Shine A Light: Matthew Gray Gubler & Jason Alexander

by matthew gray gubler/ jason alexander
Yesterday I read an incredibly fascinating and moving article in The New Yorker written by American sitcom pioneer Roseanne Barr about her experience being launched from a working class stand-up comic to the star and the creator of the number one rated sitcom on television. At the beginning of the article, Barr speaks about the recent media circus surrounding Charlie Sheen saying, “During the recent and overly publicized breakdown of Charlie Sheen, I was repeatedly contacted by the media and asked to comment, as it was assumed that I know a thing or two about starring on a sitcom, fighting with producers, nasty divorces, public meltdowns and bombing through a live comedy tour.” Barr’s perceptive and critical examination of the current Hollywood culture and the sexist, sensationalist and immature politics that dictate which shows are deemed worthy of our television sets paints a grim picture of our society’s obsession with the superficial and our penchant for immersing ourselves in mediocre diversions and drivel instead of seeking to confront the real issues of the world and to use television, as Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur and Roseanne Barr and Bill Cosby did valiantly for two decades, to forge out a society that takes pride in crusading for equality, for justice and, honestly, was dedicated to making the world a little bit brighter, one episode at a time.
Ever since 9/11 I have become increasingly dismayed and sickened by Hollywood, by the “celebrities” that we have crafted for ourselves, most of whom are simply famous for being famous, and how hollow and vapid it seems that the average person, especially women, are expected to be. It can be depressing and I can turn my back on all of it and retreat into the vibrant, political, insightful, intelligent theatre world that I love so much, and I do, but of course, there are always those exceptions who shine brightly out of the mass of dreariness who lure me back, if only for a moment.
A few months ago on Twitter one of those bright exceptions, American actor/director Matthew Gray Gubler (@Gublernation), best known for playing Dr. Spencer Reid on the Crime Drama Criminal Minds, posted a tweet about starting “the Matthew Gray Gubler Movement (MGGM),” with the objective of “the advancement of kindness, creativity, smiles and ice cream.” For some reason, this tweet has stayed with me. Gubler also started a venture on his tumblr blog which he calls “Maestro of the Day” where he salutes people who have made significant contributions to the world, simply to offer up his gratitude and to raise awareness about these individuals for his thousands of fans and Twitter followers. The “Maestros of the Day” are varied and have included writer/poet Charles Bukowski, puppeteer/visionary Jim Henson, actor Steve Martin and painter Grandma Moses. I realized that what struck me so much about Matthew was that not only does he capture a sort of artistic integrity that seems so rare on television and in Hollywood these days, but he is continually using his Twitter account to shine the light always on those who uphold his principles of perpetuating kindness, creativity, smiles and ice cream. He doesn’t seem to let Hollywood corrupt his innate goodness, and he is quick to share with us the other people, both contemporary and from the past, who exemplify greatness, and inspire us to not lose our hearts and to strive toward the art of it with frivolity, joy and friendship.
It has been my pleasure for the past three years to shine a light on the Canadian theatre community, to celebrate our achievements and to bring some well overdue recognition and gratitude to the people who have shaped our theatre tradition, those whose talents make our theatre some of the best in the world and those who will take this legacy into the future. I will continue to do so as long as TWISI exists. Yet, especially since I realized that almost half my readership is coming to me from our friends and neighbours in the United States, and because I truly believe that there are artists who are doing extraordinary things in Hollywood right now whose work is being thrust aside by the newest sex scandal, perfume launch or socialite, that deserve to have a little light shine on them too, in the spirit of kindness, creativity, smiles and ice cream, I am going to try to feature an American artist, perhaps one a month, maybe more, who I feel deserves special recognition for their contribution to the artistic world that we live in. Today, I would like to bring your attention to two people who are inspiring me and reminding me of the goodness of the human heart that connects us ardently to one another.

The first one I’ve already mentioned, I can’t in good faith just rip off Matthew Gray Gubler’s Maestro idea without telling you a bit more about him. As I said, he is most well known for playing Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds, a young genius with an eidetic memory, who is somewhat socially awkward, but this tendency is usually overshadowed by his endearing charm and fierce loyalty to the team. Gubler has also directed two episodes of the series, including the strikingly eerie “Mosley Lane” and “Lauren,” the (potentially) final episode of Paget Brewster as Emily Prentiss. Filmmaking is Gubler’s first love. He is a graduate of the prestigious NYU Tisch School of the Arts where he majored in Film Directing and he has created, directed and produced a slew of mockumentaries parodying himself and the stereotypical Hollywood lifestyle in Matthew Gray Gubler: An Unauthorized Documentary. He also directed the music video for “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” by the Killers. It’s clear that as a filmmaker, Gubler is still very much at the outset of his career, but I have a hunch there are a great many artful, creative and beautiful feature-length films in his future. Gubler is also a really talented visual artist-, akin to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Henson’s Muppets from the original Muppet Show and first season of Saturday Night Live, but also reminiscent of Romanticism and alluding to Edgar Allan Poe. You can check out his work here. He also recently did a free Pajama Party lecture at the University of New Hampshire, which I am hoping is going to expand into a tour that will eventually find itself in Toronto. In the meantime, if you are on Twitter, I cannot recommend enough following Gubler’s feed (@Gublernation), his exuberance and zest for life, for finding the humour in any scenario and for sharing, earnestly and genuinely, his vivaciousness with his followers keeps enticing me to run out and play, to seize every moment and to do good by it with a wide open heart and a big ready laugh. He is also obsessed with Halloween, which makes my heart flutter a bit.

