Ariana DeBose is intimately acquainted with W. 46th St. in the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district. Every night since April 2018, she’s brought audiences to their feet as “Disco Donna” in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Only two years ago, DeBose took her final bow as “the Bullet” in Hamilton across the street at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Both theatres are steps away from each other. In the course of DeBose’s career, however, they’re nearly worlds apart.
Upon leaving Hamilton, DeBose soared as “Jane” in the stage adaptation of Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale. By that time, DeBose had already amassed several Broadway credits to her name, including Bring It On: The Musical, Motown: The Musical, and a revival of Pippin’, and had occasionally stepped forward as an understudy or replacement. In originating the character of Jane, DeBose channeled her singing, dancing, and acting talents into a dynamic lead role, particularly in numbers like “Out of Your Head”, “Webster Avenue”, and “In a World Like This”. The New York Times duly praised her performance as “radiant”.
August 30, 2017 marked DeBose’s last performance in A Bronx Tale before introducing “Disco Donna” in the workshop production of Summer alongside LaChanze (“Diva Donna”) and Storm Lever (“Duckling Donna”) at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. The show’s momentum moved faster than 120 beats-per-minute. Within five months of its world premiere in November 2017, Summer opened on Broadway. Just seven weeks after opening night, DeBose and the cast of Summer performed “Last Dance” at the 2018 Tony Awards where she and LaChanze each received nominations for their roles in Summer.
“From start to finish, the Tonys were a whirlwind,” DeBose recalls about her experience as a first-time Tony nominee. “You’re put on a different level for a moment in time that allows you to talk about things that are important to you. I was able to use my platform to talk about LGBTQ rights, to talk about what it means to be bi-racial, what it means to be one of the only bi-racial queer women to be nominated in that particular season. It gave us visibility.”
DeBose has navigated her swift ascent to Broadway stardom with aplomb, fueled by a focus and work ethic that manifests in every move she makes onstage. For audiences only previously familiar with DeBose’s considerable acting and dancing credits, the Summer cast album spotlights the strength of her voice and reflects why thunderous applause greets DeBose, LaChanze, and Lever every night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. In this intimate, far-ranging interview with PopMatters, DeBose goes beyond the beat to discuss Donna Summer’s enduring significance and why 2018 is the perfect time to tell the celebrated icon’s story.
Congratulations on the release of the Summer cast album! In what ways did you change your approach to the songs in the studio versus performing them onstage?
Thank you! It’s my fifth cast album and every time I have a slightly different experience. For example, the Hamilton cast album is very indicative of the show, but it’s also its own experience. Granted, you’re getting the entire show top to bottom. With the cast album for Summer, we are giving you slightly different versions of songs. On “Enough Is Enough”, you’re getting more song on the album than you are in the show because we use the song for storytelling purposes. In that way, I did have to adjust because I’m singing lyrics that I don’t sing every night.
In the same way that the show is a tribute to Donna, I do think that our cast album is a beautiful tribute to the music that she made. Her range ran the gamut. For me, you get a lot of different textures that sometimes I don’t get to play with in the show, so that was really fun to think about.
Donna was known for being a one-take singer. She did not have to do take after take after take. The difference between how she recorded and how we recorded is we did an entire album in two days. She had the luxury of coming in and saying, “I’m going to record this song today and two days later I’m going to record this song”, so the stamina of that is different. I like that challenge. It’s part of being a theatrical actor and translating into a different medium.
In singing Donna’s music, what has she taught you about your voice?
Oh, she’s taught me a lot about my own voice — its limitations, its potential. I was listening to the album and thought, Wow, I didn’t know I could do that! I didn’t know I sounded like that. I always knew, as a vocalist, that I had a heavy mix and that allowed me to do some things that some musical theatre vocalists can’t do.
Through Donna’s music, I’ve learned that I’m not just a musical theatre vocalist. I have tones and textures to my voice that allow me to be more of a pop singer if that’s what I need to embody for the moment or a rock singer. “Hot Stuff” is a rock song and on our album, I’m still giving you that disco feel. I took more of a Marilyn Monroe take on that particular song as opposed to doing it with “Love to Love You Baby”.
I try to pay homage to her in a different way because I’m not trying to re-create, verbatim, what she did because what’s the point? We don’t need another “Hot Stuff” exactly as it was — it was amazing — so what can I do that also honors her and is true to myself as an artist? That’s what my goal was.
