‘West Side Story’ Star Ariana DeBose Is Always Ready for Her Next Role


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.”

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.



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