Ariza, 25, is a swing actor, also known as an understudy for several roles, for the Deaf West Theatre’s production of the rock musical, which features actors performing in English and ASL. The musical, adapted from a German play of the same name, follows the lives of 12 young people as they navigate the intricacies of teenage sexuality.
Ariza, who attended famed performing arts school LaGuardia Arts High School, grew up wanting to be a pop singer. He didn’t know what musical theater was until his parents told him about the teen drama camp at Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill. The then-14-year-old acted in a production of “Footloose” and though he enjoyed the experience, he wasn’t hooked.
“I had a great time that summer doing ‘Footloose’ but I never really thought that it could be a viable career,” Ariza said.
That all changed after he saw his fellow classmates at LaGuardia High School perform “West Side Story.”
“I remember that was the moment that I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Ariza said.
He quickly racked up experience by scoring parts in “Ragtime,” “Hair” and “City of Angels” at school, and he also performed outside of school in productions of “West Side Story” and “Bye Bye Birdy.” Ariza then attended the University of Michigan, where he played Hanschen in a production of “Spring Awakening,” and graduated with a degree in musical theater.
Before auditioning for the Broadway production of “Spring Awakening,” Ariza was coincidentally performing in a production of the play at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca as the lead, Melchior. The director for the musical urged him to try out for a swing part in the Broadway production. Memorizing the lines was a breeze for Ariza but incorporating American Sign Language was “quite a challenge.”
For a callback, Ariza had to attend a 2-hour ASL session where he was taught how to sign while acting and signing. He had to show off his new skills to director Michael Arden and Steven Sater, who did the original book and lyrics for the musical.
Currently in the third week of rehearsal, Ariza said the rehearsal process has been a “whirlwind” as he prepares for the roles of Melchoir, Hanschen, Georg and Otto. Though the process has been challenging, Ariza said the actors, who performed the musical in a run in Los Angeles, have been welcoming and fun to work with.
“I have to say [my favorite part of this is] learning sign language and getting to know these deaf actors,” Ariza said. “I have so much respect for what they do, for not being able to hear and still being able to pursue their dreams and be in a Broadway musical, I mean that’s huge.”
Previews begin on Sept. 8 and the musical premieres on Sept. 27 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through Jan. 9.