BWW Interview- Bullet Over the 'Bronx': Ariana DeBose Steps Out of the Ensemble and Into the Spotlight
Ariana DeBose is best known to audiences as an original company member of the Broadway mega-smash, "Hamilton". In a featured role that put her squarely at the heart of the show's crescendo, Ariana danced her way into the hearts of Ham-fans as "The Bullet", bringing elegance and grace to the show's final moments and a strong presence the titular character's untimely demise.
Much of Ariana's career up to this point has been based on her dance ability, taking on ensemble tracks in shows like, "Pippin" and "Bring It On", as well as the televised competition, "So You Think You Can Dance?" This season, however, Ariana is stepping out of the chorus line and into the spotlight as she takes the stage as Jane, the young woman of color who wins Calogero's heart in the brand-new musical, "A Bronx Tale."
On the week of the show's opening, BroadwayWorld had an opportunity to speak to Ariana about her first starring turn on Broadway. Read below and see everything Ari had to say about the show, from working with Alan Menken to creating a strong female presence in a man's story, her thoughts on developing such an iconic piece, and her hopes that "A Bronx Tale"will transform audiences through storytelling.
How has it been originating your first leading role on Broadway? You have such an impressive resume from "Bring It On" to "Hamilton". It is so nice to see someone truly pay their dues and be rewarded with this wonderful opportunity.
It's so exciting. Oh my gosh. Every day I wake up and know that I get to come to work [on "A Bronx Tale"] and I sort of pinch myself. I changed my goals after I left "Hamilton" and I was very clear on the fact that I wanted to put the ensemble work aside for a little bit and focus on me and my strengths, and I knew that I had chops as an actor. Then, to my surprise, this sort of fell into my lap very quickly. I was so thrilled, truly, to have this particular team say yes to me.
So much of your career has been built on your incredible dancing, but I was so overjoyed to watch you finally get your moment to show off your singing chops in this show.
That's been the fun part, reminding people that I can sing. I came into the business during, "Bring It On" and while Nautica wasn't a lead role, she was a lovely little feature for me. I was 19 or 20 years old and it really was my start. After that everything has been heavy on ensemble work, so it's really been such a pleasure to remind people that I do have a voice and, even to my own surprise, that I know how to use it! (laughs)
It's been a dream for me, personally because I grew up on his work through the Disney movies. Who can forget what [Menken] did with "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid"? I think I grew up thinking I was a Disney princess because of his music. He's been lovely and very supportive. I can't say enough about how, not just Alan, but all of the men on this team have encouraged me to go farther, to take chances with not only my vocal choices, but my acting choices. It's been a dream, really.
This is such an iconic material, was there any trepidation in taking on such a beloved story? How did you feel about "A Bronx Tale: The Musical" when the notion was presented?
You know, I didn't have any trepidation as far as taking on this challenge because I love a good challenge. My whole career is based on how I can continue to challenge myself. That's why I've taken each of the jobs that I've had. I knew that "A Bronx Tale" was a classic in many places in the world. People quote this film. But I also knew that in the right hands that it could be great and I think it is very much in the right hands. And as far as I'm concerned the audience reaction to the show so far has been nothing short of thrilling. I think that they're getting to see so many other sides of each of these characters that were not seen in the film. So I think that keeps them interested.
In the spirit of this being such an iconic property, and in acknowledging that these characters have been so galvanized by the portrayals in the film, what was your goal in bringing something new to Jane and making her your own?
Having seen the film, the version of Jane that you get in the film is that she's quiet. It's very much about the physical chemistry that you see between Jane and Calogero and I knew that was something I wanted to change. Given the script, and given who I am in what I've experienced so far in my life in general, I thought that Jane could be this all-American girl that had sass and brains. I really wanted to try to distinguish her from all the other girls that Calogero had met. My questions were, what makes her so different? If she's smart, what makes her smart? The fact that she carries books, sure, that's a symbol of intelligence, but what does she say to him that makes him like her so much? Sure, she's different, she's black, I'm sure she had beautiful hair from his perspective (laughs), but I wanted to see if we could develop the relationship. And I have to tell you, Jerry, Bob, and Chazz really met me halfway with it. I gathered all of my courage and voiced all of those ideas to them and they took them and ran with them.
I'm not going to take 100% credit for what we have, but I definitely think it was a team effort to create this character and to allow her to flourish and grow from what audiences have seen of her in the film. Sergio was also a huge part of that with the addition of Webster Avenue at the top of Act 2. That is a huge window into who this girl is.
One of the things I was struck by was how much of a man's story this is. With Calogero at the center and having Sonny, Lorenzo, and all of these other male influences on either sides of him, what did you feel your responsibility was as the main woman In Focus here?
For me, it was very important to keep that phrase, "Behind every great man is an even greater woman" in mind. Going back to creating Jane, I really wanted Jane's effect on Calogero to help him discover who he was and what he stood for. Because at the end of the day, if Jane has done her job, then the audience comes ouT Loving Calogero even more just because of the way that he loves her. I'm a girl of color who, in 1968, has managed to get this handsome, Italian, white boy to listen to her, to understand her. Her actually hears what she's saying and in a man's world that can be a very hard thing to accomplish. I think I've somehow been able to do that.
That also goes back to the creative team as well because there's not a female presence on the creative team. And I think it's a testament to them that they heard Ariana the actress and met me halfway and allowed her to be the only female that really is heard and voiced. Not that Rosina [Calogero's mother] doesn't have a voice, but I do think that Jane is sort of carrying the mantle and what we do hear her say is important and is of substance.
"A Bronx Tale", as you said, takes place in 1968, which feels like a long time ago when measured in time, but as far as the themes of racial tensions and territoriality go, it feels almost too timely. What does it mean to you to get to tell this story right now?
It's everything. And I didn't know that I would feel like that. To be perfectly honest, there are days where the show is my reality and that's both heavy and inspiring, both as a woman of color and as a woman who is in love with a woman. So, all of that has been applied to me in a way. So, to remind audiences and ask, what world do you want to live in? In a world like this, where what we feel is real, love is real. Love does trump hate, forgive the expression, but it is true. I think the show is timely with its message. I think it's a great mirror for society, and I think it serves as a reminder to any person who comes into the Longacre and sits down to watch our story, that we are in a moment where we as a society are deciding who we are, and that we are doing it in a very public way because the entire world is looking at us right now. Even if only a handful of people who see the show take that from it, then we've done our job.
From, "Bring It On", which is really a story about cultural appropriation, to "Hamilton", and now to, "A Bronx Tale" is it a priority of yours to select project that have a social consciousness to them?
100 percent. I was raised by a very strong mother, who is a history teacher, and a single parent as well. So, politics and history were at the forefront of my upbringing. I'm very attuned to that in my every day life. But every time I sit down to either read a script or audition for a show, that is in my brain. Because I want to do pieces that may not be comfortable. I'm not interested in making anyone comfortable, I'm interested in telling a good story. I've always wanted to be part of a show that helped change the world, and "Hamilton" really was the start of that for me in a way. And you're right, "Bring It On" very much made a statement, but I think I began to understand that what I had put out into the universe was that I wanted to do work that changed the way people think. And I got that with "Hamilton." And that is a show that will continue to do that for decades, I think.
This show, while we might not be making headlines like "Hamilton", every single person that leaves this audience is changed in some way, whether they realize it in the moment or not. That's what I want my legacy to be, that every time someone sees me perform they're changed. Whether they had a really crazy day and just need some joy in their life or if something my character said helped them make sense of the world they live in. That's my goal as an artist, and it will definitely continue to be my goal throughout my career.