BWW Interview: Ariana DeBose on HAMILTON, WEST SIDE STORY, & THE PROM
On December 22nd, Theatre Raleigh will be bringing Broadway star Ariana DeBose back home to Raleigh, North Carolina to give not one, but two concerts at the Kennedy Theatre located inside Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts for one night only. She may be currently out in L.A. filming Ryan Murphy's upcoming Netflix movie adaptation of The Prom, but luckily, I was recently able to get in touch with her by phone for this interview.
After having made her breakthrough as a contestant on the sixth season of So You Think You Can Dance back in 2009, Ariana DeBose would go on to make her Broadway debut in a stage musical adaptation of Bring It On in the summer of 2012. Since then, she has appeared on Broadway in Motown: The Musical, the most recent revival of Pippin, and the original cast of Hamilton before going on to originate two principal roles: Jane in A Bronx Tale and Disco Donna in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the latter of which earned her a 2018 Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Next year, Ariana will be seen on the big screen in two major movie musicals directed by some very high profile filmmakers: not only as Alyssa Greene in Ryan Murphy's The Prom, but also as Anita in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.
To start things off, how excited are you to be coming back to Raleigh to perform at the Kennedy Theatre?
AD: Oh, I'm absolutely thrilled. It's been such a long time since I've had the opportunity to come home and perform in Raleigh and hold such fun memories for me when I was growing up. You know, that's one of the things I always really loved about the Raleigh area. It was an incredible, incredible community of support for the arts. So I'm really excited to come back and be steeped in that again.
What songs can audiences expect to hear from you?
AD: I kind of do my own thing when it comes to cabaret. I will give you some songs that are from shows that I've been in. You may or may not hear a few Hamilton favorites as well as some Motown songs. That is, if anyone out there is familiar with my cabaret work, I do a lot of mashups and I like to reinterpret classic songs and, and put my own spin at them or create them to pop songs, for example. I will do. Sometimes I'll do a cover of Katy Perry's 'Hot and Cold', but it might sound like the opening theme from Chicago. I like to have fun with it. I do a little bit of everything and tell fun stories along the way.
Going back to the beginning, how did you first get started in the theatre?
AD: That's a great question. I discovered theater when I was in high school. I did my first production of Fame when I was a freshman and then I got involved in Broadway Series South and Wake County Public School systems. They used to partner in doing all County productions and I got involved in that program and participated in their productions of Aida, Les Misérables, and A Chorus Line consecutively. And so that was really my first introduction to theater.
You got to make your Broadway debut as an understudy twice in the same theatre season. First in Bring It On, then in Motown: The Musical. Both of those shows even got to perform on the 2013 Tony Awards. What was that like?
AD: Oh, it was so exciting. I had grown up watching the Tonys on the television. I think every sensible theater geek is watching that opening number, dreaming of participating in it one day. And that was the year that that happened for me. I'll never forget standing on stage alongside Neil Patrick Harris, who was hosting that year, and just looking out into Radio City and seeing all these people that I had idolized for so long. I looked up, and remember very distinctly seeing my friend, Martha Plimpton, sitting in front of me and Bernadette Peters was near her and then there was Audra McDonald. It was a very exciting and busy time. It was very cool to be a part of two shows that are so different. Bring It On is a pup to your musical and Motown tells the story of Motown records and Berry Gordy, they have two very distinct sounds and tell two very different stories. So it was exciting to be a part of that as well.
Your last Broadway show in the ensemble was a little known musical called Hamilton. How did you get involved with that?
AD: I had been involved in the development process of Hamilton for quite a number of years before we brought it to Broadway. At one point, I participated in this small little reading that was very kind of off the books as you are. I was reading the music for Angelica and then another time I was reading the music for the Peggy/Maria track, and I was still in Motown when that started happening. I think I was about to go into Pippin when I participated in a workshop. After I finished my run in Pippin, I left to do the Off-Broadway production of Hamilton at The Public Theater.
Long before Hamilton even started performances Off-Broadway at The Public Theater, no one could have ever predicted how big it was going to become. What was it like for you getting to experience that?
