By Stephen Mosher, BWW
“Ari, you can’t hand out those menus for your catering company all over the school, you have to stop. And I’d like to order a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.”
The next day Ari Axelrod delivered to his First Grade school teacher a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, freshly made at The Olive Branch catering company, a company that would continue to service his fellow students and faculty for the rest of the school year, netting the six-year-old some $500 dollars before summer vacation hit.
Ari Axelrod has been bucking the system ever since.
On Wednesday night Ari Axelrod‘s teaching academy BRIDGING THE GAP will present their seventh graduating cabaret at Birdland, and on Friday night Mr. Axelrod’s much-lauded cabaret show A CELEBRATION OF JEWISH BROADWAY will play the Upper East Side cabaret room at The Beach Cafe. This is a busy time for the teaching artist who, almost aggressively, uses every single valuable moment of his day, but no less should be expected of Axelrod, a man with a rocky history and what looks like a smooth future. One part journeyman, one part angry young man, and one part Superman, Ari Axelrod has taken his study of the art of cabaret so seriously that the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated has made him the perfect teacher for the young people that are the imminent artists of the industry – and the Superman part? Well, just ask his doctor…
Ever the precocious child, Ari Axelrodwas not just running a catering business out of his home at the age of six: one year earlier the football devotee found himself obsessed with percussion, thanks to the drum and bugle corps at school, so before deciding he should take up the culinary skills inherited from his father, he was already an accomplished drummer. These two achievements under his belt, and spurred on by the popularity he saw his older brother garnering as an actor, Ari was greatly interested in getting in on the attention game, so the young one started in with the school musical theater program. Admitting, now, that his interest in the craft was purely popularity based, Axelrod pinpoints the exact moment that a passing fancy became a lifelong passion. In his Junior year of High School, Ari found himself ostracized by the student body and faculty, thanks to his decision to step out of the line. The head of the Drama Department having declared that “Musical theater is a shallow art form,” Ari took his performing arts interests to a neighboring High School that partnered with the University of Michigan musical theater department so that he could get the education he wanted. The decision turned Axelrod into the school villain, with students and teachers alike openly deriding and tormenting him for what they considered his betrayal, including a High School Principal who would stop Axelrod in the hallway with friends and say, “Don’t walk with Ari, he’s a traitor.” Intent on escaping this persecution, Ari simply stopped going to school.
“The time that I would spend during the day when I should’ve been in school…I had a Honda Odyssey minivan called The Man Van, and I had SiriusXM Channel 72 OnBroadway Radio. I would drive around for hours with no destination, just driving around and listening, for easily six hours a day, wasting gas, polluting the environment. I started my senior year of High School unfamiliar with who Stephen Sondheim was, and I finished my senior year understanding the intricate details and differences between the original orchestrations of COMPANY in 1970 and of each revival following. It was in that time that I spent driving around that musical theater and singing turned from something I did because my brother did it to something that made me feel alive”
Out of Michigan High School, Axelrod found himself in college in St. Louis, where he discovered a new brand of scholastic isolation: micro-aggressive anti-semitism. His formative years spent in a Jewish community and schools, The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University was decidedly UN-Jewish and Axelrod (one of three Jews in the Drama Department) was shocked to discover that the preferred manner of learning a German dialect for scene work was repeated viewings of the films Inglorious Bastards, Defiance, and Schindler’s List, but a viewing of Sophie’s Choice including the N-Bomb caused the cancelation of a class and an in-depth discussion of the power of words. Ari was further appalled when an excused absence for Rosh Hashana led to an outraged message sent during Synagogue services from his acting teacher, reprimanding him for his seeming ambivalence toward his schoolwork, rescinding the excused absence. Axelrod became the squeaky wheel of the department, and though his protestations landed on deaf ears during his tenure at the institution of higher learning, in the years since his departure, some change seems to have been affected, given the fact that Axelrod has been invited to return to his alma mater to teach master classes. Perhaps that is because his crusade was, eventually, heard; perhaps it is because of unthinkable happenings that took place during his final years at Webster.
