Broadway Books First Class
Robert Ariza visited with the first graders via Zoom on February 24, 2021
Robert Ariza has a beautiful voice. He appears comfortable singing in any musical style; from the smooth, dulcet tones of Sky Masterson in GUYS AND DOLLS (think Frank Sinatra or Harry Connick Jr.) to the swift, rapping wordplay of the titular character in HAMILTON. In fact, he's played both roles - the former in concert with the Billings Symphony Orchestra and the latter at Chicago's famed CIBC Theatre - since making his Broadway debut in 2015 with Deaf West's revival of SPRING AWAKENING.
However, I first saw him perform in the Off Off Broadway production of Charles Mee Jr.'s SOOT AND SPIT. The play, directed by Kim Weild, tells the story of James Castle. James created art - using the tools mentioned in the show's title - as a means of self-expression. As an deaf man with autism in the early 1900s, he lived a life of isolation without access to spoken or signed language. Art was his language. In SOOT AND SPIT, his art comes to life to tell his story. It was a fascinating theatrical experience made even stronger when Robert Ariza sang a show-stopping duet accompanied by his own guitar playing. It was gorgeous. A fan was born!
I met him after the show and asked if he might be interested in being a guest artist with Broadway Books First Class. He was, but shortly afterwards he left to join the National Tour of LES MISERABLES. That was soon followed by a year-long gig in Chicago with HAMILTON. Then, the pandemic caused my program to halt for a year delaying his visit even further.
It took four years, but we finally worked it out! Robert's visit happened to coincide with our 100th Day of School. This milestone in a school year has become a time of celebration and a guest artist visit is certainly a great way to honor the day.
This has been a year of change and upheaval, so when he visited via Zoom, we had some students participating from home and others joining from the classroom. The experience isn't the same as a face-to-face, in-person visit, but the value isn't lost.
For his read aloud, we chose the book THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! by Mo Willems. It is a story with an unexpected twist at the end, which only very savvy readers will see coming. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I sent Robert a copy of the book beforehand (signed by the class), along with stickers for him to sign and mail back to me. On the stickers, Robert wrote a "hello" to each student along with his autograph. After the visit, each student received their own copy of the book with the personalized sticker on the inside cover.
As you can see in the video, Robert's reading included fun voice characterizations of the hungry fox, the mama goose, and the portentous foreboding of her little ones. There was also a nice ASL interpretation from my friend and coworker, Cheritha.
The reading was followed, as always, with a question-and-answer session. This was based on the work I had done with the students in the weeks leading up to Robert's visit. During that time, we talked about his background and his performances. We learned a lot from his answers to our questions, which were...
1. Is it hard when somebody is sick and you have to do their performance? (This was based on his job as a swing in SPRING AWAKENING. He also learned ASL for this show!)
2. Do you have any ideas for other shows? (Robert writes music and composes, which sparked this question.)
3. What's your favorite show and why? (This was one we kept coming back to in our visit. INTO THE WOODS is one of Robert's favorite shows, but pinning it down to a favorite role he's played is more difficult. He's performed some treasures from Marius in LES MISERABLES to Alexander Hamilton in HAMILTON.)
We wrapped up the Q&A with a song. Robert played and sang BLACKBIRD by The Beatles for us. It's exciting to see what the future has in store for the generous performers who visit with us. I KNOW Robert's future is bright. We all look forward to welcoming him back again one of these days, but next time in person. He may just have his Tony Award by then - I wouldn't be at all surprised.