Ari Axelrod – Part II

(Click to read Ari Axelrod – Part I)

At this point, he learned about and applied to The St. Louis Cabaret Conference’s first year track. Staff at the time included Faith Prince, Marilyn Maye, Jason Robert Brown, Alex Rybeck, Tedd Firth…” A world opened up.  He learned about patter, arrangements, repurposing a song, connecting with an audience…”

Ari with Tedd Firth performing at The Conference

“I was actually working with artists I’d listened to in my car! People I idolized, people who were gods saw something in me… Cabaret affords performers the opportunity and responsibility to be themselves. It’s a gift to the audience requiring integrity, self awareness, and empathy, none of which I’d been taught at college.” (The next summer, he’d complete The Conference’s professional track.)  

“I spent my whole life waiting to be seen, heard, validated, understood while being told I was melodramatic, listening to ‘We get it, you’re a Jew; we get it, you love musical theater…’ ” Ari finally felt home. (The St. Louis Cabaret Conference)

With Faith Prince at The Conference

Actress Faith Prince helped the burgeoning artist mount his first full show, Giving Thanks. There was no charge to the audience. Anyone who’d had impact on his much-changed life was invited. Prince worked with him all year, into the second conference and his second show, “Taking the Wheel.” (Presented in  St. Louis.)

That December, Ari went on Birthright to Israel. (Taglit-Birthright Israel is a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors free ten-day heritage trips to Israel, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights for young adults of Jewish heritage.) “I fell in love with Judaism on my own terms, not my parents…I put my hand on the Western Wall and felt every Jew all over the world who was praying at the time while facing it. I felt all the Jews who couldn’t make it here until 1967. It all clicked.” The next year, he’d lead a group.

Birthright Trips

Back at school, recovering physically and emotionally, he didn’t miss a single day. When the dance department threatened to fail him, potentially stemming graduation, “I went to them and said, ‘either you pass me or I sue the shit out of you for being in violation of Title 9.’” (Title 9 prohibits discrimination – in this case religious – in any school or education program that receives funding from the federal government.)  And they did. “My degree was the ultimate testament to survival.”

At 22, Ari arrived on Mulberry Street in New York knowing only a few people from The Conference. Experiences at Webster echoed, making adjustment difficult. The newbe worked as a waiter, did staged readings, and popped up at Jim Caruso’s Birdland Cast Party. Robert would send lists of people he’d known who were now surfacing in jobs that might give his brother a leg up.

Never a shrinking violet, Ari proactively wrote to Jennifer Tepper whom he’d met at The Conference. This resulted in booking a late night slot at 54Below. He sat at the phone and Facebook for hours sending personal notes. (Aspirants take note!) It paid off in a sold out show and an agent.

The artist then auditioned for a staged reading of Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey at the York. Told he’d be playing multiple roles, he was asked to sing like a cantor, play a recorder, dance the Hora, and manifest a 90 year-old, female tour guide. Ari got the job. (The audition is recreated in his Jewish Broadway show. It’s a hoot.) The show evolved into one of the York’s Mufti productions. At least as important as exposure, the young actor met and bonded with Broadway veteran and fellow cast member Alix Korey.

Alix Korey and Ari in Milk and Honey

Korey doesn’t like to eat dinner alone. On a rehearsal break, she put it out that she was looking for company. Ari stepped up. The actress found him remarkably open and excited about things, unlike so many who are blasé. “His passion is real” she tells me. “I want to protect him.” Korey notes Ari is an old soul,” that he has his priorities in order in a rare way for someone so young. I ask what makes him different as a performer. “Courage,” she responds unequivocally. “He’s willing to look foolish, to take chances, much more than I was at his age.”

Ari repeated the St. Louis show, did summer stock in New Hampshire, performed at The Green Room, and had a final callback for The Band’s Visit. Mentor/teacher Jan Waldman and vocal coach Andrew Byrne became pivotal in his development. The artist gages his skill as before and after the dynamic duo.

Photo by Helane Blumfield

Childhood friend, Marty Shichtman, head of Jewish Studies at Eastern Michigan University, commissioned Ari to create a show about Jewish Musical Theater. When he returned to New York from its debut, he offered Taking the Wheel to Birdland. Instead, Jim Caruso was interested in A Celebration of Jewish Broadway. Reviews were enthusiastic. The artist took it on the road and has upcoming bookings.

An autobiographical 45 minute set he put together for the West Bank Café then became the third show, Ari’s Arias. Jeff Harnar was asked to lend another pair of eyes (and astute opinion). His MD was Larry Yurman.  The show’s centerpiece was a medley (arranged by Alex Rybeck) masterfully evoking the experience around his operation. “It took months to craft so that the audience wouldn’t want to slit its wrists,” the performer says.

“Frankly we (Faith Prince and Rybeck) tried to convince him not to do it…but Ari was adamant. After that, our job became HOW. ‘The audience has to get to know and trust you before you take them there,’ we said stressing the need to front-load it with humor…” (Alex Rybeck) Ari brought in a song about a patient waiting for diagnosis and “How Glory Goes.” Rybeck asked whether the vocalist’s mother had sung a particular song to him as a child, perhaps a lullaby. A Jewish prayer was deftly added.

Photo by Brendan Joyce

“A show is ABOUT me but FOR an audience. Over-sharing is ABOUT and FOR me. At that point, how can an audience possibly have its own experience?” It’s a fine line. (My review of Ari’s Arias.)

Winter 2018: Ari posted an online query – if he were to offer a pay-what-you-can master class in solo performance, would anyone be interested? Thirty people responded, a third of these signed up. Thus began what he finds an eminently satisfying endeavor. He’s currently teaching the first multi-week class since pandemic shut down.

Each student receives a list of 10-15 songs from which to choose in alignment with voice and goals expressed. “What I try to do is give my students tangible tools. You’re singing TO an audience, not an invisible person. You can see him/her in the eyes of the audience…There’s a passion I have for teaching I never had for performing.  And I just started directing.”

Teaching- September 2018. Ysabel Jasa

 “I wanted someone my age, someone who can relate to my generation, the way the industry has changed…he helps not only with the material but the actor as a person, how you present yourself…Ari’s deep understanding and respect for what makes an individual themselves and his skill in bringing out “ah-ha” moments make things feel right and click…” student Zach Martin

“I love how, in the most recent master class series I took with Ari, we were a mixed generational group ranging, I’d say, from ages 21-60, with a wide assortment of experiences, vocal ranges and training.  Each person came with their own agenda, personal goals, performance needs.  All were addressed with respect, validity and encouragement… Watching Ari embrace deep spirit without any apologies, judgment, or preaching is to me  a lesson in bravery and inspiration.” Student Beth Selter

“I’ve reached a kind of threshold of what I can do as a performer,” Ari tells me. “Now I need a manager who can handle multi-hyphenates. Eventually I want to have a studio that’s a hub for solo performance; a class on arranging, a class on cabaret-especially for theater actors, patter…” And to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a character he’s been working on for years.

This is Ari’s best friend Leo.  “When I have dizzy spells, he barks and I know to get down on my hands and knees. He puts his paws on my hands. If there’s turbulence on a plane, he hops on my lap, puts his head on my shoulder and his paw on my scar (at the back of his neck.)” Four feet or no, the canine seems to be reincarnated from someone who loved Ari in a past life.

Opening photo: Diana Bush

Visit Ari Axelrod’s website.

June  30 2022, Ari will live record, Ari’s Arias at Birdland.

About Alix Cohen (1288 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.