From Baghdad To Brooklyn
Performer Michelle Azar brings her life story to the stage in Ann Arbor.
Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer
Michelle Azar recently argued to send an accused murderer to death. She didn’t win, but the outcome was to be expected.
Azar isn’t a lawyer. She was making a guest appearance portraying a prosecuting attorney on How to Get Away With Murder, the series that stars Viola Davis as defense attorney Annalise Keating, this time winning an argument for a life sentence.
Azar has taken on guest roles for a number of TV series, including The Magicians, Criminal Minds and Bones, and she quickly morphs into the character to be projected.
While fictional characters remain very much a part of Azar’s career, which also spans stage and film, she has decided to get more personal. She developed a one-person reality musical about her own life.
From Baghdad to Brooklyn, filled with Broadway and ethnic songs, will be performed Thursday evening, Nov. 15, at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor.
“I’m going to do a 55-minute play that takes place in Iraq, Brooklyn and the wider America,” explains Azar, married to Rabbi Jonathan Aaron of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif. They have two teenage daughters.
“The story travels through the music of my life so there are Sephardic melodies that go back to my father’s younger years and Ashkenazi songs that reflect my mother’s background.” Azar will be accompanied by a local pianist, Dave Gitterman.
Azar’s Michigan appearance was encouraged by members of her husband’s side of the family, who live in Ann Arbor and attend Temple Beth Emeth. They include brother-in-law Richard Aaron, a University of Michigan professor and also a musical performer focused on the cello.
Azar hopes her audiences will feel an emotional attachment to her presentation, which draws on remembrances of conversations with forebears she knew as a child. Azar, who portrays different family members even as she brings her original songs into the production, has fine-tuned the piece with the help of professional friends.
“I’m asking audiences to feel connected to things they never really lived,” explains Azar, who recalls her grandparents speaking Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic. “What are the melodies or the stories that come up for members of the audience although they don’t know why?
“What’s especially rewarding about doing the show is the kids who come up to me and say they get it now — why their parents want to tell the stories of their backgrounds. They feel connected to something in their DNA.”
Azar believes entertaining is in her DNA.
“I never knew I didn’t want to be an entertainer,” she says. “When I was 3 years old, my mom was running a choir in a Chicago synagogue, and someone couldn’t sing a solo. Suddenly, I was up there singing it.
“In fourth grade, I was in an acting class and really felt at home. I got all the roles I tried out for in junior high. I studied more seriously in high school while I also sang with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“I started branching out into all that Chicago has to offer and decided to go into straight acting because that was the texture of who I was. I went to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). On graduation, I booked my first off-Broadway show, playing Janis Joplin in Beehive, and got my Equity card.”
After other New York productions, Azar took a break and moved to Israel for a time. She met her husband, and they moved to California, where she found roles in TV and movies while doing about two plays a year. When her husband was attending rabbinical school in New York, she earned a master’s degree in drama therapy back at NYU.
“I’m very academic in a lot of ways,” Azar says. “I did my thesis on the relationship between the performer and the non-performer — the need to be extroverted in telling your story and the need to be privately connected to your story.”
Azar’s connections to Michigan reach back to Three Rivers, where she attended Habonim Dror Camp Tavor and often returns for reunions.
“My school year life was about musical theater, but summers were in-depth excavations into who I am in my core,” she says. “Three years ago, I was at a reunion where a woman said that I had an interesting story and suggested I write it. I said that I did, and she found me a couple of synagogues that wanted to hear it.”
From Baghdad to Brooklyn will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. $15 students/$20 adults. Tickets, sold online at wtbe.org, also will be available at the door. (734) 665-4744.