Ari Notartomaso on “Rise of the Pink Ladies,” Stage Kisses, and This Week’s Gay Episode

This week’s episode of Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies combined three mainstays of queerness: Halloween, theatre kids, and first kisses. The song “Merely Players” finds reluctant theatre kid Cynthia practicing a kiss with serious theatre kid Lydia. All alone at a Halloween party, they enemies to lovers their way to a musical montage of Hollywood iconography. But as the song says, “Hollywood has no idea.”

When I was a kid, I knew I couldn’t express my desire to be a girl. But I could express my desire to be a T-Bird. Like many little lesbians, Grease’s over-the-top gender performances and really cool jackets resonated with something deep within me. That’s why it’s so exciting to see a character like Cynthia put the T in T-Bird and queer the Pink “Ladies.”

Cynthia is played by Ari Notartomaso, who injects Cynthia with goofiness and a deep well of feeling. Whether performing this love duet or the “Grease Lightning”-inspired “New Cool,” Ari’s stellar voice gives Cynthia the emotional range 1950s society would rather squash.

I talked to Ari about queer history, their own first stage kiss, and this week’s very gay episode.

Drew: I want to start by asking, what’s your personal connection to Grease?

Ari: (laughs) It’s funny, because I never really remember having watched Grease. But it must have been in the water, because growing up I did know all the lyrics to all the songs.

Drew: Were you a musical person in general?

Ari: Oh yeah. I’ve been in musicals since I was six, and I went to college for musical theatre.

Drew: Six! As a teenager, were you similar to Cynthia?

Ari: Cynthia is very begrudgingly a theatre kid. I was not. I was very enthusiastic about being a theatre kid.

Drew: (laughs)

Ari: People used to say that I was a bit more chill than a normal theatre kid. I would say I was just socially anxious. But people said I was chill, and I felt good about that, proud to not be a loud theatre kid. But… I am! That is who I really am and I think that’s true of Cynthia, too. For both of us, theatre acts as a refuge. Being able to play a character and explore gender and sexuality and what it might feel like to be a different person. And for me, my theatre friends were who I could talk to about sexuality and gender.

Drew: Were there characters that felt like oh that is my gender?

Ari: Ooooo. You know, I think Peter Pan was the first time that I was like that. When I was little, I loved the live action Peter Pan movie. I remember being drawn to this small blonde person who is sort of outside the toxic masculinity expectations of a human being. I very heavily identified with that. And also, he loves Wendy. So that was another part of it. And when I was like, “I want to play Peter Pan!” no one batted an eye. They were like that’s a totally normal thing for a small blonde musical theatre girl to say. But secretly, I was a transmasc nonbinary lesbian wanting to play Peter Pan for a different set of reasons.

Drew: What was the audition process like for Rise of the Pink Ladies?

Ari: It started off pretty normal for most auditions during the pandemic. I graduated in the year of our lord 2020.

Drew: Oh God.

Ari: Yeah, so I was used to self-taping. But I was doing a reading out in New Jersey and I didn’t have a reader, so I sent in a self-tape where I just left space for the scene partner that didn’t exist and then later voice-overed the other lines into the tape. Then I forgot about it for a few weeks until I got a call from my agent telling me they wanted to see me for a callback. We had another set of a few callbacks and did a bunch of songs that our songwriter Justin Tranter and their team had written. The entire process was over Zoom. And then we left to film in Vancouver like a month and a half after we found out we got it.

Drew: When you send in tapes, you’re able to just not think about it? You’re able to let go in that way?

Ari: Ideally.

Drew: (laughs)

Ari: I would say most of the time. Most of the time, when I get an audition, I’ll find a way to connect with the character and then try to just love doing the self-tape. I’ve gotten better at that over the past few years. Initially, when I didn’t get something, I’d be heartbroken. There have definitely been a few times when I really identified with the character and it felt really special to me, and when I didn’t get the role I felt devastated. But most of the time it’s just like, oh it would be cool if I booked that, it would be really fun, and then I just try to forget about it and have a life outside of my work.

Drew: That is really impressive.

Once you booked the role, did you do research about queer people from the time period?

Ari: Yeah! I had a few conversations with folks who were teenagers in the 1950s.

Drew: Oh wow!

