Ann Arbor native Ari Axelrod takes his show about Jewish Broadway back to New York City, also releases his debut album.
Consummate performer and Ann Arbor native Ari Axelrod is taking his show, A Place for Us: A Celebration of Jewish Broadway, back to New York City. On Monday, Jan. 30, at 8:30 p.m. at the Birdland Theater in the heart of the Theater District, Axelrod will be honoring famous Jewish composers and their beloved songs.
“The vast majority of shows on Broadway were and are written by Jews,” says Axelrod, who has taken this show all over the United States, to Canada and via Zoom to audiences in Israel, South Africa and other countries. “I wanted to celebrate these brilliant composers and lyricists as well as the Jewish culture and vitality that shines through in their musicals.”
Some of Broadway’s most influential Jewish musicians that Axelrod highlights stretch from Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein to Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Carole King and Adam Guettel, grandson of famed composer Richard Rodgers.
Accompanied by Broadway veteran music director Lawrence Yurman, the audience can expect to hear Axelrod sing some of Broadway’s most memorable tunes, such as “A Place for Us” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and “Some Enchanting Evening” from Richard Roger’s South Pacific. Back stories of the composers, Jewish traditions and music with roots from the synagogue are all incorporated in the show.
Although Axelrod’s 90-minute one-man show has been performed some 30 times, including in Dexter, Michigan in 2020, each engagement differs.
“The show feels different each time we do it,” says Axelrod, 28, who lives in New York. “As the world for American Jews has changed and shifted, the songs may carry different meanings. I built the show before the shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and things have changed for American Jews since then. I feel it’s my responsibility to reflect the ever-changing world in this show.”
There is no doubt Axelrod is proud to be Jewish and, with the rise of antisemitism, he says acknowledging all the Jewish contributions to musical theater is more important than ever. He also says he feels strongly about fighting antisemitism and supporting all Jews, regardless of their level of spirituality or observance.
Strong Jewish Identity
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Axelrod grew up with a strong Jewish identity. He attended Ann Arbor Hebrew Day School and went to Israel on a Birthright trip when in college and later staffed a Birthright trip.
His family belongs to Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, where he became a bar mitzvah, and has close ties to the Jewish community.
Ari’s mother, Robin Axelrod, directed University of Michigan’s Jewish professional leadership program, was director of education at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills and was appointed to the State of Michigan’s Governor’s Council of Genocide and Holocaust Education. She serves on boards of numerous Jewish organizations, including the Detroit Jewish News Foundation.
Brad Axelrod, Ari’s dad, has worked as a neuropsychologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Detroit and has a private practice in Ann Arbor. He served on the Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival Committee and on the boards of Beth Israel Congregation and the Hebrew Day School. Presently, he is the liaison from Ann Arbor to the Detroit Steering Committee for the Jewish Federation’s Partnership Together Committee.
Robert Axelrod, Ari’s brother, is a screenwriter in LA. He has been honored with numerous awards, including the inaugural Jewish Writers Initiative.
“Within five minutes of meeting Ari, you know the things in his life he holds most dearly are his family, Jewish identity and his dog Leo (who sometimes appears with him on stage),” Robin says. “He is multi-hyphenate — that rare combination of actor, singer, director, teacher, deep listener, storyteller and mensch. He makes us proud every single day.”
Axelrod attended Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. Growing up, he performed in local musical productions, including at Pioneer High School where he was Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, Tony in West Side Story and Mr. Mayor in Seussical. After studying musical theater in college in St. Louis, he began landing parts in plays and building a career.
Perhaps his biggest challenge wasn’t breaking into show business, rather dealing with a serious medical condition. During his junior year in college, he was diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal disease called Arnold Chiari Malformation. (It’s a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal.) Fortunately, he underwent successful neurosurgery at U-M Hospital and was given a clean bill of health. He says because of that experience, he is “choosing to live every second of his new lease on life to the fullest.”
A few weeks after his surgery, his career took a significant turn. He applied to the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, where he was introduced to the transformative art of cabaret and concert performance. Soon after, new doors opened for him. He was able to work with two-time Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole and Tony Award winner Faith Prince, who would later go on to direct Axelrod’s first solo show titled Taking the Wheel, in which he debuted at 54 Below in New York.
He created a name for himself as a “cabaret star,” says Stephen Mosher, editor-in-chief of the online Broadway World Cabaret. Axelrod received the 2022 Bistro Award for Theatrical Artistry in Song. He was also named to the 2019 New York Jewish Week’s prestigious 36 Under 36 Award, which honors 36 noteworthy Jewish leaders, all 36 years old or younger, who make the world — and its many Jewish communities — better. And last November, he released his debut album, Ari Axelrod Live at Birdland (see sidebar).
At age 22, Axelrod moved to New York to pursue his career. He performed Off Broadway in Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey at the York Theatre Company, where he was asked to sing like a cantor and dance the hora. He also founded a master class series called “Bridging the Gap,” which focused on bridging the gap between musical theater and cabaret.
The idea to do “A Celebration of Jewish Broadway” was introduced by Marty Shichtman, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Eastern Michigan University.
“He suggested I speak about being an actor and a Jew,” Axelrod recalls. “He said to build the show about the Jewish influence in musical theater, and ‘come to Eastern Michigan and do it for us.’ I did it in October 2018 at EMU and brought the show to Birdland in January 2019. I have done it three times at Birdland and each time it has sold out. The last time Tovah Feldshuh joined me as a featured performer.”
Axelrod says doing his show is very rewarding. “Oftentimes, the audience will sing along with me, and after a performance, people will come up and tell me what the show and music meant to them. For some, the songs and stories transport them back in time — having seen those musicals in the past — or even reminding them of their Shabbat dinner table. It’s a very empowering feeling.”
Last November, Ari Axelrod released his debut album: Ari Axelrod Live at Birdland. It can be heard and downloaded on many streaming platforms, such as Spotify, Amazon Music, You Tube Music and iHeart. It can also be purchased. Some songs on the album are Over the Rainbow, Being Alive, My Funny Valentine and If I Were a Rich Man. For more information, go to ariaxelrod.com.
A Place for Us: A Celebration of Jewish Broadway: Monday, Jan. 30 at 8:30 p.m. at the Birdland Theater, 315 W. 44th St., New York City. For tickets, call (212) 581-3080. birdlandjazz.com. Axelrod will also be performing on March 1 and 2 at the Levis Jewish Community in Boca Raton, Florida. (561) 558-2520.