Coming from San Diego, California, Arianna ‘Ari’ Afsar is already making a name for herself. From Miss California, to a finalist in Miss America, and a contestant on American Idol, the talented singer/songwriter/actress is beginning another chapter of her life as she embarks on releasing her debut music and starring in the musical currently taking the world by storm.
Ari plays the role of Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler in the Chicago production of Hamilton: An American Musical. Originated by Ana Nogueira in the workshop and by Phillipa Soo in the broadway production, Ari booked the role early last year with the show opening in September currently planned for a sold-out run throughout the rest of the year.
With multiple performers also playing the role of Eliza including Ana, Phillipa, Lexi Lawson (on Broadway now), the swings, and understudies, according to Ari, crafting her own version of Eliza came not just from her, but from the creative team of Hamilton as well. Getting to rehearse in New York with director Tommy Kail, music director Alex Lacamoire, choreographer Andy Blankebueller, and creator/original Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the cast was encouraged by the creative team to be themselves in the roles. “Of course, I studied the Ron Chernow book of Hamilton, but the reality is the actual historical documentation on Eliza is sparse,” Ari explained how she took to creating her version of Eliza. Working off of what little information she could gather, Ari found herself also inspired by the way that Lin-Manuel and the rest of the creative team chose to handle the show, “There’s not a lot, just like every woman in the 18th century, there’s just not a lot of information. So I think what’s really cool about Hamilton, in general, is that yes we’re wearing the clothes of the 18th century, yes we’re talking about the history and facts of the 18th century but through the way that we look today, the way that we sound today, and the way that we act today.”
“There’s so much in the show there’s so much to pull from that we’re then able to extrapolate ourselves from that,” Ari followed up about if it was intimidating to play a historical figure that would most likely be introduced to audiences for the first time through this show. “One thing that was really cool about our creative team is that none of us were trying to be carbon copies of the original Broadway cast. We were supposed to be ourselves so with the information that we had historically of Eliza and that was given in the show, we’re then able to extrapolate off of that.”
As one of the main women in the show, Eliza’s story and the legacy she left gets told, especially in the final song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. “I don’t know if it necessarily feels like the society pressure, but Eliza was a badass She-ro of her time. She really was the epitome of female empowerment, especially in the 18th century, so that’s intimidating. Just the information that got about her and just how as women, she aspires us to be the best and the strongest versions of ourselves,” says Ari about portraying a complex character that young girls can see themselves in. “So that was intimidating. But, also at the same time, a true honor because I think we need more representation of these women historically in order to inspire young girls to be themselves.”
A showstopper of the show, “Burn”, centers on Eliza after Alexander releases “The Reynolds Pamphlet” revealing his affair. “For ‘Burn’ in particular, [I was] kind of going off the Ron Chernow book and of course there’s so much information that’s provided in the show itself and from our directors and everything like that,” Ari begins about how she approached the heartbreaking ballad as an actress. “I think what was the turning point for me was that in the six weeks of rehearsal that we had in New York, I kind of just pretended that I had a letter and then when I actually got to Chicago, I actually did it with the fire and that is the only fire that is inside the show. So, having the real fire and having that control and having it really depend on the winds, the extravagance of the burning of the letter changes every single day. Sometimes it burns out immediately when I put the letter to the flame so having that unexpectedness and having the heat and the smoke and all that really fuels the lyrics and the emotion behind, ‘Burn’.”
Of course, Beyonce’s Lemonade came out after Hamilton began its run on Broadway, but with both impacting pop culture in multiple ways and with Lin-Manuel taking inspiration from artists such as Beyonce to create Hamilton Ari and I also discussed which songs from the visual album the Schuyler Sisters and Maria Reynolds as played by Karen Olivo, Samantha Marie Ware, and Ari would resonate with. “Hands down, Angelica is ‘Formation’ because she is, you know, amazing. She has so much confidence and leadership characteristics and qualities,” Ari begins after a little reflection on the album. “I think Eliza, maybe, ‘Pray You Catch Me’, I think it definitely relates to ‘Burn’ but has that strong woman empowerment behind it of ‘regardless of what you did to me, I’m still who I am’. I’m in between for Peggy and Maria because they’re different characters. I feel like ’6 Inch’ is total Maria and then maybe ‘Daddy Lessons’ for Peggy,” she laughs.
With all of the praise Lin-Manuel has received for his lyricism and references peppered in throughout the musical, it’s no secret that part of the appeal of the show is in the way it carries deeper meanings that demand your attention. “I think there’s two in particular for me,” Ari says when asked if there was a reference or motif in Hamilton that she didn’t catch on the first listen but that playing Eliza helped with. First, is “That Would Be Enough” which is featured in multiple songs including its titular song in which it’s introduced, “Just that sentiment that those words, that phrase on its own could be a complete message that you can get from an entire show like that’s one act that can happen which is really cool.”
The second is the finale, “I also love ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’—which is kind of foreshadowed in ‘History Has Its Eyes On You’—which is the final song. The reality is, there are so many motifs even if it’s just simply or musically or melodically or lyrically. There’s so many that I’m always catching that I’m always finding when I’m backstage and listening to the show. Those are just two that come off to me at the top of my head. [But] it is so cool to even still be in the show like six months in and still be learning.”
Talking about getting into character each night, Ari explains that it’s with the help of the music that she’s able to do it, “I think right in the very beginning when you hear ‘BA BADAM BADAM BAM BAM’ like it’s just really exciting and we’re all backstage just super pumped and ready to go.” And with each character having their key moments in the show, it’s Act 2 for Ari where she works to stay most in character, “Basically from ‘Reynold’s Pamphlet’ to ‘Burn’ to ‘Blow Us All Away’ to ‘Stay Alive (Reprise)’ to ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’, I’m in character the entire time so I can’t really break at all backstage. I’m, like, solemn and to myself and not really interacting with anybody. Those are like the five songs that I have to really be listening and actively be thinking as Eliza on and off stage.”