“I had brain surgery while I was there, and two weeks before surgery, I was sexually assaulted by two men in my department, and no one gave a shit. People went out of their way to tell me I was just being dramatic. It was a really horrific time.”
A life of bad dizzy spells was something Ari became used to, but the day he woke up with a really stiff neck, he realized something wasn’t right, particularly when it grew worse within two weeks. A loss of sensation in his arm and bad bouts of vertigo led him to Urgent Care, where he was repeatedly misdiagnosed or dismissed altogether. A year later, Ari Axelrod was in an Urgent Care in a strip mall when a doctor suggested a brain scan, even though the people who accompanied him to the doctor swore he was, again, “just being dramatic.” When the scan revealed a Chiari malformation, the doctor provided Ari and all of his associates with literature on the condition and sent them on their way. The out of state, full-time college student was left alone to find a neurologist, an appointment that required a six-month wait, and on the day of that appointment that neurologist scheduled a meeting with a neurosurgeon mere hours later, such was the urgency of the situation. It was 9 months between diagnosis and surgery, and the exhausting experience created for Axelrod a tumultuous relationship with time, including the 9.5 hours it took to perform what should have been a 4-hour procedure that left the young man under anesthesia for 12 hours, but a surgery that restored to Ari Axelrod his life. For the first time in his life, there were no dizzy spells, for the first time in years the light paralysis he felt in parts of his body was gone, he felt like a new man. His surgery on a Monday, by Tuesday night he was sitting up and using only extra-strength Tylenol for the pain; by Thursday at one pm he was at home in bed and on Friday he was having breakfast with friends. Two weeks later he was driving a car, and after a month he was singing in public.
Two months later Ari Axelrod was at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, and his life changed forever.
Though scheduled to do a regional theater production of Oklahoma!, Ari dropped out to have his brain surgery — rapidly recovered and suddenly with the summer free, a friend suggested that this free time might be put to good use at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, where the instructors included Marilyn Maye, Karen Mason, Ann Hampton Callaway, Christine Ebersole, Jason Robert Brown, Alex Rybeck and the woman who would become his personal champion and “the first person who saw me in the way that I wanted to be seen my whole life,” Faith Prince. Admitting that, when he started his course of study there, he thought that cabaret was fishnets, Christina Aguilera, and Joel Grey, but having seen Faith Prince in John Buchinno’s musical The Catered Affair, upon hearing that she was a teacher at the Cabaret Conference, he took the suggestion and joined the conference. The people whose music he had listened to during those six-hour drives around his High School town were suddenly his mentors, making him finally feel alive, telling him he was special, that he had something unique to offer – a life-altering experience. “It was the first time I had had empathic, compassionate, musical theater training from people I had grown up listening to and admiring, who saw something in me that I didn’t know existed yet, but who wanted to cultivate it.” That cultivation of the man who would become Ari took place on the Webster campus, in the very room where he had been assaulted, and it was in that room where he learned the healing powers of cabaret. There, he felt seen, he felt nurtured, he felt mentored, and there he created his first cabaret show, directed by Faith Prince, called Taking The Wheel, about his journey to the choosing of coming back to life from the brink of death. It was this show that saved his life and that of a stranger fortuitously met over a favorite breakfast.
The day of Taking The Wheel, Ari Axelrod went to his favorite restaurant for his favorite breakfast, a special order not on the menu that he noticed a woman at a nearby table was having, too. Chatting over their meals about their mutually unique orders, they struck up a temporary friendship during which Ari offered her his last ticket to his show. The woman demurred, remarking that she would “have to see” but he left the ticket for her that night and she came to see his debut cabaret. After the show, she tearfully confessed to him that her breakfast that day was meant to be her last meal, as her ongoing cancer battle had taken the life out of her and her intent for the day had been suicide. By coming to his show, by hearing his tale, she had been inspired to get back in the fight. Today that woman is in remission for cancer.