AD: Oh, it was like being inside of a massive hurricane, you know what I mean? "In the eye of a hurricane there is quiet." It's a hard experience to describe. Many of us will say, we won't have enough height on it until 10 years down the line. It all happened so quickly, but we knew it was special, but it was really heartening and thrilling to watch so many people respond to the story and to the show and its music and its message. People who don't frequently go to the theater where we're coming to the theater and bringing their friends and bringing their family members. That's really special when you can watch a work of art change the world. It was really very cool.
Well, yeah, shows like that come like once every generation.
AD: Right. I count myself incredibly lucky and blessed to have been a part of that journey.
After Hamilton, you went straight into A Bronx Tale. That musical had such a high profile creative team such as producer Tommy Mottola, directors Jerry Zaks & Robert De Niro, book writer Chazz Palminteri, and composer Alan Menken (whose work on the Disney animated movie musicals I imagine you had to have been familiar with growing up).
AD: Very much so. I was such a Disney kid, so I knew aLAN's melodies very well. It was an absolute gift to be able to work with him as a vocalist as well. that was really the first show where, sure, I danced a little bit in it, but I was really working as a vocalist. That brought me immense pride to be able to have that experience with him. It was so fun to be able to say, "Hey, I hear a little bit of 'Under the Sea' in this arrangement." Things like that was very cool.
Your last Broadway show, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, earned you a Tony nomination last year. I remember there was quite a bit of excitement here in the Triangle area for you. One of the local news stations even aired an interview with you the Sunday morning leading up to the telecast. What was that whole experience like getting to spend Tony season as a nominee?
AD: You know, it was something that I had always hoped would happen, and I was never sure that it would, but it was really fun to be in "The Room Where It Happens." It sounds so corny, but it's so true to be around all these people in the same season. You know, I'm in a room with Cyndi Lauper, Glenda Jackson, and Bette Midler. It was really amazing to be included in a season like that and to be one of the few women of color recognized in that season was really special as well. But I think it's such a singular experience. It's like running a marathon. You just have to keep going. There's events every other day all while you're still doing your show at night and now that you've got a Tony nomination attached to your name, of course you're going to show up anyways, but you really got to deliver because it's crunch time. It's very much like the Olympics of Broadway.
As we're now only a few weeks away from the new year, you've got a couple of exciting projects coming out in 2020. First, you'll be appearing as Anita in a brand new film adaptation of West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg (a man who needs no introduction). How were you able to land that job?
AD: I don't know. I auditioned for the film just like countless other people. I went in and read for the casting director a lot while it was probably smack dab in the middle of their process. I didn't hear anything, and then they brought me back in much later, probably in the fall of last year. Then it all moved very quickly and suddenly I was in a room with Steven Spielberg talking to me about playing the part and how we see the character and how we want our creative relationship to work. It was all very lovely as well as a whirlwind. Didn't see that one coming.
What was it like getting to make the movie? Not only did you get to work with Mr. Spielberg, but also the 1961 film's Oscar-winning Anita, Rita Moreno, who has a small supporting role in this new take and also serves as an executive producer.
AD: It was a very special process. Though very challenging as I was definitely out of my comfort zone. Learning a new language is what I call it, learning how movies get made, and I had the privilege of making it with the best in the business and learning from the best in the business. Ms. Moreno is absolutely stunning and gracious and lovely and incredibly supportive. Our time on set together was really fun. She loves to tell stories and I love to listen. She's a broad for the ages. It was really special to watch her have a very full circle moment like that. I think it's rare that we get to witness moments like that in people's lives. I felt very fortunate to be able to be there for that moment in hers.
During principal photography, there was quite a bit of attention on the internet when Amblin posted on their social media accounts a photo of Steven Spielberg on set with the original lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, when he came to visit.