Donna often talked about how she approached singing like an actress playing a character. What I find interesting about the musical is not only are you playing a character — “Disco Donna” — but in the scene where Donna’s recording “Love to Love You Baby”, for example, you’re playing a character within a character. Of the songs in Summer, which one best reflects Donna the person as opposed to Donna the actress?
That’s a great question! No one’s asked me that yet. I think Donna was goofy. People don’t realize that. There’s a persona that you’ll see in a lot of the footage of her live concerts that is very playful and very goofy. She loved to make a joke. That’s exactly who she was in real life. I think that’s part of what made her fans feel really close to her because you were getting the real her.
I think in the context of our show, what I’ve been able to discover is you get most of those moments in something like “Heaven Knows”. She’s sexy and charming and girly. She can be coy. What’s fun about that song is I can infuse all of that in the sound that I’m evoking. You start out with [sings] “Baby, please” and that’s guttural and it’s sexy, almost animalistic in a way. Then you get into [sings] “It’s not the way it could be”, those higher tones in a different stratosphere because that’s what love has done for her — it’s taken her to that place. I would say “Heaven Knows”, to me, really gets her.
That’s the perfect segue to my next question about you and Jared Zirilli, who portrays Donna’s husband, singer-songwriter Bruce Sudano. In the show, “Heaven Knows” illustrates the beginning of their relationship. [Note: Joe “Bean” Esposito, Sudano’s bandmate in Brooklyn Dreams, sang the duet on the original record.] We learn that Bruce called Donna “Adrian”, which reflected a special kind of intimacy they shared. How did you and Jared come to an understanding of what their relationship was about, first of all, and what would you attribute to the longevity of that relationship through everything that Donna had to endure, personally and professionally?
I think Jared and I very quickly identified their relationship as one based on basic human values. They saw each other as human beings. Yes, he was her man and yes, she was his woman, but they saw each other first and foremost human to human, which evens the playing field. In that moment in the show, it’s one of the first times that any human has looked at her and said, “I see you. It’s okay. It’s cool. Let’s do what we do. Let’s make music because that’s how we best communicate.” Ultimately, I think that was the essence of their relationship.
They were an incredibly spiritual couple as well, so they had a lot of common ground. They were both fighters and they were both survivors. One of the first things Bruce will tell you is that they had challenge after challenge, especially professionally. It wasn’t always easy. There was always a road block they were having to overcome, but that’s the point of it — they always overcame it. I think that’s what you can attribute to the longevity and the success of their relationship. They were true partners and they were always about working through the challenge. They never let anything stop them, even when it came to her illness. They were always moving forward.
One of several challenges that Summer dramatizes is when Donna sues Casablanca Records before signing with David Geffen’s company. She stood up for herself at a time when it was rare for artists to take on record labels. A lot of artists could easily self-destruct in the process, but she seemed to emerge stronger for it. What is it about Donna that emboldened her to take that challenge on?
She was at a moment in her life where she was just done with the crazy. That’s what I call it. You can really love a person and not like what they are doing, their choices or what they’ve done to you. That’s the moment she was in with Neil (Bogart) I believe, or that’s what I choose to believe in the context of my job as the character.
Our show is based off of fact. We do move things around, but we evoke and portray very real circumstances. In regard to that particular circumstance, when you’ve given all of that energy, time, blood, sweat, and tears into the thing you love most, which was creating and singing, and then to realize that someone that you’ve loved and let in has taken advantage of that, that is a very hard thing to let go of. I’ve got a little experience with that. Girl, I feel your pain!
Donna was in a moment where she knew her worth. She had finally gotten out of co-dependency in one way, in one area of her life. She was in a stable relationship with Bruce and she could see very plainly at that moment. She knew what she had contributed. When you know what you have done, that’s when you strap yourself in and you fight for the right to maintain your artistic integrity. It’s something that is tangible and yet not, all at that same time. It’s this [rubs air] and it’s a hard thing to put parameters on, but it’s the most valuable currency that artists have. I think that’s what probably grounded herself enough to stay with the fight, to see it through.
You share the stage with LaChanze (“Diva Donna”) and Storm Lever (“Duckling Donna”) night after night. What are some of the strongest qualities that each of them brings to their roles?
Let’s start with Storm. She’s the consummate observer. She watches ev-er-y-thing. I do a lot of quirks and ticks and she adopts them, very quickly, and they end up in the show. I think, How did you see that? Storm is excellent at getting body language and really learning the character of a person. She also brings this beautiful, honest vulnerability. There’s some naiveté there that ends up presenting in this fantastic, sassy way. I love that about her. She sets that up early on. It allows us to inhabit that in different ways as Donna matures through the show.
