BWW Interview: Ari Axelrod of A CELEBRATION OF JEWISH BROADWAY at Birdland
Born out of a random comment by a scholar, "A Celebration of Jewish Broadway" has developed quite a following. Ari Axelrod, who your Bubbie would call a "good Jewish boy" is devoted to his roots, to musical theater, and to his dog, Leo (a good Jewish boy, right?) and though Leo has nothing to do with musical theater, it would appear that Jewish people do. Therein lies the premise of Ari's well studied and vastly entertaining nightclub act, which has played Manhattan and cities in other states, to great acclaim.
Aside from his work as a performer and student of musicals with a Jewish derivation, Ari Axelrod is a respected educator in the field of cabaret creation. The founder of Bridging The Gap, Ari spends his time off stage imparting his considerable knowledge to performing artists wishing to branch out from playing characters to playing themselves. Cleary, we are dealing with a Renaissance Man, an Ari-Of-All-Trades, if you will.
Being another devotee of musicals and of education (and dogs, but that's neither here nor there), I reached out to Ari to ask him about the incredibly fascinating topic at the center of his show... and maybe a little about Leo, too.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Ari, you've got a show coming up called "A Celebration of Jewish Broadway." It's an interesting theme. In one sentence, tell me what this show is about.
Ari: I'll do you one better. I'll sum it up in one word, and that one word is legacy. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, that would be: to shed light on the beautiful truth that has always been there. I think the thing that I am really trying to do with this show is to allow people to fall in love with musical theater and the great American songbook all over again, by hearing things that have always been there, that they might not have known were there. So... being a facilitator to help them hear it in a completely different way.
How did you begin this specialized field of study?
Ari: I went to a university in the Midwest that had a partnership at the time with the St. Louis Cabaret Conference. That summer I was actually scheduled to do a summer stock contract somewhere out West, but I ended up having brain surgery instead.
As one does.
Ari: One of my faculty members said, "God willing the surgery goes well, and if it does, I know that you've just canceled this contract, but you should consider, if you have time after your surgery, if all goes well, look into this cabaret conference." So I looked into it and I saw these incredible faculty members like Faith Prince, Christine Ebersole, Marilyn Maye, Billy Stritch, Ann Hampton Calloway, Karen Mason, all of these wonderful people. And lo and behold, I recovered better than 98% of people. So I had three months free. I emailed the artistic director of the conference and I went, and my life was completely changed. From there, Faith Prince really kind of took me under her wing. I kept in touch with all of the faculty members, but Faith was the first director of my first show that I ever did. So when I came to New York, I had a relationship with her, and I had relationships with all of these other faculty members that kind of welcomed me into this cabaret community with open arms, which was just unbelievable.
What is the most interesting or surprising thing that you have learned about the Broadway musical and the Jewish influence on it?
Ari: Do you mean the most fascinating thing about the Jewish influence or the most fascinating about musical theater?
Well, are there any particularly lively or fascinating stories that you can think of that you've learned while doing this research?
Ari: Oh, and when you said research, did you mean research about Jewish Broadway or about cabaret?
Ari: (Laughing) Okay, great! Um, well, I'll just answer your previous question!
Ari: In regards to Jewish Broadway: the head of Eastern Michigan University's Jewish Studies department brought students to New York, and he asked me to come in and talk with them about being an actor in New York, and being a Jewish actor and how I navigate that. Afterwards, the two of us sat down for a drink, and we both love West Side Story. We started talking about it. I started talking about all of this Jewish influence sprinkled into the score of West Side Story. And he said "You should do a show all about the Jewish influence in musical theater." And I said, "There's no way that anyone would pay a cover and a two drink minimum to see that." He said, "What if I bring you to Eastern Michigan and you workshopped it there." So we put a date on a calendar and I went to Ypsilanti, to Eastern Michigan's campus back in October of 2018, and that's how this show was born. Then, the day after, I sent Jim Caruso at Birdland an email and I said "I'd like to do a show in your new theater." He said, "What show do you have?" I said, "Well, I have this one." And he said great, which was shocking because, again, I never thought that anyone would find this subject matter nearly as fascinating as I do... because I'm a nerd. But I think the most fascinating thing that I have found is that (and I don't quite know if there is a definitive answer to this) but the vast majority of musicals, their creative teams were Jewish. When you look at composers and lyricists in particular, an even greater majority of them have been Jews. And I find that absolutely fascinating. I don't quite know why. And I don't know if there's necessarily a definitive reason... but that's what the show kind of seeks to explore, is the why and the how... How is it that a bunch of Jewish immigrants, that descendants of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, fled horrific persecution and came to one of the hardest cities in the world and created this definitively American art.
Do you think that that applies to music from the American songbook as well or just from the musical theater?
I'm not as well versed with the great American songbook, so I don't know if I can confidently answer one way or another, but what I do know is that a lot of the great American songbook was made up of songs that came from musicals. You have the Gershwin catalog, with Porgy and Bess, you have White Christmas from White Christmas by Irving Berlin. So there were a lot of songs in the great American songbook that are from musicals. And then there are those composers that were writing musicals... they were also writing pop tunes at the time. So I don't know enough about the great American songbook to say one way or another, but it is definitely true for the American musical.
While in the process of putting together this show, you also have a show coming up with Bridging The Gap, don't you?
