Ariana DeBose loves a mashup. In a concert, it might be Katy Perry meets Kander & Ebb, or Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Sondheim’s Company. But that idea of blending disparate qualities is also present in her person. She can be blunt, but kind. She is glamorous and grounded. She is a giver, but she sets boundaries. She is both an ensemblist and a leading lady. She is North Carolinian and Puerto Rican.
“Authenticity is about how you reconcile the fullness of your identity and walk through this world proudly when there are many entities that try to make you small,” says DeBose. “I believe in taking up space and making space for everyone.”
DeBose is chatting about authenticity because it is the title of her new concert. Along with her long-time collaborator music director Benjamin Rauhala, DeBose has created an evening of music (and mashups) and storytelling in which she is unabashedly herself. Following a date at the London Palladium, Authenticity will play Lincoln Center’s American Songbook: A Place You Belong series at David Geffen Hall April 8.
(See a little teaser video for the concert below featuring DeBose performing Alanis Morrisette's "Hand in My Pocket" accompanied by Rauhala.)
“I made a decision a long time ago to live out loud and on purpose,” says DeBose. “And my journey both in my work and in my life is all about finding what is truly authentic to me.” DeBose uses the show to discuss that journey, highlighting different projects and pivotal moments in her life and career.
“Fun fact: I didn’t go to one of those beacon universities for musical theatre,” admits the Tony nominee and Oscar-winning actor. “I dropped out of college to pursue my dream. That path is not for everyone, but as a result I have a different way of learning. I ended up learning on the job.” From her Broadway debut in Bring It On to her turn as Anita in the 2021 film remake of West Side Story, DeBose says she has learned something from each of the projects she’s worked on.
Bring It On taught her the nuts and bolts of how to make theatre. Motown, her second Broadway show at just age 22, really taught her about herself, she says. “I was forced to grow up and acknowledge some things about my identity and how I felt within the community.”
Although DeBose understudied (and went on several times) as the Leading Player in the 2014 revival of Pippin, it was her breakout ensemble track as The Bullet in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 juggernaut Hamilton that opened her eyes to her potential. “I really had to reckon with the reality that as an ensemblist you can love everything you are doing, and also realize that maybe you have more to offer,” she says. “It was such an important time for me because I got to see beautiful examples of how to level up.”
Then with Summer, she originated her first Broadway role as Disco Donna, the second of three Donnas in the 2018 bio musical, where she received her Tony nominations (and which, coincidentally, she was starring in when she auditioned for West Side Story). “Donna Summer turned me into a leading lady,” says DeBose.
The performer’s life has changed dramatically in the last two years since her Oscar win. “It feels like I have a different kind of spotlight on me these days,” but it’s one that she says she’s grateful for. With West Side Story thrusting her into a more national space, there are more requests and demands on her. She’s learned to protect her own energy when so much more is being asked of her so that she can give her best and most honest self. That honesty is another facet of her authenticity.
“I would rather show up as myself and tell you the truth with kindness and from a place of compassion and empathy, as opposed to lying about something,” she says. “I’m an openly queer woman of color. I belong to this very specific community. It has never paid for us to sugarcoat things. I think the world needs more compassionate honesty.”
That brighter spotlight has led to some high-profile hosting gigs for DeBose as well: the 2022 Tony ceremony and last month, the 2023 BAFTAs. For the BAFTAs (British Academy Film Awards), DeBose and Rauhala wrote a rap that celebrated the women nominated for that evening. The moment went viral and online ridicule led to DeBose deleting her Twitter account. Though you don’t have to worry about her, Debose assures us.
“I’m good,” DeBose says. “Not everybody’s gonna like what you do. Now, that doesn’t change the fact that when I step out on a stage, I’m stepping out to put good energy into the world.” And she absolutely stands by her statement: Angela Basset did do the thing, and Viola Davis is her woman king. “I’m silly. I’m campy. If anyone knew my work prior, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But I do think the internet is a wild thing,” she says. “I don’t put a lot of stock into hatred. You win some, you lose some. None of it will keep me from doing what I love.”
DeBose credits her family, and specifically her mother, with instilling in her an ability to bounce back. Growing up multiracial in a single-parent home in the South was a quick lesson in “people are always going to have something to say.” She also reminds us that she was on a reality show at age 18 (So You Think You Can Dance): “That journey wasn’t exactly fun, either.”
“We talk about this in the show as well—about learning life lessons early” she says. “It feels like when you’re young, they hurt worse. You feel them so deeply. But if you allow them to teach you, some lessons will carry you through in your adulthood. You are able to take things less personally because nine times out of 10, it isn’t actually about you.”
With Authenticity, DeBose will share those lessons through story, song, dance, mashups, and her shared quirky sense of humor with Rauhala. “I’m so appreciative of anyone who buys a ticket to come to this show, because I’m keenly aware that making a decision to come see a live concert or go to a Broadway show is not something that is easy for many people these days,” she says. To that end, Lincoln Center has several price point options available for the one-night only concert, starting at $35. (Click here for tickets.)
Says DeBose, “I come from humble beginnings, so I understand what that is. I promise a beautiful show because I care that they chose me.”