard that Seligson was leaving, he made an unexpected offer.
"I immediately called the head of the board at the time," recalled the actor, "and said, 'This is an organization that I really believe in, that I think can be far greater than what it is and I'd love to offer my services.'" Reprise! was in the middle of a season when he phoned and, according to Alexander, the powers that be were "too blindsided to react to my offer." At the time, the company didn't know Alexander as anything more than an actor. That changed when he came in to direct the early 2007 production of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George. "We had a terrific experience together," he said. "And out of that experience, and a couple changes on the board, I think they thought, 'Well maybe it's time.' At that point they called me."
The board vote electing Jason Alexander the new artistic director of Reprise! was unanimous.
With Alexander, Reprise! has bought itself not just a new leader, but an ambitious new agenda. "We have been at the same level for 10 years, which is doing three shows a year in our season," observed Jim Gardia, who has been with the organization for five years and was moved up to the position of producing director when Seligson departed. "This upcoming season we've added a fourth show. And we hope to increase our runs, which are currently at two weeks. Those types of baby steps are how we were growing."
Alexander is not content to settle for baby steps. Giant leaps is his idea. "The original mandate, which was a fine one, was to present in concert form musicals that had noteworthy elements that were rarely seen," he said. "That's great on paper, and great if you want to do a small series. But there's a reason that musicals go unseen, and that's because they're usually not very good. They're failed or flawed pieces, or they have not worn well over time. I'm not a big believer — particularly in Los Angeles, where doing theatre is a little bit of an uphill battle — in doing theatre that is for intellectuals. I love challenging theatre pieces. But I think that in the world of musical theatre, if it's challenging, there also has to be relevance."
An example of that quest for relevance is Alexander's idea to take the upcoming Reprise! revival of Damn Yankees and people it with a multi-cultural cast.
"I would love to do that production by setting it in the 1980s and using a predominantly Black and Latino cast," he explained. He would also like to tinker with the orchestrations of that musical and give the sound a more swing/blues/Latino feel. "I think it's organic to the piece. If we can do that, then we're able to go to a casting community that we haven't gone to before, and hopefully attract an audience that we don't get normally." Alexander is seriously considering directing Damn Yankees, in which case his casting vision would almost certainly become a reality.
As for other future productions, Alexander want shows that merit revivals, but also new production concepts that bring those shows to life. "I want to do things that are being brought to us because there is a vision either by a director or a designer or a performer for looking at it in a new way."
Whatever those shows turn out to be, both Alexander and Gardia have made it an objective of theirs that Reprise! achieve a commercial transfer, either to a Los Angeles commercial theatre or to Encores! own stomping ground: Broadway. "That is a goal. I've always wanted that," said Gardia.
Stars are certainly a thing that might attract commercial producers to risk such a commercial undertaking. And because of Alexander's stature in the show business world, it's naturally expected that he will bring in some famous folk to star in future Reprise! offerings. "He's in that world," said Gardia. "He has those contacts and those relationships. We welcome that."
The star-catching is already happening. A July 12 fundraising event called "Give My Regards to Broadway" will star Florence Henderson, Ken Howard, Shirley Jones, Michele Lee, Hal Linden, Peter Marshall, John Schneider, Jean Smart and Dick Van Dyke. The idea, said Alexander, is to showcase the little-known theatrical talents of established television performers.
Alexander himself hopes to star opposite friend Martin Short in another fund-raising affair. "I've gotten the rights to The Odd Couple," Alexander said. "I wanted to do an absolute crowd pleaser. It's my intention to see if Marty might want to do it with me for a couple nights."
But, wait — isn't The Odd Couple a play and isn't Reprise! all about musicals? Yes and yes. And that's another thing the new artistic director wants to change. Alexander hopes to start a play-reading series in which two or three dramas will be given four-show runs each season. The evenings would be low on cost, he points out, and make for good money-raisers if cast well. Raising money, said the actor, is no small matter. "While Reprise! has been wildly successful on many levels," he pointed out, "financially they were hemorrhaging for years."
Not wanting to deplete the company's coffers further, Alexander declined the Reprise! board's offer of a salary. His income from "Seinfeld" provides more than enough to sustain him, he said. Should his plan for the troupe pan out in the form of balanced books, he's willing to revisit the subject.
"I think Reprise! has proven itself to the point where it can be another very strong center of theatre arts in Los Angeles," Alexander said. "The Center Group is a good one. The Geffen Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse have strong reputations. But none of them is doing what Reprise! set out to do, which is concentrate on musicals. With that as our base, I think we can become truly what Encores! is to New York, in that we're doing things with a real sense of excitement and with a possibility of life beyond our initial productions."