‘West Side Story’ Star Ariana DeBose Is Always Ready for Her Next Role
On a recent fall evening, the actress Ariana DeBose was ordering soup at a cafe near her apartment in New York’s Upper East Side, the lower half of her face covered by a commemorative mask from the reopening of the Broadway show “Six.” DeBose, 30, has no professional relationship to the musical — a poppy reimagining of the lives of Henry VIII’s wives with an emphasis on female empowerment — but her boldly displayed endorsement of the production set a perfect tone for our conversation that night about the women, artists and opportunities that have contributed to making her one of the most sought-after musical theater actresses of her generation. Few performers are shy when it comes to discussing their influences and obsessions, but in DeBose’s telling, it’s impossible to separate any step of her career from the people who helped her get there.
She has indeed been in good company. Growing up in Raleigh, N.C., DeBose began dancing competitively at age 7 — she says she “started with the whole ‘ballet, tap, jazz’ of it all” — and dreamed of becoming a backup dancer for Madonna. Soon after finishing high school, she was a finalist on the reality TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.” And over the past decade, she has starred in six back-to-back Broadway musicals and booked two stage-to-screen adaptations, the most recent of which, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” comes out next month. But while her list of collaborators includes greats like Lin-Manuel Miranda — she played a supporting role in the original production of “Bring It On: The Musical” in 2011 and the Bullet in “Hamilton” from 2015 to 2016 — as well as Robert De Niro (“A Bronx Tale”), Adrienne Warren (“Bring It On”), Diane Paulus (“Pippin”), LaChanze (“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”) and the entire starry cast of Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” (2020), it’s her offstage relationships especially that would make any up-and-comer swoon.
While still in high school, she joined the actors Charlotte d’Amboise and Terrence Mann’s musical theater summer intensive, Triple Arts, at Western Carolina University, and the legendary stage couple took DeBose under their wing, coaching her for auditions and encouraging her to skip college and go straight to Broadway. Following that advice paid off — “I had the benefit of learning in real time,” DeBose says — and she was soon cast in “Bring It On.” When the cheerleading acrobatics that that show required began to take a toll, DeBose’s mother suggested she rush a different show to cheer herself up, and she caught a performance of the 2011 revival of “Follies.” She was so mesmerized by the veteran actress Jan Maxwell’s turn as former showgirl Phyllis Rogers Stone that she left a note for her at the stage door afterward. Months later, DeBose received a call from a friend who was starring alongside Maxwell; apparently, Maxwell, having related to the professional doubts DeBose had expressed in her note, had taped it to her dressing room mirror for inspiration. The two women struck up a friendship that lasted until the older actress’s death in 2018.
Such a charmed arrival onto the New York theater scene is almost unheard of and, aware that her current wealth of opportunities is rare, DeBose is determined to prove herself worthy of them.“I don’t ever want anybody to look at my work and think, ‘Why does she have that when they could’ve hired someone else?’” she says. “I don’t ever want to ask myself, ‘Did I do enough?’” It’s not impostor syndrome, she assures me, but rather a perfectionist impulse — one that led her, for example, to brush up on her little-used tap skills last year for her role as an old-timey schoolmarm in Apple TV’s musical series “Schmigadoon!” (2021); in between shooting in Vancouver she would take Zoom classes and watch YouTube tutorials in her hotel room.
In other ways, too, there is something distinctly 21st century about DeBose’s career. Besides being an openly queer woman of Afro Latinx descent, she has bounced from role to role — often with little time to prepare — in a way that is reflective of our current gig economy. In the 1960s and ’70s, a performer with her skill set might have been cast in a single musical and ridden the wave of its success for years, touring with the production around the world and resting on the laureled association. But DeBose’s ability to move quickly through roles has reaped its own rewards: She has earned a Tony nomination and won a Chita Rivera Award — both for her most recent Broadway appearance, as Disco Donna, one of the leads in “Summer” — among other accolades. Her dancing in that show, as in each of her performances, had the precision and dynamism of a lifelong performing arts kid who stopped formal training just before conservatory programs could overwrite her natural inclination toward wild abandon. And so she can put her mark on choreographic work whether it is more exacting, as in “Hamilton,” or looser, as in “Bring It On.” She credits her versatility, too, to her knack for meeting directors and choreographers where they are. “Most creators are very intense, and each has their own brand of intensity, their own language,” she explains. “I think part of the reason I’ve been able to continue to book jobs is because I chose to learn how to speak other people’s artistic languages quickly.”
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And, yet, she admits she was nervous, understandably, when Spielberg called to personally offer her the role of Anita, the Nuyorican bridal shop employee who leads “America,” the crackling paean to immigrant double consciousness in “West Side Story.” “Not only am I remaking ‘West Side Story,’ but I’m stepping into Rita Moreno’s shoes — and she is beloved not only by Latinos but by the entire industry and musical fandom,” DeBose says. “I had to really search my soul.” But Moreno herself — who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita in the 1961 film, and who both executive produced and stars as Valentina, an updated version of the original’s Doc, in the new adaptation — encouraged DeBose to make the role her own and offered herself as a sounding board during production. “I genuinely like the woman she is, and mentorship, especially for young women, is beautiful and hard to come by in this industry,” DeBose says.
Humility aside, DeBose says she would love to originate a character, and laments the lack of dance-heavy roles created for new stars, naming Charity Hope Valentine (“Sweet Charity”) and Roxie Hart (“Chicago”) as the last of the greats. A coy smile wraps around her coffee cup when I ask her, quoting Oprah Winfrey’s 2021 interview with Meghan Markle, “Who is having that conversation?” — namely that of staging a “Sweet Charity” revival. It’s a fool’s game to dream-cast any artistic project — especially when that project is an as-yet-unplanned Broadway revival of a 1966 production that doesn’t get much lip service these days — but the idea of DeBose as the meandering dancer for hire who has “so much love to give,” and longs for a brighter future with her two best friends, lingers for the rest of our conversation.
When the subject changes to DeBose’s love of the “Mamma Mia!” movies, she explains that it’s the chemistry between Meryl Streep’s character and her two friends that most appeals to her. Earlier, she mentioned, too, the maternal energy that underpins the relationship between her Anita and Rachel Zegler’s Maria in “West Side Story” and, aware of the support she received from Moreno, I ask if the three actresses might ever put on denim overalls and do aerial splits on a Greek island. “Honestly, Rita could still do the jumps,” DeBose says with a laugh. “To have your best girls always have your back, and to be able to laugh and cry and sing ‘Chiquitita’ to each other, that’s all I could ask for.”
Hair by Eric Williams at Streeters. Makeup by Isabel Rosado. Stylist’s assistant: India Reed