As far as Ari Axelrod is concerned, cabaret saves lives.
Who better to teach the young people of musical theater how to transition their work as singing actors into the more intimate setting of cabaret than a man who has seen, first hand, how cabaret saves lives?
Never having had a wish to be a teacher, Axelrod decided to start BRIDGING THE GAP after an off-the-cuff comment from one of his Cabaret Conference instructors. To test the waters, he posted on Facebook an offer to teach a one-off master class for free. Fifteen students later, he knew he was a teacher, and his initial students validated that wisdom with their feedback: even though a young cabaret artist, his instincts and his recent assimilation of the art made him the perfect person to communicate to other young people how, best, to use their own gifts to create their own work, rather than rely on casting directors and directors who might not hear their own special brand of music. Seven installments later, Bridging The Gap is completing its first cycle of advanced classes for returning students, students who will present their group show at Birdland on February 5th at 9:30 pm, and Axelrod could not be more proud of what, together, they have created.
As for the flood of youth entering the cabaret community, Axelrod is determined to keep training them and sending them into New York City to work, in his quest to be a change-maker in the cabaret industry. “A lot of the people who hold the keys to the kingdom don’t want change because if they were to welcome change into the kingdom, they would be threatened. Their artistic integrity would be threatened, their jobs would be threatened, their clients would be threatened, their paychecks would be threatened. Why would they want change? Everything’s working just fine. And yet, my response to that is: then how dare you say that cabaret is a dying art form? If you really care about the art form as much as you say you do, let young people who are hungry to be a part of this community and carry the torch with you, not take it from you but carry it with you, let us at least sit at your table.” Ari loves and believes in the art of cabaret and the history of cabaret, but there are factors that need changing and he is determined to change them, and that is a goal that comes with gritted teeth and resolve. One of his biggest wishes is that the industry did not require “the amount of time it takes to put butts in seats. If there’s a way to get people there that’s not from a place of prostituting yourself on social media. If the split of the door is 60% to the performer and 40% to the venue, then the venue better be doing 40% of the work.” These are wishes often expressed by cabaret artists but Ari Axelrod has his eye on the prize, and though he isn’t, yet, sure of what can be done to affect some of the needed change to assist the industry in its’ evolution, the future of cabaret is never far from his mind.
It is passion like this that informs every aspect of Axelrod’s life, from his teachings with his Bridging The Gap students to the shows he directs, from his prolific work as a performer to his devout Judaism, from the five nights a week when he is in a club seeing his friends perform to his home life with his true love, his dog Leo because even though Ari Axelrod says, in his show A Celebration of Jewish Broadway, that his two favorite things in life are Judaism and Broadway, the truth is that Leo will always be in first place. The two soulmates found each other at a rescue where Leo had been marked for adoption but Ari didn’t stop until he confirmed that the adoption was pending, an investigation that uncovered the fact that the pooch’s crate had been mislabeled, and that Leo was looking for a forever home.
Forever is a nebulous time, but with Leo in his arms and his integrity in his heart, Ari Axelrod is going for forever… at least when it comes to the change he plans to make, and to leave behind after he’s gone.
“If I don’t want to do something, I’m not doing it because that is time that I could otherwise be spending with my dog.”
“After I had the surgery it became very clear to me how precious time is. Time is our most precious non-renewable resource. Once it’s done, it’s done. So I’ve made it a habit to fill my time, the time that I have now, which I call my second lease on life, to fill it saying yes to the things I want to say yes to. There are 24 hours in a day: that’s quite a few. If I want to do all the things that I want to do, I can find a way to make it happen. All I have to do is say yes and show up. And I can sleep when I’m dead. There is something really sobering – to be 21 and feel like a milk carton with an expiration date slapped on your forehead. I want to make this time that wasn’t always guaranteed – I want to make the most of it so that when it is finally my time I can look back and say ‘look at what I did.'”
For information and tickets to BRIDGING THE GAP SHOWCASE please visit the Birdland website