Ari: It was really enlightening to me. Because growing up I didn’t have much access to anyone that age who was queer. My dad is gay, and I did know a couple of lesbians, but when I was young I didn’t have a connection to anyone over the age of about 40. Like I didn’t know anyone older than my parents who was queer. So I had to do some digging, ask around. Our showrunner Annabel Oakes put me in touch with somebody. And the conversations I had were honestly really surprising. There were people who had relationships, had girlfriends, in high school. Then, of course, some people didn’t know until much later in life. There was a widespread range of experiences.

For both of us, theatre acts as a refuge. Being able to play a character and explore gender and sexuality and what it might feel like to be a different person. And for me, my theatre friends were who I could talk to about sexuality and gender.

Drew: I do think there’s a temptation sometimes to view our history in a way that’s linear. To view queer life before the last couple decades only as torture. And so much of that is because of the stories that were allowed to be told in the mainstream about queer people. It’s interesting to hear you were able to talk to people with more varied experiences.

Ari: One of the women told me that she feels bad for me and a lot of other young people now who grow up with a lot of explicit messaging that being gay is bad and against God. Especially with the internet, it’s really hard to not know that people hate us and want us to not exist. But for her, there wasn’t any context at all, positive or negative. There was just a feeling that it was something that couldn’t be shared, but not something that was necessarily evil or shameful. That wasn’t everyone’s experience, of course, but I did find that really interesting.

Drew: Yeah that really highlights the complexities of visibility.

Do you mind talking about your dad being gay and how that impacted your experience?

Ari: (laughs) Yeah! My dad is the best dad ever. I feel like I can say that with no reservations. I have the best dad in the world. My mom and him were together for decades, had me, and then got a divorce within six years. Pretty immediately after that, he came out. When I was eight years old, with pretty much no concept of sexuality, I didn’t really understand what that meant. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was like, “Oh my dad is gay in that way! That’s what that means!”

It took a long time for me to come out to him. I knew that I was queer, I knew that I was gay, I knew we were the same in that way, so if I told him he’d be really supportive and understanding and validate how I was feeling. And that was the last thing I wanted! So it actually took me a long time to share that with him. I wish I had earlier, because now my dad and I are super close and it’s amazing to be able to connect with a parent in that way.

Drew: Wait, why would that validation be the last thing you wanted?

Ari: Because then it would be real!

Drew: Ohhh gotcha, okay that makes sense.

Ari: It’s sad! I mean, I grew up Roman Catholic. I had a lot of shame about my sexuality and felt like it was something to be hidden and forced out of me. I knew that if I told my dad he’d be supportive and love me and I wanted to tell him obviously. But I just wasn’t ready to come out to myself until college which was when I told him. And he was very supportive and loving and amazing about it.

Drew: It’s interesting how even if you have supportive parents or even if you have a gay parent, we still live in the society that we live in.

Ari: Exactly.

Drew: Even though in contemporary language Cynthia is probably also nonbinary, were there challenges in playing a character who is referred to as a girl?

Ari: Yeah, it was definitely challenging. I’m very grateful for the creative team. A number of them are queer, and all of them are really respectful and have done a lot to make sure that there’s a distinction between Cynthia and the other Pink Ladies being girls and me being nonbinary and not a girl. One of the things that was started on set — and actually I think was started by the other Pink Ladies — was that instead of referring to us as the Pink Ladies, we started calling ourselves the Pinks. It was really sweet to know people cared enough to change language on-set in order to make me feel more comfortable. You know, it was challenging when people would come in on the crew and didn’t know. I was definitely misgendered a lot. But having the solidarity there with my coworkers made it a lot less difficult.

Drew: Yeah. I actually know Annabel and love Annabel.

Ari: Oh my God!

Drew: I worked for her on The Edge of Seventeen pilot that she wrote and directed and before that on her website I Heart Female Directors. I adore her. She’s been one of the most supportive people in the industry to me. I think of her as a mentor. And after The Edge of Seventeen wrapped, she took me out to dinner to ask what the experience was like for me on-set. As you were just saying, there are so many people on-set and people’s familiarity with gender and queerness varies. Misgendering is just going to be a part of it. But it was really meaningful to have Annabel ask me what the experience was like and how things could be done better. Just to care enough to check in. Some of it is an inevitability no matter how much the people in charge want to create a good space. There are going to be challenges. But, like with trans life in general, just because these things are inevitable that doesn’t mean they’re easy.

