If you’ve ever hung out in the corners of the internet where you find things like YouTube channels devoted to analyzing which Broadway diva sang the best iteration of a given song’s riff — think “Touch meeeEEEeeeEEE, it’s so EASYYYYY to LEAAAAVE MEEEEEEE” from “Memory” in Cats — you’ve probably already seen this clip. If you have not, allow me to introduce you to a short video of Ariana Notartomaso, playing the role of Cathy in a college production of The Last Five Years. The video itself is a few years old, but it got a new life this week when actor Larry Owens shared it on Twitter for reasons that will soon become … obvious.
The bit here, if you’re not familiar with the 2001 Jason Robert Brown musical (which later was adapted into a pretty meh movie starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick), is that Cathy is slogging through life as an aspiring actress. She’s singing about the audition process, spending her days in rooms with 199 other girls who are all belting, at gay men, at the top of their ranges. Usually, at least if you’re Kendrick or Sherie Rene Scott, the belt in question is a single, sustained note. Notartomaso’s version puts them to shame. Vulture caught up with the very booked and busy 21-year-old, who is currently a senior at Penn State, via Instagram DM.
Hi! What are you rehearsing for right now?
I’m actually working on two new musicals right now, a production of The Lucky Boy, by Kirstin Childs, and a reading of Dust & Embers, by Sam Salmond. Both of these pieces are part of the New Musicals Initiative at Penn State, led by John Simpkins, who’s the director of the musical-theater program as well as the director of these two musicals. Each year, Penn State Musical Theatre commissions new writers to draft a musical inspired by the junior MT class to work on in its early stages their senior year. The Lucky Boy was last year’s commission piece that’s being produced as a main stage this year. Sam’s piece, Dust & Embers, is the piece my class of current MT seniors are working on. We just performed a concert version of Dust & Embers at 54 Below, too, which was one of the best nights of my life.
Okay, so let’s talk about THAT clip.
Sorry it’s taking so long to respond, I’m in rehearsal I’ll message you back on the break!
Ha, no worries. [Several hours elapse.]
In November of 2018, I was in a production of The Last Five Years at Penn State, directed by Wes Drummond and music directed by Jordon Cunningham. The show was an assignment for Wes’s grad directing program, and he put as much love into this show as he would in a production with millions of dollars behind it, which is a testament to his professionalism and general awesomeness. Everyone involved in the production was a student, we put the show together in three weeks, and performed three shows for our teachers, peers, and friends. It was really just a group of people I love telling a story we loved for people we loved.
Was the option up your idea?
The sarcastic opt up, yes, but the grunt right after was a Wes moment.
I remember it being really late, and we were just goofing off in rehearsal running the number a bunch of times to see what we found, and I decided I’d make a bold choice that felt like Cathy in that moment, and Wes goes, “That’s epic, but it would be funnier if Cathy was over it immediately after,” and thus the opt up and grunt was born. Jordon okayed it, and it was in the show.
And thus a star was born. What was the reaction like in the room when you performed it?
It was the kind of reaction you’d expect when everyone’s a little drunk at a party and you land a real stinger of a joke. We all lost our minds a little and laughed about it. And Wes apparently liked it enough to record part of the song during our dress rehearsal and post it on Facebook.
Is that how it ended up on Twitter?
Sort of, yeah! What’s super-crazy is Wes posted a minute of the song on Facebook and it had some buzz. It’s resurfaced a year later on Twitter, which is an app I use maybe three times a year. On Tuesday, I got a text from my friend Lena Skeele, whose dress I’m wearing in this video funnily enough, saying that Larry Owens, who played Usher in A Strange Loop, and who I think has a mutual friend with Wes, posted a clip of it on Twitter and people were really liking it.
Going viral can be a weird and unique experience. What has it been like for you?
So I’m grateful a lot of the time for the internet, like when I need to know what’s happening in politics or want to have a conversation with someone
I love that’s far away from me. And other times it feel like the internet is this super-volatile space where anonymity brings out the cruelest versions of people, so I was expecting inner grade-school bullies to visit the comments to criticize or make fun of me and that’s not at all what happened! People
I look up to in the theater community have been really kind, I’ve gotten hundreds of really really sweet messages from people I’ve never met, and my friends/peers have been super-supportive and lifted me up.
I’m curious if you have a dream role?
Oh gosh, there’s so much good theater out there it’s impossible to choose! I’d love to play Eurydice in Hadestown, I’m a huge Anaïs Mitchell and Eva Noblezada fan. I’d lose a limb to be in anything Dave Malloy has ever written — he’s one of my favorite musical-theater writers. (Octet is a masterpiece.) I just saw Jagged Little Pill last week and fell in love with Jo, played by Lauren Patten. I don’t know who the best theater riffer is, but Lauren Patten wins every vocal award in my book.
I interviewed Lauren to her last month, and I’m inclined to agree. So just how high are you belting in the clip?
You’re gonna have to give me a minute; I have to find a piano to check. It’s a G5, I think. A note that can only come out of my mouth because of Gwen Walker, my voice teacher. She is the bread to my voice’s butter, and this video wouldn’t exist without the hours she’s spent with me in the voice studio for the past three years. She’s a literal miracle worker.