Broadway cast and crews don't always see eye to eye, but during the run of Motown, Ariana DeBose, who originated the role of Mary Wilson, and props master Jill Johnson made a backstage connection. It was just a friendship then, but when they both moved on to different shows: DeBose with Pippin, and Johnson with If/Then, DeBose finally got up the guts to ask Johnson out to… Juice Generation! Since sharing that first juice, they've gone on much more romantic, and involved dates, courtesy of the crafty Johnson, and their relationship has helped them to understand why sometimes cast members can be seen as "whiny" and crew members "brash."
Over the past year and a half Johnson and DeBose have made it through hellish tech weeks, Broadway transfers and short times apart. This fall, they are about to embark on a new challenge: long distance. While DeBose continues to perform on Broadway in Hamilton, Johnson will hit the road as the head props master with Jerry Mitchell's new musical Gotta Dance. In this latest installment of A Fine Showmance, DeBose and Johnson talk about the benefits of cross-pollinating between cast and crew, the newly married Broadway couple who encouraged their relationship, and their plan for navigating out-of-town gigs — an inevitable part of a lasting showmance. But as Johnson insists, if they could survive her months of Something Rotten! tech, they can survive anything.
How did you guys first meet?
Ariana DeBose: We first met on Motown, but we didn't start dating until I was in Pippin and she was working on If/Then.
Jill Johnson: We had secret access to each other because [the Richard Rodgers and the Music Box theatres] share an alley.
AD: There was a secret alley in between the theatres, so during my half hour and for pre-set I would either go through the little doorway and go say "Hi" to her or she'd come say "Hi" to me. It was very… romantic?
That does sound romantic! You can't see the alley from the street, right?
AD: No it's very secluded. You can only see it if you're in the back of both of the theatres. It was quite exhilarating. There was one day where I didn't realize they had an earlier curtain. I was going back through the little doorway to come say, "Hi" and I walk in and see all of the cast members. I was like, "Oh, wow everybody's here!" Then I walk into [Jill's] office and I'm like, "Hey, babe!" and she's like, "What are you doing?" Then I hear Idina [Menzel] singing which means there is a show going on. I've got half of my circus makeup on my face, and I was like, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" I just turned around and ran back the way I came. That's crazy!
AD: It was a fun time.
But during Motown, you weren't in a romantic relationship at all?
JJ: During Motown there was never any dating. There was definitely a very clear chemistry that we realized when we didn't see each other for about six months. We saw each other once after that and it was immediately on. It was clear that we had still been thinking about each other throughout the past six months of very little contact.
Why did you not see each other for that long?
JJ: I was out of town with If/Then…
AD: I left Motown and took a little break. Then I ended up in Pippin and I was just back in the grind of being an actress.
When did you see each other again for the first time?
AD: We have a group of mutual friends, some actors in the business. She was initially hanging out with them at Maison Harlem, and I got invited as an afterthought. That was the first time that we had really seen each other in six months.
Then you saw Jill again, and it was like love at tenth sight.
AD: I was definitely at a better place where I was not afraid. It took me six months to build up my courage, and then I finally asked her out. I guess you would call that my "moves."
JJ: She's been chasing me ever since.
AD: Jill's definitely a little bit of a handful, but nothing I can't handle.
Where was your first date?
AD: I asked her out, and then she ended up planning our first date. Which is pretty much our whole life together. I think she took me to see a movie…
JJ: That was after we'd pretty much gotten together. I think it was just the Juice Generation.
AD: Oh yeah! I asked her to meet me in between shows to go grab a juice. I knew she was very in tune with her body, and almost every time I saw her she had juice in her hand. I'm so smooth — well, observant — so that was where I took her. A couple of months later she's planning these great dates with three and four stops. I was like, "Oh, so this is what a date is? I had this all wrong. This is definitely not Juice Generation." Before Jill, I had a terrible track record with relationships. People I was dating just got on my nerves, and we just weren't clicking. I had no want to go out and if we did go out we just went out for drinks. I was just like, "La di da. It's cool. I'm dating." Now I feel like I've learned what dating is truly supposed to be with Jill.