Ari: Totally.

Drew: But I’m glad to hear that there were steps taken to make it a little better.

Ari: I love that you know and love Annabel as much as I do, because she’s so spectacular. You’re right about the inevitability of these challenges as a trans person and a queer person. It continues to suck, and there’s not enough understanding and empathy around that. But what’s great about people like Annabel and other creatives on the show and people who make the world a little bit better is that just because it’s inevitable doesn’t mean they won’t try to make something different. It’s really great when people respond to the inevitability by trying to alleviate at least some of the heartache.

Drew: Yeah it makes a huge difference.

I want to walk through the entire process of filming a couple of these musical numbers, beginning to end. Let’s start with “New Cool.”

Ari: Okay! So we always start by getting a demo that they record in the studio. Then we worked on the dance with Jamal [Jamal Sims, the choreographer] using that demo. After that, we recorded the song in the studio. And then we waited a long time and had a few more rehearsals before filming it. But with other songs, there were times when we’d record a song and just have one or two dance rehearsals all within a couple days before shooting the actual number.

Drew: Oh wow! I guess it makes sense that the songs that were in the pilot had the most prep. And then as the weeks and months of shooting went along the process sped up. Was that how it was for the number from this week? “Merely Players.”

Ari: It was very compressed. We got the song like a week and half in advance, and then a couple days after that I recorded my part and then Niamh [Niamh Wilson who plays Lydia] recorded her part. But we were really busy working on “Pointing Fingers” for episode four, because it’s a group number. So at the end of one of those rehearsals, the Friday before we shot the song on Monday, Niamh and I stayed after and learned the entire dance that evening. We had one more rehearsal the next day where we worked on it with Jennifer Morrison, the director, for maybe 30, 40 minutes to figure out the shots and stuff. And then we literally just did it. It was so quick. But it was very fun. I think that’s where my Penn State musical theatre training really helped.

Drew: It’s so great. Hit me in all the gay musical theatre feelings.

Ari: Aw I’m so glad.

One of the things that was started on set — and actually I think was started by the other Pink Ladies — was that instead of referring to us as the Pink Ladies, we started calling ourselves the Pinks. It was really sweet to know people cared enough to change language on-set in order to make me feel more comfortable.

Drew: And I loved that the different costume changes played with expectations. I think the more obvious approach would’ve been to place you in clear masculine/feminine roles within Hollywood archetypes, but it ends up being more playful than that.

Ari: The costume department was so great. Something I really appreciated is they made sure that I would always have a binder and a sports bra in my trailer so on the day, however I was feeling, I could make that choice privately. And then for this number, we had a lot of explicit conversations about what we felt comfortable with and what we wanted to play around with.

Of course, 1950s lesbian culture had a lot of the butch/femme dynamic, and I love that we get to explore that with Cynthia and Lydia. But I also really loved that in this number when we’re in musical and film mode that there’s a little bit more play. It was so much fun.

Drew: I love to hear that about the costuming department because costuming is something else that can be really fraught for trans actors and queer actors in general.

Ari: Totally.

Drew: I think they did such a good job with Cynthia, finding the balance between having her in clothes she’d have to wear but in a way that feels true to her. It never feels like she’s femmed up.

Ari: Yeah! We made a closet for Cynthia of all the different clothes she would have. And as we went on, we decided that she has to wear skirts for school but as soon as she leaves school she’s putting on pants. As soon as there’s not a dress code, she’s changing. And then we had conversations about how Cynthia would wear her wardrobe. Would she button this? Would she tuck in that? Would she wear a t-shirt underneath the button-up? That was something that felt very Cynthia and also very me.

Usually with costuming, I’m a little like whatever. I’ll just give up. But then with this show, they put so much effort into having conversations with all of us about how we felt comfortable and what our characters would wear.

Drew: You brought up butch/femme dynamics in lesbian culture at the time. Before doing prep for the show, was queer history something that was important to you?