Ari: I do. Yes, I do.
Tell me, for our readers who don't know, what Bridging The Gap is.
Ari: Bridging The Gap is a five week cabaret masterclass series that I founded back in the summer of 2018. It is a class that focuses on Bridging The Gap between musical theater performance and cabaret performance. It is essentially helping musical theater performers in New York shift their weight and flex a different muscle when it comes to performance. There is a common misconception among my generation that cabaret is any show with the microphone, a mic stand, a stool and a piano. And my response is always: if we can differentiate between a musical and a play with music, we need to be able to differentiate between a concert, a musical revue, a showcase, and a cabaret. But how can people differentiate one from another if they don't have the appropriate education? So I started this class about a year and a half ago to not only educate my generation, but also give people the opportunity to flex true cabaret muscles in a process-based class setting. We do, ultimately, have a showcase at the end, after the five weeks period, at 54 Below. And we've had guest teachers like a cabaret director, Lina Koutrakos, Tony award winner Faith Prince. It's a very nice opportunity for young musical theater performers to get immersed into the cabaret world and have a better understanding for, and deeper appreciation of, this art form.
How do those young people respond to Lina Kourtrakos? She's a bridge too far!
Ari: She's unbelievable and they love her just as much as she loves them.
She's amazing. What do you teach in Bridging The Gap that inspires your students?
Ari: Well, I often say that, yes, we're bridging the gap between musical theater and cabaret, but I also say we're bridging the gap between song and self, because as Dick Gallagher said, cabaret is the art of being yourself on purpose. So there's no acting. It's just standing in your truth as an artist of integrity, being yourself on purpose. So for people, for my students to be able to feel what it feels like to let the art of feeling, the responsibility of hammering home a story with acting, being subjective, and to just be a vessel for the lyric as themselves is from, what I can see and from what my students have told me, is the most liberating thing as a performer.
That's interesting because they say by your pupils you'll be taught. What kind of lessons have you picked up from your students?
Ari: I continue to be mesmerized by peoples' interpretation of the lyric - especially because cabaret is how to be yourself, because we're all different. Just because the lyrics on the page are the same, no matter who's singing it, it's a different... each singer will deliver the lyric differently. And so every time someone brings in a song, I continue to be impressed and moved by how passionate they are about the music and how I can still hear song differently, depending on who is singing it. And it is a real testament to the depth of passion and the wealth of profound commitment that young people have when it comes to tackling the creative arts, if that makes sense.
It makes perfect sense. You've been doing Bridging The Gap for a while. Do you have graduates out there that are currently doing their full cabaret acts at this time?
Ari: I have a couple. Amanda Coker did her New York debut at Don't Tell Mama back in May. And I have a couple other students that are working on cultivating their own solo shows as we speak. What has it been fascinating to watch, that I didn't expect, is that a lot of my students have (since taking class) have booked with high-profile agents. They have. One of my first students came to me and said, "I have been unemployed for however many years" and she is currently employed until February, 2012 as an actor. So, to have people who had no idea what cabaret was, take a cabaret class and then the tools that they learn in cabaret helps their artistry and their craft In the musical theater world. It just furthers this idea that while musical theater and cabaret are not the same, they are certainly closely related and they do benefit each other.
Going back to a Celebration of Jewish Broadway, say for instance that I'm a tourist visiting this city, and I'm looking for some cabaret to see, get me to come see your show
It spans the entire spectrum of songwriters because Broadway has the music of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin. It also has the music of Carole King and the music of Stephen Schwartz. So if your kids love Disney movies, if you love Carole King, if you love Christmas music, they were all written by Jews. So come and learn, come and find a new love and a new appreciation for the music you have heard your entire life as we celebrate Jewish Broadway.
Is it really true that your celebrity crush is Leonard Bernstein?
Ari: Yes. If I could invite five people to dinner, I would invite Leonard Bernstein five times.
Ari, do you let Leo eat people food?
Ari: Oh, it really depends. If he's terrified of a thunderstorm, he'll crawl under my bed, and to get him out from under my bed, I may, you know, give him a handful of cheese, it's his favorite. Sometimes peanut butter. But other than that, there are to be no scraps eaten off the floor. And he certainly does not get any of the food that I'm eating off my own plate.
Does he ever push you out of bed?
Ari: No. He's too good.
So Ari, how's your brain?
Ari: So much better, so much better. I have a clean bill of health for the first time in 25 years.
You are living your best life right now, right?
Ari: I am living my life period. That, as far as I'm concerned, is a miracle. A wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles.
Was that written by a Jew too?
Ari: By two Jews.
Oh my gosh, is it from a Jewish musical?
Ari: Um.... Yes it is.
Ok Jewish boy, I'm going to brush up on my Broadway and be there on November 20th!
Ari: There is a chance you might see a special guest on the stage that night.
Will it be Leo?
Ari: It hasn't been confirmed yet, but we may have a four-time Tony nominee with us.
When it's confirmed, be sure to tell me so I can let our readers know!
Ari: I promise.
Follow Ari Axelrod on Instagram and Twitter @ariaxelrod and Facebook @ariaxelrod1
To learn about Bridging The Gap visit their Website
For information and tickets to the next Bridging The Gap performance visit the 54 Below Website
Photos from the Ari Axelrod Collection