August 20, 2019

A Rebbetzin Steps Into the Spotlight With ‘Bronco Billy’

From left: Michelle Azar, Amanda Leigh Jerry, Pat Towne, Chris M. Kauffmann, Marc Cardiff. Photo by Ed Krieger

As an actress, Michelle Azar Aaron has starred as Bella in the 2009 La Mirada Theatre production of “Lost in Yonkers”; as Melinda in the 2015 Boston Court theater production of “My Barking Dog”; and has guest starred in television shows including “How to Get Away With Murder,” “The Magicians” and “Dig.”

She is married to Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron. But now, the rebbetzin — who goes by Michelle Azar when acting — has stepped into the musical spotlight in “Bronco Billy: The Musical,” now playing at Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz through July 21. 

“It is all so lovely and synergistic for me,” Azar said. “A return to my roots in musical theater but with a very current and present anchoring for my life as rebbetzin/community leader of sorts.” 

“Bronco Billy,” based on the 1980 Warner Bros. film starring Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke and written by Dennis E. Hackin is about trying to keep a traveling Wild West show alive. Hackin also wrote the book for the musical.

“I loved the material,” Azar said. “It’s all about misfits and elected family. How do people find their way into community? By coming together and deciding to stick it out even when things are hard or weird or uncomfortable.”

Azar plays Constance, who is “the head of the villains,” Azar said, adding that the role has drawn comparisons to other powerful, evil characters such as Cruella de Vil (“101 Dalmatians”).

“Good conquers evil and ex-cons become a group of stand-up citizens who take care of each other. It’s a really sweet and beautiful message,” she said. “You can decide whoever you want is your trusted family.”

“Good conquers evil and ex-cons become a group of standup citizens who take care of each other. It’s a really sweet and beautiful message.”

 — Michelle Azar Aaron

Many congregants from her temple family came to see the show, Azar said, adding that choreographer Janet Roston is a longtime Temple Emanuel member and Hackin was married at Temple Emanuel. The play’s sound designer, Daniel Tator, grew up at Emanuel where, as a child, he played in Aaron’s office. Tator also was the sound designer for Azar’s one-woman show “From Baghdad to Brooklyn,” which will play at the Skirball on November 10.

Azar and Aaron have been at Emanuel for 25 years, where Azar regularly has sung in the choir and in the synagogue. It “never felt like performing,” she said, “but the kernel of what that means to be the messenger of the voice of people’s experience is kind of home for me.”

Azar has had to step away from some temple involvements to leave services early on a Friday night to get to performances. She recalled a similar conflict when her first big television role had to film on Yom Kippur.

“I was really embarrassed by it,” she said. “But we’re serving the congregants in our community and deeply invested in that constant question of what it means to [also] be an artist and a plumber and a lawyer. When I slow down, I would like to be shomer Shabbat completely. In my heart of hearts, that’s where I lie. But that said, the modeling of the question of where do I fit within the structure and maintain a daily sense of self as a Jewish person and an artist … I never want to override one with the other. If I’m at the theater, I’m saying Shabbat prayers with my cohort.”

Azar also looks to prayer to help in challenging onstage moments. “I get scared before every single show and before I lose my nerve, I think about my grandmother, who was an actress in the Yiddish theater, and go into the Hebrew prayers.” She particularly connects to “Mah Tovu,” a morning prayer that praises the tents of the children of Israel.

“I like that prayer because it is a reminder that whatever ‘tent’ you find yourself standing in, in that very moment is the good tent,” she said. “Being backstage, cramped and strange, fun and scary, can be both a place of aversion and comfort, so that prayer just solidifies for me that maybe it is all good, all part of a bigger whole for me.”

“Bronco Billy: The Musical” runs through July 21 at Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., L.A., 90027. Information and reservations: (213) 761-7061 or (866) 811-4111. Online ticketing: SkylightTix.org