You were being courted. That's cute.
JJ: It's been a year and four months and it's still a very important effort for us to have a date at least once a week. It's really easy to get caught up in the business. You've got to separate yourselves from that world and take time to commit to a romantic evening or day date.
AD: I like day dates.
When do you guys get time to go on these dates?
JJ: It's been a challenge over the last year….
AD: Getting Hamilton underway with this Broadway transfer [from the Public] was very hard, but even if we could just fit in dinner or a post-show drink at one of our favorite spots, [that helped]. Now that the show's kind of leveled out and we're not in previews or tech, we have a little more leeway. I have my days back, so every once in awhile we can go do something fun during the day, and our days off are pretty sacred.
JJ: It was difficult for a while because I was in tech for Something Rotten! for three months, while she was [in Hamilton] at the Public, so we never got a day off together. Then once my show opened she went into tech [for the Broadway transfer of Hamilton], so it was challenging, but we got through that. My tech process is pretty much my worst. She figured out how to wrangle me. We've done really well at continuing to make sure that we make that date. Even now that our schedule is so much easier and we spend so much time together, we still commit to that date.
Jill, what is so bad about you in a relationship during tech?!
JJ: I'm on the crew, so for us it's a lot of stress — a lot of stress that is just unavoidable. Of course I bring that home with me, but she navigated it really, really well. She handled me, and I don't know how she did it.
AD: I just had to let her feel her feelings. She has to go through what she was going to feel. I can only be there to listen and support and tell her when she needs her alone time or when we should go for a walk by the water and have dinner together, even if it's just for an hour. That seems to help a little bit. It's just being in tune with your partner and seeing what you can do to help them.
Are you able to talk or see each other at all when Jill's at the theatre during tech?
JJ: Ariana did everything she could to come visit as often as possible, and no matter how miserable you are, when she shows up and flashes that smile — sometimes that's enough to get you through the rest of the day. It's tough working with a bunch of stage hands all day long. It's not always tea and crumpets.
Right! That sounds like an intense time.
JJ: We are now going to head into another challenge of me being out of town. I'll be doing Jerry Mitchell's new show Gotta Dance, so I'll be gone for about two and a half months. We're going to create some outlines and rules and how much time we can go without seeing each other. I'm going to miss her, but I'm really looking forward to this next challenge and seeing how we navigate it, and how we make it work.
You've haven't had to do long distance since you've been together?
JJ: Not yet no. Ari went to Connecticut recently.
AD: It was a short summer gig. I was at CRT in Connecticut doing Les Mis. I was just there for three weeks and that was a challenge in and of itself, because we'd never done it before, but it was a precursor for what we're about to go into. We learned a lot from that. It's all trial and error…
What did you learn? What worked for you guys during that time?
JJ: As with everything, the best lessons are learned from the mistakes. Communication is number one. No matter what feelings you're feeling you have to express them. It's hard to do that sometimes because nobody wants to be in a vulnerable place and reveal silly illogical feelings, that we can all get at times, but it's important to just express them and laugh at them and work through them. The success lies in embracing the uncomfortable feelings and working through them together.
It's hard. When you don't get a lot of time to talk you don't want to bring up things that are upsetting you, but then they just build up…
AD: That's exactly right. When you're dealing with the phone situation you just have to really learn to listen, and if you feel like you're hearing something or something doesn't sound quite right, call it out.
JJ: Call. It. Out. This one, she puts me in my place.
AD: In a good way
Jill, what's been your favorite performance of Ariana's?
JJ: Oh wow… that's a hard one. I saw her do Leading Player twice and she just blew me away. I saw her every night in Motown; I saw her do Diana Ross. And of course I've seen Hamilton... When friends see her perform they come up to me and say, "Jill, I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. She was so mesmerizing," and that's really the truth. I've seen her do all kinds of guest appearances at cabarets and at 54 Below and she's mesmerizing — every single time. She's just a joy to watch on stage.
Do you think it's easier or harder to be in a relationship where one person is in the cast and the other is part of the crew?
