Musical theatre major finds second love as Annie Up frontwoman


Easton Thompson

Senior musical theatre student, Ari Chandler, sings with the band Annie Up on Sept. 11 at Wave. The group already has shows booked throughout the rest of 2019.

Ari Chandler lives a double life. By day, she attends class and works a retail job like a typical college student. But by night, she’s performing in front of sold-out crowds with some of the most acclaimed musicians in Wichita.

Chandler’s love for performance began with VHS cassettes and the guidance of her grandmother, she said.

“I started singing with my Nana at church when I was really little,” Chandler said. “I really put it back to her for starting that love of music and performing.”

Through involvement with her community theatre, worship team, tap dancing classes, and show choir, Chandler’s repertoire grew to be all-inclusive. Soon enough, she would land her first roles as the Queen of Hearts in her elementary school’s rendition of “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” and Lola in her high school’s performance of “Damn Yankees.”

“I just fell in love with it,” she said.

Chandler bursts into giggles when asked how she balances school and work. As a senior studying musical theatre with two jobs outside of school, “balance” isn’t commonplace in her life, she said.

Currently, Chandler is finishing up her last few classes before graduation. She works at Clifton Collective, sings in the worship band of her church every week, and has a continuous gig as a lead singer for Annie Up — a role she never even auditioned for.

When Chandler joined Annie Up a year and a half ago, the band was in a bind. One of their singers had just left and they needed to fill the spot — fast. One of Chandler’s friends recommended her for the role and she was instantly booked. The first time Annie Up’s manager heard Chandler sing was at her first show, after he already hired her.

Joining Annie Up presented some challenges for Chandler, who was the youngest band member by 10 years. Most of the other members are over 30 and in radically different phases of their lives than her. Chandler, the only student, had to deal with the added difficulty of working around her classes and theatrical commitments.

“I couldn’t just drop everything,” she said.

Coming from a performance background, Chandler said she assumed memorizing the material for Annie Up was going to be a piece of cake. She was wrong.

“It was also a totally different experience. I don’t know why memorizing 30 popular songs was so hard for me,” Chandler said. “Lyrically, I thought I was going to go insane.”

In addition to the challenges of memorizing the material, Chandler felt a tidal wave of performance anxiety she hadn’t experienced in years.

“I don’t normally get nervous when performing,” she said. “The whole dynamic of the show was different. I was so nervous I was going to forget lyrics and look like an idiot on stage.”

Now a band veteran, Chandler laughs at her earlier struggles.

“When they gave me the setlist, I was like [hyperventilating]. Now, it’s just second nature. I don’t even have to think about the words,” she said.

A typical setlist for Annie Up includes “Brickhouse,” “Manic Monday,” “Livin’ On a Prayer,” and other hits from the late 70s to today. It’s a culmination of music that depends on the dynamic of the performance. To simplify it, Annie Up plays “all those typical rock songs people like to scream and get drunk to,” Chandler said.

Despite the age gap, Annie Up functions like a machine, she said.

“They’re really great people — fun to be around, really good musicians. They take care of us. Our manger’s awesome. He’s a funny old guy,” Chandler said.

Performances can range anywhere from two to five hours long. At first, Chandler said she worried her voice was going to give out, but it’s actually grown stronger over time. While the schedule is rigorous, Chandler claims it has helped her grow as both a performer and a person.

“As a performer, you want to be able to get paid well for what you do, and I feel like that’s really hard to find in Wichita,” Chandler said.

Annie Up is the exception. The band is booked every single weekend for the next calendar year.

“Today, the State Fair, tomorrow at Botanica, and Sunday at the zoo. It’s every weekend,” Chandler said.

The name Annie Up is a play on words on the poker term, “ante up.” When the band was first formed, they primarily played in casinos. Annie Up has been around for the better part of a decade with a rotating group of performers.

“It’s more of a brand now, than a specific group of people, because of how many people that have cycled through,” Chandler said.

While musical theatre will always be her first love, Chandler said she isn’t set on just one type of performing. In fact, she’s recently been booked for solo shows in Wichita.

“It’s been cool to realize I like doing other stuff outside of [musical theatre],” she said. “It’s nice to find other avenues instead of just putting yourself into one little box.”

For Chandler, the most rewarding part of performing is the opportunity to tell someone else’s story and escape reality for a moment, she said.

“The more empathy you have, the better of a performance you have.”

For Chandler, performing isn’t selfish, she said — it’s selfless. She finds comfort and light in her ability to bring others joy through her storytelling and singing.

“It’s the little things I didn’t think of when I joined the band that actually mean the most compared to just singing,” Chandler said.

“Even the moments that haven’t been the best have been a learning experience for me. I think the good and the bad was worth it. You can’t learn if you don’t try different things.”

When Chandler graduates in December, she plans to keep singing with Annie Up as much as she can while also performing at the Wichita Forum Theatre.

“This is what I want to do,” she said. “I get to sing every weekend, and I get paid well for it. I don’t know how this happened to me, but I’m really excited about it.