AD: Yeah, Mr. Sondheim is quite the individual and incredibly intelligent. He has such an insight into his work (obviously because he wrote the lyrics). Being in a room with him and listening to his perspective on both what it is that he wrote initially and how it relates to the time where they are now was very insightful. Again, it was a really wonderful moment to bear witness to. And I will say that Steven Spielberg is such a fan of Stephen Sondheim's. It was really fun to watch him have a little fanboy moment. I was like, "Spielberg idolizes Sondheim. I love this, this is very cool."
Yeah, I remember hearing in an interview with producers Neil Meron and the late Craig Zadan when they were promoting the first season of Smash, they mentioned how Spielberg was such a fan of Broadway musicals, that was really his idea to begin with to do a TV series about the creation of one.
AD: It was indeed. He's a big fan. Steven is incredibly musically inclined. He really is a man of many talents, but he loves musicals and he loves physicality. I'm very excited for everyone to see the film and to see how Steven and his director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, who a lot of people would remember from Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, collaborated in order to shoot this film. It's really something special, so I think everyone's really in for a treat.
Have you gotten to meet with Chita Rivera about the role?
AD: I've met Chita several different times actually. Though yes, we did have a moment, she's lovely. She is a very different type of Anita and I think that is very indicative of the latitude I would say that I was given and the freedom I was given to create my own version of the character. I think every single woman that is playing this part has found their own way into it. So to be able to meet with the two women who the world most closely associates with this role was very helpful to me. I learned a lot from meeting with Chita and Rita.
I even remember seeing an interview Chita did with Broadway.com talking about how thrilled she was for Rita's success with the original movie.
AD: Yeah, they all seem very supportive of one another when they have the opportunity to speak to that. I think that is also something that's lovely to witness as well. I think that's very important in the time that we live in.
As for your current project, you'll be appearing as Alyssa Greene in Ryan Murphy's upcoming Netflix film adaptation of The Prom. Here, you're getting to work with quite an all-star cast that features people like Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, and Awkwafina.
AD: It's quite a lineup. I kind of pinch myself every day. This is a pleasure. I certainly never thought I'd actually be in a room with Meryl Streep or Nicole Kidman. It's been a real joy so far to watch them work and to watch specifically these women who are at the top of their game, at the top of our industry have their process to see that there is effort and there is great consideration that goes into how they build characters and how they both just work with their director, how they speak about their characters. It's a perfect learning opportunity for me and I'm very grateful to be here.
Ryan Murphy has become known for giving journeymen theatre performers opportunities in his film and TV projects such as Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele, Courtney B. Vance, Jackie Hoffman, and Billy Porter.
AD: It's really exciting to be a part of this man's community. It's not often that film directors or TV directors will fully invest in the transition of stage actor to the screen and so it's really heartening and refreshing to be working with a man who does believe in that investment.
A little while ago, Ryan Murphy revealed that he's planning to do a 10-part miniseries adaptation of A Chorus Line. If he gives you a call for it, is that something you would like to be a part of as well?
AD: Of course I would. It's one of my favorite shows. I think any thing that Ryan has a full flight division on, I would follow him. I love a man with vision and in particular I really like his style. It can be very fun if that call ever came through.
When you're finished filming The Prom, do you have any other projects coming up?
AD: Not at this time. I'm just enjoying the moment that I'm in and I'm trying to take full advantage of this process and learning from all these incredible people. I've worked very hard for probably going on two years straight now. So I probably, if I have the opportunity, I'll take a little bit of a break. Like it's very rare to do that in this line of work. You know, it's always important to strike while the iron is hot, do keep going while you have momentum. But I really love to go sit on an Island somewhere. I think that would be very nice.
In conclusion, what advice would you like to give to any aspiring young performers out there?
AD: I would tell any and all young people who are curious about a life in the performing arts to stay curious, stay humbled, and always remember to bring the energy in the room that you would want to work in. Be kind, be courageous, and be bold. But the most important thing I think is to be curious and to try everything and to realize that sometimes someone else is going to have a better idea or better solution. That doesn't mean that your contributions aren't important, but it's always important for you to remember that your curiosity is key and to be able to listen and hear and absorb what's going on around you.
Ariana, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
AD: It was a pleasure talking with you as well. Thank you for having me!
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