Graduating from UCLA, Ari received a degree as a Jazz Vocal Major, a decision which took a little self-discovery before finding her grounding there. “I actually auditioned as a junior at UCLA for a musical theater program and I didn’t get in and I don’t take ‘no’ very well as an answer,” she laughed. “So I appealed and got in for musical theater.”
Originally applying to colleges for biology, Ari switched after her first quarter of musical theater and went to biology for two years, “Biology was what I was going to do because it was a subject I was good at and I enjoyed and I kind of always had my foot in my passion but I was always hesitant about it so when I realized I didn’t like the musical theater major at UCLA then I immediately switched to what I knew I would like, which was bio.”
“Then I started taking classes and I thought about ethnomusicology which is very specific to UCLA, it’s like ethnology and music so learning about cultures and music from around the world. Then there’s an emphasis which is jazz under the direction of Kenny Burrell who is, like, a world renowned famous legend at jazz. So, I heard about this and I started taking classes and I just felt at home,” Ari reflected on how she found her way there. “I felt like these were my people and these were the professors that I wanted to be working with. It just felt right and I hadn’t been feeling that way in biology or musical theater so I auditioned for the jazz program my freshman year when I was a bio major and I didn’t get in,” keeping her ‘not taking no for an answer’ attitude, she reauditioned for the program and got in.
“So it took all of those experiences, like if I had known from the very beginning as a senior in high school, maybe I would have worked harder. I could have done a lot of things that maybe would have started off my major as a jazz major,” she explains. “But, I think I needed to experience all of those things in order for me to truly appreciate the major that I ended up with.”
As a singer/songwriter, after working on it for the last couple of years, Ari is finishing up her (so far 5-track) debut EP, “I’ve been working on it for a long time and I’m really excited to finally be entering the ending part of my EP which is the mastering process. A couple of songs are getting remixed so it’s just really, really exciting.”
Her debut single, “Love You I Don’t” which released in October along with the music video at the surface focuses on a romance that’s going through the good, the bad, and the ugly. “‘Love You I Don’t’ in the simplest way is—and it’s kind of showcased throughout my EP—is like the highs and lows of love and I think that’s something that we all can relate to and that’s something I specifically can relate to,” Ari explained how she felt the song was a strong introduction to her as an artist.
“But, like I touched on before, I always had a complex on whether or not I truly believed in myself and if I was going to pursue my passion. I enjoyed other things, I enjoyed biology, all throughout college, I was doing marketing internships so I always kind of had one foot in the door and one foot out. Before I booked Hamilton, I kind of put it out into the universe that this was my last year to pursue this full time and then I was going to get a full-time job. Not that I would quit or anything like that, but I was really struggling with the instability. I mean, it’s just really hard, it’s so hard to make a living off of singing and acting and music and so I think in order to put this into music, like yes the highs and lows of love, but it’s also the highs and lows of loving yourself, too,” Ari described about the other aspect of the song.
“Before you can even love anyone else and before you can start thinking of anyone else, you have to love yourself. So that was always a complex and a struggle for me as I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with my life and how I was going to go about it was giving the opportunity and the chance to love myself,” she continued. “So I think that this song if you really dig down, that’s kind of like the core and the essence of it. In order to love someone else and the struggle of that, you are struggling with loving yourself.”
The concept of love is something Ari finds herself repeatedly going back to in her writing by exploring the different kinds of love and how to display it, “What I have been kind of recently writing, just like small little blurbs, is my response to what’s going on in the world is to project and portray love. So, I’ve been writing a lot of ‘love your brother and your sister, love the people that are around us, and find it in ourselves to love in order to see the change that we want to see’.”
Having a passion for songwriting, words could not express how appreciative Ari is regarding the positive feedback and fanart she has seen from listeners, “It’s always just a part of my everyday routine and having people like what I have to say, this is my voice and this is what I want to put out into the world and this is specifically and uniquely me. Having people hopefully be inspired by it and have a positive reaction like that, I can’t even, it’s everything.”
Now living in Chicago, Ari is still songwriting with a few adjustments. Collaborating being a key part, she looks to her Hamilton castmates and Skyping with the songwriters and producers she works with in LA as well as brainstorming and journaling for coming up with her ideas.
Receiving a warm welcome from the people of Chicago, albeit still adjusting to the cold, being a part of Hamilton and forming relationships with her castmates have all helped with inspiration for her writing. “The musical is different because it’s not classical musical theater so it’s pretty much like hip-hop/r&b and ballads so I think that has had an effect on my music as well. But, I think the way that I sing through writing my own music or through my pop experience has definitely reflected the way that I sing in Hamilton as well, for sure,” she explains about how working in musical theater has influenced her music and how her music influenced the way she approaches the part.
Closing out the interview, Ari offered advice for any artists out there that need it, “I think one of the biggest things like I’ve touched on and said, ‘don’t take no for an answer’. If this is something that you really want, hard work is number one. I think that luck is just opportunity and preparedness; you have to always be prepared and believe in yourself and I think also not getting too hard on yourself. If you are struggling and have the complex of it and are working through it, like know that that’s a part of your process and know that, that has to happen in order for you to get where you need to be in order for you to put the work that you need to put into.”
Hamilton: An American Musical is currently running in Chicago, Broadway with London and touring companies on the way. You can get tickets to see Ari in Hamilton here.
(photo cred: Joan Marcus)