AD: I think it's good, because she has such a different perspective than I do. Obviously I'm the actor in the relationship and she can be very quick to be like, "You actors are whining again," and I'll be like, "Well the crew members are being brash again." We kind of go back and forth about it, but I think it's really afforded us both a good perspective on both sides of the business. Every once in a while I'll say something and she'll be like, "Wow. I didn't think of that. That's why you're reacting to what you're reacting to…" And truth be told I have been very ignorant of exactly what crew members go through to get a show up and keep it running, so I think it helps our relationship.
That probably makes you a better cast member, too.
AD: Absolutely. I'm much more compassionate. I've had a pretty good rapport with my crew on the shows that I've done, but I must say [dating Jill] has definitely helped me connect with them and realize how hard they're working. Every department works very hard to make the best show possible, but I feel like the crew is most often unrecognized for how hard they are working and the countless hours they put in. Jill has opened my eyes to that and helped me be much more supportive of them.
JJ: I believe it's more beneficial. Actors and their psyches are very interesting and it's a different situation when you're in a relationship with someone who's not competing in any way. It's only a supportive relationship. Like she said, we have a completely different perspective and I see things differently than she sees them, and I think that it's a helpful way to navigate the business for both of us.
You recently went to former If/Then cast member Curtis Holbrook and current Kinky Boots' star Cortney Wolfson's wedding. Were there a lot of fellow Broadway people there?
AD: There were a lot of Broadway people. Their wedding was so wonderful. It was such a beautiful celebration of who they are together. The crop of theatre folk that were there to support them and witness their day was so eclectic.
JJ: A phenomenal group of people were at that wedding. They are two wonderful people. I've known them both for a very long time, and that celebration was a testament to how much we all love each other and support each other. It was very special that Ari and I were there because Curtis and Cortney have both been very, very supportive of us. They have been two of our biggest fans as far as being together in a relationship, so it was really a joy to be there.
AD: They're really just so aligned as a couple. They started this photography business together and it's just another way that they embrace partnership. It's really inspiring to us, because we're like, "What can we do together?"
JJ: What goals can we create together moving forward in our relationship?
AD: I think our next endeavor is going to be starting a blog. We're playing with the idea of something called CitiDates. I love food and restaurants and so does Jill, so we want to go experience fabulous restaurants together and then write about them as two vastly different women who happen to be in a relationship together in New York City.
That's a great idea! Speaking of dates, Ariana you mentioned before that Jill plans these amazing dates. What's been your favorite one so far?
AD: All of them have been so good.
JJ: I kind of try to outdo myself each time.
AD: Every time they get better and better, but the last one sticks out in my mind. She had me meet her over by the river, and we went on a ride on this lobster boat with drinks and food. Then it started raining, so for the next part of the date she improvised. We got on the Jitney bus and went over to this Mexican restaurant in Jersey. It was great. We had chips and guac and a margarita and just looked at the city skyline. We also went on a walk right by the dueling grounds for Hamilton, which was hilarious. Then we got back on the Jitney and came home. I loved the spontaneity of it. She's so quick on her feet. She was like, "Ok it's raining. Let's do this instead."
Since you are both so big into restaurants, what are some of your favorites?
AD: I almost don't want to tell you because I don't want anybody else to go! We really love Wine Escape on 44th between Ninth and Tenth [Avenues]. It's a little hole in the wall with really yummy tapas. It's just this perfect romantic scene, and we're fond of the rosé there. We like Anchor [Wine] Bar up in Harlem, and Streetbird on 116th and Frederick Douglass, but that's definitely more of a lunch place. They have dinner too, but we like it for lunch. Their cocktails are awesome.
JJ: We also like to take little daycations. We try to get out of the city as much as possible. We'll take a trip up to Cold Spring or Sleepy Hollow, and spend the night up there, or go to Fire Island. Anything to get out of the city and escape.
AD: A lot of those towns like Cold Spring and Sleepy Hollow are historic in nature. We both love history, so it's a real history lesson for the two of us. They also have these great romantic downtown scenes. It's just a good place to have dinner and do some antiquing if you like to do that…
You're like a couple of old ladies!
JJ: I swear to God, sometimes I think I'm dating a 73 year old.
AD: I just don't have cats.