Rising cabaret star Ari Axelrod brings ‘Jewish Broadway’ to NJT


Judith Newmark, Special to the Jewish Light

In the opening moments of “West Side Story,” a whistle pierces the theater. Maybe you think — or somehow just know — that it sounds familiar: “Da-daaa-DAH!”


Oh. Of course.

When composer Leonard Bernstein wanted the members of the Jets gang to signal each other with unmistakable urgency, he looked to his own culture to find the perfect sound. He simply changed it from a shofar to a whistle.


“I love that,” cabaret artist Ari Axelrod says. “We bring the synagogue and the tradition with us wherever we go.”

Axelrod features the Jets’ whistle — plus “Miracle of Miracles” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Shalom” from the now neglected “Milk and Honey” plus much, much more — in his cabaret show, “Jewish Broadway.”

A sellout in cities around the country, it plays here Oct. 16 and 17, presented by the New Jewish Theatre.

Naturally, Axelrod loves “Fiddler,” particularly the “overwhelming” Yiddish-language Folksbiene production that Joel Grey directed in 2018. Axelrod considers its star, Steven Skybell, “the ultimate Tevye” for our times.

“But there’s so much more than that,” he said. “I want to highlight things that people don’t know about, or songs they don’t know have their roots on the bimah.”

Axelrod, a 2016 graduate of Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts who lives in Manhattan, said: “I have always been very outspoken in my Jewish identity and in my love of musical theater. And musical theater is a Jewish legacy. I’m sort of obsessed with it.”

He came to that obsession in his teens. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., Axelrod received a strong Jewish education at a Conservative day school. But by his senior year in high school, he cut class a lot. He preferred to drive around in his car, which had a great sound system, playing the Broadway channels on SiriusXM satellite radio.

Listening, he says, was an education in itself.

As he augmented that with reading Broadway history, he grew to know the material so well that in the first quarter of his freshman year, a professor one day left a note on the board: “I have a dental appointment. Today, Ari will teach musical theater history.” And he did.

In St. Louis — familiar from stories his late grandfather, Leslie Axelrod, told about growing up in University City — he found a home away from home at Congregation B’nai Amoona. He also made some good friends, among them Edward Coffield, who at that time was production manager at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Today, he’s artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre and still on Webster faculty.

“Eddie was a faculty member, but he was more my friend than anything else,” said Axelrod, who has accepted invitations to return to the Conservatory to teach master classes in cabaret. “We had long, great dinners. He always made sure I had someplace to go for the holidays. I even did his production of ‘Oliver!’ at Insight. We go way back.”

The fondness is mutual.

“I have known Ari since he was 18 years old, and I have watched him mature into a seasoned professional,” Coffield said. “And for as long as I have known him, he has embraced his work as an actor and performer as strongly as he embraces his Judaism. His heart is as big as his mind.”

During the years between graduation and the NJT show, a period that includes the long curtain on theater everywhere because of the pandemic, Axelrod kept pretty busy. He appeared in musicals, earning his Actors Equity card, in a revival of “Milk and Honey”; he presented cabaret shows from New York to Chicago to Boca Raton.

And he picked up accolades. Jewish Week, a digital news service in New York, named him one of its “36 under 36” to watch in 2021. And Steven Mosher, editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld Cabaret online, observed in a review that “nobody can do with a lyric what Ari Axelrod can do.”

Much of the praise came in response to “Jewish Broadway,” not bad for a show that grew out of a casual conversation between Axelrod and a friend.

The friend was Marty Shichtman, director of Jewish Studies at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. One long night in 2018 when Axelrod told Shichtman about the Jets whistle (and who can remember what else), the professor said maybe that should be the basis of a show.

“Who would come to that?” Axelrod remembers scoffing. “It’s so dry! So academic!”

Then, the very next day, he learned that Birdland, a celebrated New York club, was interested in booking a show from him. The catch? It had to be new material, nothing he’d performed elsewhere.

Axelrod had an idea. How about a cabaret show stretching from Irving Berlin to Carole King, a show that would demonstrate how “Jewish resilience, one of the most beautiful things in the world,” flourished in creating an authentic American art form?

It turns out that a lot of people want to see that.

Jewish Broadway’

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 and 2 p.m. Oct. 17

Where: J’s Wool Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

How much: $45-$70

More info: 314-442-3283.