Ariana DeBose has all the makings of a disco diva—the beauty, the backstory, the insane pipes. Never mind that the 27-year-old was born long after the greatly exaggerated rumors of disco’s death. DeBose is one of three women starring in this spring’s Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, in which she plays the legendary singer, who died in 2012. Along with Storm Lever (“Duckling Donna”) and Tony-winner LaChanze (“Diva Donna”), DeBose (“Disco Donna”) will give Broadway audiences a more comprehensive image of the woman who famously faked an orgasm for 16 minutes on the 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby.”
It’s pouring when DeBose and I meet in Harlem, which instantly conjures visions of someone leaving a cake out in the rain and never having that recipe again. Summer diehards will catch that reference to her first number one single, “MacArthur Park,” a favorite among drag queens and one of more than 20 classics reinterpreted for Summer, which features a book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff (the show opens April 23 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre).
Wet (and cakeless), we make our way to Marshalls, with DeBose insisting she has no intention of buying anything. But soon after we begin strolling through the store, a luscious pink candle jumps out at her. “What is that ?” she asks, picking it up, taking a whiff, and discovering it’s grapefruit. “Aaaand it’s coming home with me.” (It ends up being the first of many.)
Dress by Bottega Veneta.
DeBose grew up in North Carolina, where she was raised by her single mother. She started dancing at 3, but only realized at an audition for a high school musical that she was also a singer. “I was the girl who sang too loud in the car, and my mom would tell me to shut up,” she recalls. Little did Mom know she was just practicing her vocal belt.
She cut her theatrical teeth in 2011’s Bring It On: The Musical, known for including Broadway’s first trans high school character, and then played Mary Wilson in Motown before joining the ensemble of Hamilton. From there her career has been on an upward trajectory, with parts including the female lead in 2016’s A Bronx Tale and “Disco Donna” in the La Jolla Playhouse run of the show in California last year. As a queer, biracial woman, DeBose is acutely aware of not only how lucky she is, but also how hard she’s had to work to avoid being pigeonholed.
“My agent would call and say, ‘Why are you turning down these auditions?’” she says. “But I didn’t identify with the material—I wasn’t passionate about it. I wanted to transition out of being a dancer in the ensemble, so I couldn’t say yes to everything people wanted me to say yes to.” That included reductive roles often offered to queer women of color, such as “the butch lesbian.”
Dress by Jil Sander, Gloves by Wing & Weft Gloves.
“It can be rough when people think who you are in your personal life defines who you are as an actor or an artist,” DeBose says. “Yes, they inform one another, but they’re not the same.”
Depicting Summer at her love-goddess peak, then, represents a significant jeté forward for DeBose, who relishes the era’s over-the-top glam. “It’s full-out with lashes, honey!” she gushes. “I feel like a walking disco ball!”
A definitive voice of the ’70s, Summer was the undisputed queen of disco — before derivative drivel like “Disco Duck” prompted a violent backlash near the decade’s end. Her work with über-producer Giorgio Moroder was gorgeous, symphonic, innovative, and liberating, and it vibrated to the very core of queer people and people of color as they retreated to the safest of spaces: the dance floor.
But Summer alienated much of her audience when, after becoming a born-again Christian, she allegedly referred to AIDS as a punishment for homosexuality. She denied making the statement, but it haunted her for the rest of her career. In a way, that’s what drew DeBose to the show: It humanizes Summer, acknowledging her missteps and reminding us that our icons are not infallible. And with her own star on the rise, DeBose relates to that more than ever.
“I’m kind of going through my own Donna experience,” says DeBose. “It’s that realization of Oh, you’re going to make some big mistakes. The only way you get through them is to own them.”
She continues, “You greet everyone with kindness and compassion, including yourself, and hope for the best. That’s where I’m at—I just hope for the best.” With that, DeBose, holding an armful of new candles, steps back out into the rain.
Previews for Summer: The Donna Summers Musical begin March 28, 2018, before opening on April 23 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Photography: David Dunan
Styling: Michael Cook
Hair: Brian Buenaventura at Management Artists
Makeup: Ayami Nishimura at The Wall Group