Ari: Yeah, I mean, I came out as bi in high school, and I didn’t really know there was any kind of expression I could have beyond being a cis woman. I didn’t realize there were any options for me. So I was like obviously I’m femme because that’s the gender identity that was forced on me since I was born. Then when I got to musical theatre school, I think they did a pretty good job of telling us we didn’t have to wear jewel-toned dresses in order to get jobs. But I always found I got the most reception whenever I performed cis womanhood. I’d get the most roles that way, and people would tell me I would be successful more when I presented that way.

It wasn’t until the pandemic when everything was stopped. I mean, I’d been performing almost every single day since I was six years old. I was constantly in production after production. Then the pandemic happened, and I didn’t have anyone to perform for. I wasn’t on stage. I didn’t have anyone around me except for my dad, who I knew would accept and love me no matter what. And that’s when I started exploring my own butchness and gender fluidity. I also had a girlfriend during the pandemic who was super femme, and so that butch/femme dynamic came about sort of naturally, and that’s when I started learning about the history surrounding it. But then my current partner who I’ve been with for two years is also butch, so now there’s the butch4butch dynamic in our relationship that I love so much. But the butch/femme dynamic and the exploration of gender identity within lesbianism was something that was so freeing for me coming out and still continues to be. And I know that’s true for a lot of people, including some of the people I talked to, and probably including Cynthia and Lydia.

Drew: It’s something I care a lot about, because I think sometimes contemporary conversations can be attached to a limited idea of what certain labels mean. And I love the fact that lesbian history has always encompassed lots of different genders and lots of different sexualities and that it’s never meant cis women who only love cis women. That’s such a narrow view of lesbianism and the history of lesbianism.

Ari: Yes! Totally! It’s so varied. And honestly, that’s why I’m not very precious about people interpreting Cynthia’s experience of gender loosely. Especially since Cynthia doesn’t have as many labels to identify herself with in the 1950s and also because Cynthia does not exist in real life and is not a real human being—

Drew: (laughs)

Ari: (laughs) I’m so happy when I see online that queer people are interpreting Cynthia’s gender in different ways. There are some people who see Cynthia’s experience as a trans man and others who see her as a cis butch lesbian and others who see her as a gender-nonconforming super fluid person. And I love that about Cynthia. The 1950s were obviously really painful for basically every single human being but at least in the context of the show there’s a bit more openness so people can identify with this character and put their own labels onto Cynthia.

Drew: The last thing I’m going to ask you about because of the context of “Merely Players” is what was your first stage kiss like? And what was your first gay stage kiss like?

Ari: Oh my God! This is so funny. Like me personally?

Drew: Yeah!

Ari: My first stage kiss was with the boy who became my first boyfriend. Who I was with for FIVE YEARS. We were together all through high school and into college. He was my best friend, and I really don’t regret that relationship. I’m gay, obviously, so there was a lot missing, but he’s a very nice person.

But it’s weird! My first kiss was in a rehearsal room in front of people. It’s like really weird to have that public experience. Obviously for Cynthia it’s a more private moment which is good.

Drew: Wait, what was the show?

Ari: Oh! It was A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.

Drew: Incredible.

Ari: I played Philia, the little, happy innocent one. That was my first big role too. As a 12 year old.

Drew: You were 12!

Ari: I was 12.

Drew: Okay and then what was your first gay stage kiss?

Ari: Well, I played Drood in college. That character is a man but it was an explicitly lesbian dynamic on stage. And then my first real gay kiss was January 1, 2020. As the ball dropped some girl came up to me and was like, “You’re super cute. Can I kiss you?” and I was like, “Please!”

Drew: (laughs) You’re like, “Yes, let’s go into this new year!”

Ari: (laughs) Exactly! A perfect way to start the year! Everything is going to be great in 2020! Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

Drew: No, but that is a great first gay kiss. A New Year’s kiss? That’s some movie magic, that’s some Rise of the Pink Ladies magic.

Ari: It really was. And then, in classic lesbian fashion, that person disappeared and I have not spoken to them since. But there was this other girl who I’d been on a date with a few weeks earlier. I walked into a gay bar later in the evening — as you do — and I saw her there. And that was the first time I ever hooked up with a woman.

Drew: Wow.

Ari: It was a very lovely way to begin the new year. Then later that year I came out fully. And that was just the beginning.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 512 articles for us.


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