My second star to shine a light upon is also one who makes excellent use of his Twitter account and, actually, he made an appearance on Criminal Minds as one of its creepiest and wildest serial killers not too long ago. Jason Alexander, of course, is best known and beloved for playing George Costanza on the smash hit sitcom Seinfeld. Likely because I was raised by four adults, I grew up watching and loving Seinfeld, although I’m sure that 85% of the jokes went completely over my head. I do have this one vivid memory though from around 1994, so I would have been nine, sitting watching Seinfeld at my grandmother’s house, and it was the episode “The Jacket” (which originally aired in 1991) where George has the song “Master of the House” stuck in his head. I remember the joy I felt in watching this for the first time, because I had recently seen Les Miserables at Neptune Theatre in Halifax and it was the first time that I caught a Seinfeld reference and was let “in” on the joke. Regardless, I always loved Seinfeld. I bawled buckets like a baby throughout the entirety of the final episode and I still think that it is among the greatest American sitcoms ever made. Whenever it’s on TVtropolis, and that’s often, I’ll always stop and watch, even though I think I have seen every episode a dozen times and I find myself chiming in with the punch lines…. and quoting them on Facebook chat. But, you all know about Seinfeld, and you all know about George and how brilliantly Alexander portrayed this complex, cantankerous, whiney, “lord of the idiots” who you just can’t help having a soft spot for.    

“George Costanza one of the funniest guys ever on TV… and then who knew he could sing and dance?”- Don Connor, my uncle, a few weeks ago at the kitchen table amid his frequent rant about the current abysmal state of contemporary television.

At eleven years old, I was probably one of a small selection of sixth graders who would have told you that George Costanza did the voice of Hugo, one of the three gargoyles in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This was the first time that I realized that Alexander could sing, but at that age I didn’t equate Disney with Broadway and I think I was still a bit confused about the magic involved in animation and where the line was drawn between actor and character. The next year, in 1997 I fell in love with the remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s made for TV musical Cinderella. It was obvious even to me at twelve years old that the producers and advertisers were trying to sell the movie as a vehicle for Brandy (“who is no Julie Andrews,” twelve year old me would have said), but for me the reason for watching was obviously Bernadette Peters, who played the Stepmother, and, I would have admitted, also Whitney Houston, who made a powerhouse Fairy Godmother. This was actually the moment when I realized that Jason Alexander, the person, could sing and dance and that he was a legitimate Broadway star. In Cinderella he played Lionel, the herald, in which he sings a funny patter song entitled “The Prince is Giving a Ball.

This is hardly Alexander’s crowning achievement. On Broadway he has appeared in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, Kander and Ebb’s The Rink (with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera), Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, for which he garnered the 1989 Tony Award for best actor in a musical. More recently, in 2003, he was cast as Max Bialystok opposite Martin Short’s Leo Bloom in a Los Angeles production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, which sounds like it must have been bliss on wheels. In 2004 I fell in love with another TV movie musical featuring Alexander, the unlikely A Christmas Carol: The Musical, which features Alexander playing a fearsome, but sympathetic, Jacob Marley opposite Kelsey Grammer (seriously!), who makes a genuinely formidable Scrooge. This film is quite the little gem, it also features Broadway babes Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) and Jesse L. Martin (Law & Order), but what makes it such an unlikely winner is the music by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors) and Lynn Aherns (Anastasia, Seussical, Ragtime), who, in my opinion, should be writing the music for all the feature-length animated films at Disney. I recommend checking A Christmas Carol: The Musical out next December, it’s truly heart warming. Alexander also does a duet of the song “Hangin’ Around With You” (Gershwin) with Kristin Chenoweth on her exceptional debut album “Let Yourself Go” which I hope you all have in your collections.

Jason Alexander has an incredible filmography, of which I’m sure you’re also aware. I remember being so struck the first time I saw Pretty Woman, which I was obsessed with the summer before grade twelve and once watched three times in a row, at how completely disparate the egocentric, sleazy, misogynistic Philip Stuckey was from the perception I had of “characters Jason Alexander typically plays.” He is also an avid poker player and raised $500,000 for the United Way to benefit the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina.

What I didn’t know about Alexander until I started following him on Twitter, is that he is the Artistic Director of Reprise Theater in Los Angeles and he also has been a vocal advocate for what I am sure is a much-needed increase in media attention for the theatres and theatre artists working in Los Angeles and for the LA theatre community in general. Reprise Theatre offers “the best of Broadway” to Los Angeles and currently onstage is Kiss Me Kate directed by Michael Michetti. Alexander has directed Sunday in the Park With George and Damn Yankees there and past special one night engagements include such slew of stars as Jerry Seinfeld, Kristin Chenoweth, Audra Mcdonald, Carol Burnett, Brian Stokes Mitchell and coming up on June 7th is Ray Romano, LIVE! The 2011-2012 Season for the company also looks exciting with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife and Bock and Harnick’s The Apple Tree, all fascinating choices! If you are in Los Angeles, or plan to be, this is the theatre that I would check out first.

Like Matthew Gray Gubler, Jason Alexander’s genuine desire to connect with people, to offer them laughter and earnest compassion allows for the aura of celebrity to crack open a little bit, and, as is often the case, the man that is revealed at the core proves himself in his kindness and generosity to be more a giant of humanity than any superficial superstar burning their money and wasting their time could ever hope to be.

In gratitude, I thank them both for giving me a ray of sunshine and some faith to counter my Beverley Hills blues. Keep shining on.   

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