“If you will it, it is no dream.” Theodor Herzl
Ari Axelrod is a young man who exudes vitality and enterprise. Having overcome a potentially fatal health issue, he approaches life and art with unusual audacity. I asked my subject to identify himself. He chose: 1. Jew 2. Storyteller 3. Friend 4. Performer 5.Teacher
Axelrod appears preternaturally secure in his chosen field, but the path was not predictable. Though respectively, at ages three and five, he and his brother acted out The Ten Commandments in their living room. Ari was more interested in the marching drums at football games than theater. He began drum lessons at five. It was older brother Robert who pursued the stage, not the sibling who’d land in New York teaching and performing theater/cabaret.
Robert cast a long shadow. Ari’s quick to tell me this was not his supportive sibling’s intention. Nonetheless dazzled by the forerunner, he found himself emulating activities and interests, including school productions and theater camp. At 13, the boy had his first feature (amateur) role. Their parents would take the family to musicals. Ari enjoyed them, but his heart remained with rhythm. “I’d plug in my iPod and listen to Sinatra – not his singing, the drums, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa…”
Playing drums at Camp Young Judea Midwest in Waupaca, Wisconsin. Either 2004 or 2005 at ten or eleven.
To see the young man relaxed and gregarious in his métier, to hear him speak about endeavors, one wonders at his having grown up feeling like an outsider. Perhaps this was an additional reason for gravitating toward a theater community. In middle school, drum lessons stopped; in high school, theater took over.
Ari tells me shrugging that he never had stage fright and learned lines with ease. Memory didn’t prove useful to academia, however. Like many smart kids, he was bored. “I was a terrible student.” Robert took headshots and recorded his sibling’s audition tapes. They’d run lines. “If he’d been a lawyer, I’d’ve been a lawyer,” my subject grins.
Ari and Robert at Next to Normal 2009
Unlike other adolescents destined for the stage, Ari didn’t seek what wasn’t in front of him. “My sophomore year in high school, I had no idea who Stephen Sondheim was.” He accepted what came his way and committed to it, never thinking of a career. Still, theater began to occupy him all year round. The family would attend anything in which he was cast.
When he began to act in productions at a high school with a more advanced drama department than the one at which he matriculated, Ari was deemed a traitor by both teachers and bullying peers who made his life miserable. By junior and senior year, he spent most days avoiding school, playing hooky, driving around in a Honda Minivan listening to Sirius XM. His parents expressed frustration, but never grounded him.
The first headshot
Sometimes friends joined. “At the beginning they’d roll their eyes, but over time, the linebacker’s favorite song became `Finishing the Hat.’” (Stephen Sondheim from Sunday in the Park with George.)
It was a mobile graduate course in musical theater. Ari got an earful of everything he’d acted in and everything he hadn’t. After awhile, he needed just a few notes to identify a Sondheim song, its source, the vocalist, and often which production it was from based on orchestrations. At the end of a school trimester, he’d cram like crazy, take the tests and pass.
Diagnosed with ADHD, Ari was put on Prozac from fourth grade until freshman year in college when he finally weaned himself off under a doctor’s care. Evidently the only time he felt anything (on medication) was listening to music. “I had a playlist called Chills music that gave me chills and the sensation of crying, because I couldn’t cry.” He was also subject to debilitating dizzy spells. Because there was no visible reason, people assumed he was faking and called him a “drama queen.” There’s an imperceptible shudder.
As Tony in West Side Story (Maria is Claire Higgins)
I ask how numbness affected relationships. “I didn’t have any. My first relationship occurred when I got off the meds… part of me resents being put on meds so young. At no point did anyone sit me down and ask what was going on…”
Eventually Robert turned from acting to writing (screenplays). By then Ari had established his own trajectory. He auditioned for theater colleges landing at The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University (now called The Sergeant Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University). Signs didn’t bode well. “I realized early on I knew more than everyone else in class. When my professor had to leave, he turned the students over to me.”
Left: West Hall Freshman year 2012 Right: A few of my classmates after our semester showing of The Courtroom Scene in Merchant of Venice. December 2014
College was to become the bane of his existence. The first day, Ari’s acting teacher announced, “I have favorites and you want to be one.” In movement workshop, students were told by the professor that because attrition rate was 30 percent, he wasn’t interested in building any sort of relationship. During the first 16 weeks, students had to jump rope barefoot every day. “Not only is that rough on shins and knees, but when you turn a rope and it whips your toes and feet, it’s horribly painful. There were people who would throw up or pass out. One student broke his foot.”
“We had what they called Danger Day. A rope was held taut by two people. Our job was to get under it without touching or we ‘died.’ When that happened, we had to let out a scream, then retreat to the side of the room. Those who cried were congratulated.” Acting stakes were presented as life and death. It was boot camp.
“On Yom Kippur (the last of the ten days of penitence that begin with the Jewish New Year), I advised the teacher I was fasting so unable to jump for fear of growing dizzy and falling. “That sounds like a personal problem,” he retorted. Though Ari had the dean’s permission to go to temple, the next morning it was announced the institution didn’t make exceptions for religious holidays of any kind. This was just before Christmas break. One of perhaps two Jewish students at the institution, the young man felt he had no recourse. His parents told him to keep his head down and earn a degree.
As Mr. Hassler in Pajama Game senior year
Dialect class was another in which Ari felt anti-Semitism. The opening scene of Inglorious Bastards where a Nazi officer explains to a Frenchman that Nazis are eagles and Jews are rats was repeatedly shown, ostensibly to hear German accents. Excerpts from Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List, which smeared his religion, followed. “The point being at no juncture did we pause films to analyze vocal patterns. We just watched in silence.”
That summer, cast in his first semi-professional production (Les Miserables), Ari realized this was what he wanted to do with his life.
Junior year the young man woke thinking he’d slept on his neck wrong. Two weeks later, he couldn’t look down. A local urgent care facility told him he’d likely pulled a muscle and gave him a steroid shot. Pain didn’t abate. Successive specialists incorrectly diagnosed or dismissed him. Then, one day at school, the room spun. A brain scan was taken. He was suffering from a rare, possibly fatal Arnold Chiari Malformation. (Some of the cerebellum and the brain stem stick out, or herniate, through an abnormal opening in the back of the skull.)
Quite a scar
On a Friday, the neurosurgeon told Ari he should be on an operating table the following Monday. There were six weeks left to the semester. Webster Conservatory summarily informed him that if he left he’d have to redo his entire junior year – without scholarship. Ari resolved to finish. “I have a brain malfunction and I’m tap dancing to Fred Astaire.” He laughs at the horror and impotence of it. “There’s cognitive dissonance here.” School ended May 9. He was operated on May 10. Surgery took 9 ½ hours. Robert says that his brother’s always been fearless, but after confronting mortality, the character trait increased.
I ask whether he prayed. Ari quotes me Adam Guettel’s “How Glory Goes”: Only Heaven knows how glory goes/What each of us was meant to be/In the starlight, that is what we are/I can see so far… The heartfelt song appears in his most recent show. Having been raised in a religious family, he’s found his own way. “I don’t know what my type of Jew is called – proud, spiritual, cultural, curious…”
Opening photo Helane Blumfield