January 4, 2007
Ricky Ashley comes of age—on stage and off
Here is a question for the rabbis: Can a teenager acting out a bar mitzvah on stage actually get credit for becoming a man? What if he has rehearsed for months? And what if he reads a real Haftorah?
Ricky Ashley, the 17-year-old who stars in the new musical "13," never had a bar mitzvah. He was too busy acting and never found time to prepare.
But now, Ashley is playing Evan Goldman, a 13-year-old who has his coming of age ceremony after moving to a new school in a new town, where the kids confuse "bar mitzvah" with "Bon Jovi."
On a recent evening, after three hours of school and five hours of rehearsal, Ashley trekked from the Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles Music Center to a smaller building across the street. In a brightly lit room at the Center Theatre Group's office, Ashley unloaded his heavy backpack filled with his script, score and advanced-placement textbooks.
With the energy and enthusiasm one would expect from a bright boy who had just applied to Harvard, Ashley talked about the musical, his accidental acting career and how he got picked on as a kid.
"In a lot of ways, I am Evan," said the boyish-looking Ashley.
Both the actor and the character are Jewish. Both grew up in New York. And both moved to an unfamiliar place. While Evan Goldman went to live in Indiana after his parents divorced, Ashley has been living in Los Angeles to rehearse and perform the show.
"Evan's got a taste for sarcasm, which I do, as well," Ashley added. And "he's struggling with his faith, which is something I've dealt with."
Ashley speaks freely, without hesitation. He looks straight into the listener's eye. But it was not always so. Ricky Ashley, born Ricky Schweitzer, was the shy child of his family. His older sister was the attention-grabber with her sights set on the spotlight. One day, when his sister went to meet an agent, Ashley, then about 8 years old, tagged along. The agent took one look at the boy and signed him immediately.
Two months later, Ashley landed a minor role in his first movie, "Loving Jezebel." The next month, he won a small part in another movie. Soon after, he arrived on Broadway, playing Chip, the teacup in "Beauty and the Beast."
Now, Ashley counts five Broadway shows, dozens of readings and several theater workshops among his professional achievements. He has also appeared in about 20 nonprofessional plays and musicals.
Ashley grew up in Westbury, "one of the poorer towns on Long Island," as he described it. Money was tight. His father, the son of Holocaust survivors, was (and still is) a bandleader who played bar mitzvahs and weddings for a living.
His mother was a lawyer. When arthritis debilitated her, Ashley said, he started taking on more responsibility at home, doing the laundry and cooking for the family.
It was not easy. The thing that carried him through, he said, was music. Ashley learned to play piano at age 5. Now, he considers himself a composer. Piano "has always been my saving grace," Ashley said. "When there's nobody there for me in the entire world, I will always have the piano."
Ashley is currently writing and composing a musical with a friend about a town in which the villagers are so desperate for food, they contemplate eating their own children.
He attends two schools in New York -- a public school for half the day and a theater school for the other half. He said he felt out of place at the public school, which is in a relatively wealthy district of Long Island. "It drives me crazy," he said of the materialism and shallowness of the high school scene.
The place where Ashley feels at home, where most of his friends are, is camp. Ashley points to his T-shirt, which reads "French Woods," the name of the performing arts camp in upstate New York where he has gone for nine summers.
There, he met his girlfriend. There, he studied theater. And there, he learned to swing and somersault from a trapeze, climb cargo nets and twirl fire. At camp, Ashley first auditioned for "13."
It was a couple of years ago, when Tony Award-winner Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music and lyrics for "13," was looking for actors for an initial reading. The musical was not yet complete; the reading was meant to test whether the project had the legs to move forward.
Brown, who had attended French Woods himself, gave Ashley the part. "Ricky is the kind of actor I love best," Brown said. "He's smart, he's intuitive, and he's deeply musical."
After the reading, Ashley kept in touch with Brown. Ashley heard that the show was moving forward, but he considered himself out-of-the-running for the role. First, at 17, Ashley figured he was probably too old to play a 13-year-old. Second, Ashley presumed that Brown would find a cast in Los Angeles.
When he learned that Brown and his partners were broadening their search to New York, he could hardly believe it. Ashley signed up to audition.
"We were all surprised to see his name on the list, because he's too old for the part," said Dan Elish, who wrote the show's script.
Little did Elish and his partners suspect that the rosy-cheeked 15-year-old who had read the part a couple of years ago had maintained his youthful looks. "After I said hello to him in the waiting room," Elish said, "I went bounding into the audition space and told Jason, 'Ricky's here, and he doesn't look too old!'"
Ashley got the part, his biggest role yet.
"He is a perfect fit for Evan," said Todd Graff, the show's director. Both actor and character exhibit an "old-soul quality," Graff said.
Ashley agreed with Graff's characterization. "I've been told all my life I'm an old soul," said the young actor.
Still, Ashley sees at least one major way in which he differs from the character he plays.
Unlike Goldman, Ashley will not do whatever it takes to fit in. Ashley said he was picked on, perhaps more than other kids. He was teased for being short.
(Now, he stands 5-foot-6, but he used to be smaller.) Bullies called him "gay" for participating in theater. But Ashley tried not to let the barbs sting.
"Everyone cares what people say to them," Ashley said. But "being my own person is more important than being someone everybody else accepts."