LaChanze brings such depth of feeling that she allows the audience to tap into through her. She’s charged with putting it all together and helping the audience understand what it is I’m doing because some of the reactions and the things I’m showing the audience don’t make any sense until she comes in and talks about it. I think it takes someone who has the longevity, which she does, to understand how a person gets to those moments. She has this gorgeous clarity to be able to present that. I don’t know if we would actually get to the end of the show without that clarity because we have a fragmented show. It’s non-linear. We don’t tell things in order.
I think those strengths and those qualities that LaChanze and Storm inhabit just as humans, that they bring to their respective characters, ultimately gives me a larger playground. I can tap into a lot of that. It helps it seem seamless. We all have very different perspectives on our characters and who Donna was as a whole, but because I can see those characteristics very clearly, it helps me do my job.
It’s wonderful that you and LaChanze each received Tony Award nominations for your respective portrayals of Donna. Describe your experience as a first-time Tony nominee, from discovering you were nominated to the actual ceremony when the Summer cast performed on the broadcast.
It was amazing! Opening your show is like the Super Bowl, which is so exciting and wonderful. Then two weeks later you’re a first-time Tony nominee. You feel like you’re in the Olympics all of a sudden. It’s absolutely thrilling. What I loved about this particular season is it really was just about love and celebrating each other’s accomplishments. It’s about community.
What I loved about the “Featured Actress” category, in particular, was we were all nominated for a very different skill set. For example, it’s not about the length of time Diana Rigg’s onstage in My Fair Lady, it’s about the essence that she creates in her character. Renée Fleming (Carousel) is bringing craft from the opera world to Broadway and doing it with such grace and inspiring audiences night after night. You’re seeing Lindsay Mendez do something very different with an iconic role in Carousel. She doesn’t fit the mold of what that character is known to be, and that’s beautiful. Ashley Park (Mean Girls) brings comedy to Broadway in a different way. Her aggression is fun and silly and very smart. What I was allowed to do, and what was recognized, was bring new depth to what it means to be a triple threat. We run the gamut, so how do you actually say what’s better than the other? It’s all relative. It allowed us to just be friends and to support each other.
Because I was a first-time Tony nominee, I was just happy to be in the room where it happens, to be able to connect with my heroes or people I’ve respected for such a long time, to be able just to shake Laurie Metcalf’s hand or to be able to sit near Chita Rivera. Denzel’s three rows in front of me. Then to watch my friends win, like Ari’el Stachel (The Band’s Visit) … I’m so proud of him! Katrina Lenk (The Band’s Visit) was in the developmental workshop of Summer. She played Giorgio Moroder, so then to watch her move onto something that she believed in, in a different way, and represent so beautifully was great.
There were a lot of nominees that didn’t get to perform that night, and we were so blessed to do that. To share Summer on that platform, with people all across America watching that night, was another way to bring the Disco Queen back to mainstream audiences and to a new generation, which is something that is really important to me. I get a lot of young women and young artists who say, “I didn’t exactly know who Donna Summer was, but I recognized her music. I didn’t know that was her …”
… because she sounded different from one song to the next!
Yes! You couldn’t pigeonhole her. That’s why I wanted to take this job because that’s what I’m after in my own career — I want to be able to do everything. I don’t believe in limitations. I don’t believe that any artist is just one thing. That’s really important and that’s what I think that Tony run gave me, it gave me a wider platform, more visibility to share her story, to share who she was and to remind young people that I know Kesha’s had a rough go of it recently, and all of these queens are fighting for the rights to their music, but this is not a new story. This has been happening for a long time. Summer is an example of it happening to a black woman. One of the privileges of my job is to get to watch those light bulbs go off in young people.
You mentioned Chita Rivera, which reminds me of the award you received at the Chita Rivera Awards for “Outstanding Female Dancer in a Broadway Show”. What I hadn’t realized is that the Chita Rivera Awards are actually a re-branding of the Fred & Adele Astaire Awards. Previously, you were nominated as part of the ensemble for Hamilton, and now you’ve won for your own solo performance in Summer. I have a two-part question: what did it mean for you to win that award and what is it about Chita Rivera that inspires you?
It was such a special moment for me because my roots are in dance. It’s my first language. It’s the language I speak most fluently. I speak dance better than I speak English, to be honest. To be recognized by the dance community for my work as an individual was really special.
Carmen de Lavallade was honored that evening as well, and she talked about being a storyteller. It’s about the story, otherwise, why are you moving? That’s essentially what I’m trying to bring to my work, even if I’m just playing a scene: don’t move unless you’re motivated to move.
