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Jason Alexander Teaches San Francisco How to Be Jewish

The "Seinfeld" star talks his hit musical revue about Jewish culture and classic comedy opening this week in the Bay Area.

San Francisco is Jewish; Oakland is Jewish; for three days only the entire Bay Area is Jewish, because according to Seinfeld star and Tony-winning stage actor and director Jason Alexander, When You're in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish. That's the title of the musical revue directed by Alexander and opening at the Marine's Memorial Theater on May 24, the first date on its inaugural tour after its L.A premiere.

Most of the material is taken  from comedian Bob Booker's classic 1965 comedy album of the same name as well as from Booker's previous album, You Don't Have to Be Jewish. The show converts Booker's gags and songs into a story about a wise rabbi (Barry Gordon) prepping a Gentile woman (Rena Strober) for her engagement to a nice Jewish boy. "I like to call it Monty Python's the Meaning of Life with chicken soup," says producer Danny Gold. We spoke with Alexander and Gold about rediscovering the classic comedy for a new era.

The material is 50 years old, but the show is still a hit. What's the secret of its appeal?
Alexander: If we could figure that out, we would do it a thousand times. Those old Yiddish accents—I was the grandson of a generation who still talked like that, but you don't hear those as much anymore. For older audiences, there's a familiarity to that, and for newer audiences it takes them by surprise and it becomes classic comedy.
Gold: When you're dealing with material from 1965 some people are already going to know the punch lines. But sometimes the journey to the punch line got the most laughs. Funny is funny.

These albums were very successful, but now most people haven't heard of them. Why did they go out of fashion?
Alexander: Comedy lives on in the web and TV, but nobody's pressing comedy albums anymore. People just aren't going to find this material unless somebody steers them toward it. We've talked about redoing the albums, because we have some new songs and new sketches and we could make the albums anew. These albums, for devotees of comedy, they are the ABCs of what makes something funny.
Gold: Acts like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor became stars in and of themselves, so their material has a life of its own. Even though there were classic actors who were part of these albums, it was more about the material and not the person. But if you talk to people of a certain age, they'll still know this stuff.

What about the new stuff? What have you added, other than the framing device?
Alexander: There's only two albums, and they're only 40 minutes long, but do you know how much there is to make fun of in Jewish culture? You could do five more albums. Some of the jokes had to be updated: In "The Reading of the Will, " for example, the things being bequeathed were things from another era, so we had to put in some new ones. One of the items that now gets bequeathed is an iPhone and the actors goes, "Oh, that's wonderful, the Bluephone, with the iTooth."
Gold: We have a new song that's premiering in San Francisco. It's about Jews and sports. I feel like I should make the joke that it's a very short song, but actually it's not. It's called "He Bought the Team."

Which song in the show would you perform if you got the chance?
Gold: One of the new songs, "Let's Eat." I just think it's hilarious. It's a fun song, and it stays in your head. Anytime I sit down to a Jewish dinner that song pops into my head, and I'd love to just break out into it.
Alexander: I would hate to sing that. The cast has to rattle off the names of these Jewish dishes very quickly. As I was writing it I thought, these actors are going to kill me. But I'm the director so I can just stand over there and say, "Come on you guys, let's get this done!"

What was the biggest surprise in adapting the material?
Alexander: The biggest surprise for me has been the cast. When we did it in L.A. in a 99-seat equity waiver theater and I said that the kind of actors we need are not going to be able to do it for this sort of money. But I couldn't believe the cast we put together, they're seasoned pros and they're very funny. And they loved the show—we were only able to extend the show for all those weeks because they wanted to keep doing it. They certainly weren't getting paid any more.
Gold: Interesting surprise we learned on this: Bob Booker isn't even Jewish.

When You're in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish plays at the Marine's Memorial Theater May 24-26. Go to worldisjewishtheplay.com for info and tickets.

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