It's been a banner year for Ariana DeBose, who recently received her first Tony nomination for her performance as Disco Donna in the new musical Summer The Donna Summer Musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
DeBose, who created the role of Jane in the musical version of Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale and was seen in the original Off-Broadway and Broadway casts of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton, also picked up the Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Female Dancer in a Broadway Show for her work as the late disco queen.
The Chita Rivera Award is one that is likely particularly meaningful for DeBose, who spoke with Playbill the morning the Tony nominations were announced to discuss her journey with Summer.
“If I’m really honest, there hasn’t been a moment in the process that hasn’t been special to me because this is the first time that I’ve gotten the opportunity to build a leading role like this,” says DeBose. (DeBose originated her Bronx Tale role on Broadway but did not develop the role in its earlier iterations.) “Technically, it’s classified as a [featured role], but [it's allowed me to] build a role… in the style of so many women I’ve admired for so long. I built this in the shadow of women like Debbie Allen and Charlotte d’Amboise and Donna McKechnie and Chita Rivera. I built this like a true triple-threat role, and I’m just grateful to the people I have on my creative team, [choreographer] Sergio Trujillo and [music supervisor] Ron Melrose and [director] Des McAnuff, for giving me the space to do that—allowing me to play to my strengths and use them to help tell Donna’s story, which means a lot to me.”
DeBose became involved with the new musical in June 2015, back when Hamilton was nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards, eventually winning 11 trophies. “I actually booked this job the weekend of what we call ’Hamiltony,’” DeBose says with a laugh. “I was walking down 72nd Street with [Hamilton co-star] Daveed Diggs, and we had just left the Beacon Theatre from our Tony rehearsal—it was like maybe a day before the Tonys. I found out that I had booked the workshop of this show Summer and A Bronx Tale at the same time. It was a great day. It was about as good as today!”
Although DeBose was familiar with Donna Summer's music—“my mom liked to exercise to it, and I think I was like seven or eight doing crunches and push-ups to ’On the Radio’ in my living room”—she didn’t get to know “the human that she was until I really started working on the show.”
The actor shares the role of Donna Summer with fellow 2018 Tony nominee LaChanze (Diva Donna) and Storm Lever (Duckling Donna), who play the Grammy winner at different ages. DeBose says the three shared everything they could find about the late singer and composer with each other. “We focused a lot on body language, gestures, movement,” she explains, “anything we could incorporate into our track that would give us the resemblance of a through line because we all are tasked with different parts of her life, and we all have a very specific point of view within the show. Because we’re playing her at different parts of her life, we all have a different perspective on what it is that we’re doing, but when it came to trying to play Donna or be Donna, we’re all Donna.”
Does DeBose have a favorite moment playing Disco Donna?
“I always look forward to ’Hard for the Money,’” she says. “I think that number is such a great anthem for women right now, and the audience eats it up. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for LaChanze and I to be real partners in the show, and she gets to show off her incredible vocal talent. You really can’t beat that voice, and I get to story-tell with my first language, with dance, with movement, and it makes me so happy. It feels like we have become so successful as a team in that moment, so I always really look forward to it.”
As for receiving her first Tony nomination, the actor enthuses, “It’s priceless—it’s everything! I started working in the industry when I was 19 years old, and I made my debut at 21 with [fellow Tony nominee, Mean Girls’] Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren. And I’ve worked my way up through the ranks. I was a feature, and then I did the ensemble, and then I was an understudy.… I really worked hard and continually challenged myself with hard work and perseverance. It really paid off, and this was something I did not see coming. I didn’t see it coming at all. I’m just truly shocked.… I’m just so thrilled to be included. I'm just pinching myself!”