There were a lot of people in that audience who thought I was crazy for leaving Hamilton and trying to get out of the ensemble. I thought, Guys, you missed the point. I was trying to challenge myself in a different way. It’s not about getting out of the ensemble. Every show is an ensemble show because we’re all telling the same story. There are different types of ensemble work.
As a dancer, when your body starts to get tired, you have to figure out how to continue to dance. The way that I chose to do it was to supplement with heavier acting roles or heavier vocal roles, in addition to dancing. For me to be able to pretty much chart my own course and find success in a different way, then come back to the dance community and have them say, “We see what you did there, and we’re proud of you”, it meant a lot to me. I’m not just trying to be a dancer, and I’m trying to mold myself after someone like Chita.
Chita did a lot of different things. She was a great actress and she was a great vocalist and a fantastic dancer, but she was about entertaining and storytelling. She’s just a force. She’s a spirit. She’s an energy. I’m not trying to be Chita. No one can. She’s like Missy Elliott: her style cannot be duplicated or recycled! When you hear the name “Chita Rivera”, that evokes a very specific image in your mind. That’s what I’m after. When you hear the name “Ariana DeBose”, I want you to have an image in your head that is full of life, that is movement-oriented, that is striking, charming, and sexy, that is known as a great artist no matter what genre I’m working in.
One of the images that flash in my mind when I hear your name now is the way you open “MacArthur Park” in Summer. What do you draw from to convey the emotion in that song?
For me, that song is about her daughter. She is singing about Mimi. That cake (in the lyrics) is the equivalent to Mimi. The idea of leaving your child for your dream, as a woman, that’s something that we, as a society, don’t talk about. When I read the script, this moment was very Ricki & the Flash (2015) to me. When I saw that movie, I loved it, but it didn’t do as well, and I believe that’s because society has a hard time watching a woman onscreen choose her dream over her family. I think that’s interesting because, in our show, that’s what you’re watching Donna do. That’s what Donna did, but we love her just the same.
Ultimately, what I think made Donna a great mother in addition to being a fantastic friend, woman, and artist was the fact that she did fight for her dreams in order to better the lives of her children. When she did finally have the opportunity to give Mimi the home and the world that she wanted to give her, she did it tenfold.
My mother was a single parent; God love her. She’s a public school teacher in North Carolina. You don’t make a lot of money, but she fought tooth and nail to stand on her own two feet, to keep a roof over our heads, and to allow me to dance and to follow my dreams. I think mothers are just some of the most admirable humans in the world because of the sacrifices they have to make. That’s what I’m pulling on for that moment in “MacArthur Park”, the idea of all the mothers that I have met in my life that I know have made great sacrifices not only for their children but themselves.
I think what Summer does really well is show audiences how Donna was caught in a vortex of sudden fame. For you, as someone who’s flourishing in a lead role on Broadway after a series of other high profile roles and shows, not to mention the microscope of social media, what aspects of Donna’s experience with fame mirror what you’re currently experiencing in your own career?
I think social media makes us more accessible to our audience and our fans and followers, which I love. I think even with this medium I can often be misunderstood, which I know Donna was frequently. That part hasn’t changed. It’s never fun. It’s always uncomfortable when that happens. Somebody reads something that is written in one of your posts and thinks that it means one thing when it meant something completely different.
Recently, I did an event where I was asked if my presence in the Broadway community could be considered political in a way. I said, ‘Yes, in a way.” The fact that I’m visible. The fact that I exist. The fact that I am who I am. I subscribe to my own set of beliefs. I don’t let people pigeonhole me. I’m queer, I’m bi-racial, I’m young, I speak my mind — sure, you could say it’s political. You stand up for yourself when you need to stand up for yourself. You try to do it eloquently and respectfully.
When I made the decision to fight for something different, I did receive some backlash from my community, which is why my Tony nomination and the Chita Rivera Award meant so much because it was acknowledgement that “we might have misunderstood what you were going through and what you were fighting for, but you set a goal. In two years, you went from an ensemble member in Hamilton to a Tony-nominated actress of your own merit.” That’s the type of thing Donna did. Someone told her “no, you can’t do that” and she very quickly said, “Yes I can”.
It’s like the difference between Donna feeling boxed in by “Love to Love You Baby” and, less than three years later, releasing a song like “MacArthur Park”, which really showcased the power of her voice.
It’s night and day. That’s where I find my common ground with her.
Colman Domingo is one of the three playwrights credited with Summer. What’s a signature Colman Domingo line of dialogue?
[Laughs] That is a hard question to answer, but it’s a good question. It’s a line like “…There’s also a rumor that I’m a man.” Colman’s not afraid. He just writes it. He writes the truth, even in the smallest of ways. It could be in a comma. Whether the person observes the comma or not will determine if the true meaning of said line is actually received by the audience.
Working with that team of writers has been rewarding. Observe that comma. Observe that period. What does that period do? It’s purposeful. To understand the purpose, to ask them about it, and to maybe ask the question, Do you need it? It’s fun. That’s where the collaborative part comes in for me with those writers.
Just a few minutes ago, the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” came on as we were talking. I was reminded of how Donna recorded an homage to the Supremes, “Back in Love Again”, on I Remember Yesterday (1977). Having played Mary Wilson in Motown: The Musical and been an understudy for the role of Diana Ross, how do you think the Supremes laid the foundation for Donna Summer?
Oh, those ladies made it classy for black women to be in the front. They were the first group to really go mainstream in white society. They weren’t all the same size or shape. They didn’t have all the same features. They made a space where there wasn’t a space. They made it okay for Donna Summer to come up and say, “Hi! I’m the sexier version of this.” I don’t know if Donna would have had the same success had the Supremes not come before her. I think Europe being a more accepting culture at the time for black musicians, in particular, definitely is part of what made it easier for black artists to transition in America.
Along those lines, your friend Adrienne Warren is currently starring as Tina Turner in the West End production of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
(exclaims) Yeah! Gosh, she’s so good!
I love that the two of you each get to tell these stories about powerful female artists. I’d love to know, why is it important, specifically in 2018, to place Donna Summer and Tina Turner’s stories in a musical theatre context?
Adrienne and I talk about this a lot. To have powerful women and their stories be told on Broadway is not only necessary but vital to representation, period. End of story. There aren’t enough roles for us. You’ll hear Adrienne say how it’s kind of laughable when you think, how many roles for black women can you name in the last decade, not little “feature” moments, but starring roles?
The first show that comes to mind is The Color Purple.
Yeah, and that was a revival, so roles in original work? There aren’t many. We have to sing, dance, and act. We have to adapt our voice to sound like someone else. We have to change our bodies. We have to breathe fire, roller skate, and fly! Adrienne and I both have done exactly that for the roles that we play. To show what these icons actually had to do to be who they are, to maintain that talent, the sacrifices they had to make, and oftentimes the abuse they have to endure? That’s where the payoff comes.
Women make up more than 50% of the population, and we accomplish a lot. We’re the driving force behind a lot of fields, so I think that’s ultimately why these stories are important, relevant, and necessary right now because they’re our stories. This happened to Donna in the ’70s and ’80s and it’s happening to me now. I think Adrienne will agree with me when I say that’s why we do this, to reflect that back.
I like telling stories about the world we live in, or the world we lived in, in order to influence the world I want to live in. For example, with something like A Bronx Tale, I’m allowing someone to watch a story and reflect back to them the behavior that they exhibited at some point, racist behavior, sexist behavior. That’s the point — to make you think. A mirror makes you look yourself in the face, and you have to hold yourself accountable. You have to acknowledge it, even if you don’t want to. The mirror makes you see what you don’t want to see. Hopefully, you are brave enough to really see it, to acknowledge it, and then change it if you don’t like what you see.
A Bronx Tale was staged in 1968, the same year that Donna joined the German company of Hair in Munich.
She got out at the right time! (laughs)
If Jane from A Bronx Tale by some chance met Donna, what do you think they’d talk about?
I think Jane would have said, “Oh my Gosh. How did you do it?” What I love about Jane is that she’s super smart. She wanted more. She was ambitious and she was not afraid of her ambition. She was not afraid to take risks, i.e. fall in love with a white boy, which Donna did! I’m sure they’d talk about that too. I feel like they would be really good friends because Donna ultimately liked good souls. She liked people who weren’t necessarily like-minded, but had similar sensibilities. I think they would have gotten along.
What aspects of Ariana from Raleigh, NC still live within Ariana who’s on Broadway in New York?
I’m still very much the same person. My mom and a lot of my friends who’ve come from North Carolina have said, “You haven’t changed.” I pride myself on that. My mother raised me to be kind, compassionate, and strong-willed. I speak my mind and I’m sassy as hell. That has not changed. I’m the life of the party here whereas before I was a little more focused. I have to say, I’m trying to get back to those roots. Because of my mom’s influence, I was very focused and I had a goal. I didn’t always share what my goal was … I just let people see it.