Ariana DeBose always had big dreams. But her career has exceeded those childhood dreams and then some.
At 25, she’s not only performing in her fifth (!) hit Broadway show, but she’s starring as one of the leads in one of Broadway’s most high profile new musicals – “A Bronx Tale,” directed by the superstar team of Jerry Zaks and Robert DeNiro.
“A Bronx Tale” officially opened Dec. 1 to mostly positive reviews, especially for the show’s stars, DeBose included.
“I often pinch myself,” said DeBose, who grew up in New Bern and Raleigh. “I don’t exactly understand how I’ve been able to end up doing these incredible shows.
“I mean yes, it’s a combination of hard work and talent and luck, of course. But I couldn’t have made this story up if I tried.”
DeBose’s story has seen her jump from one headline making moment to the next.
In 2009, she was part of the Top 20 on television’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” Three years later she was part of the original cast of the short-lived Broadway cast of “Bring It On: The Musical,” followed by a brief stint as a replacement cast member in the Broadway revival of “Pippin.”
Then, in 2013, DeBose was part of the original Broadway cast for “Motown: The Musical” in 2013, in which she starred as Mary Wilson, one of the Supremes.
With ‘Hamilton,’ we were making history in the moment.
Actress Ariana DeBose
And then there was a little show called “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
For two years DeBose was part of the original cast of what has been hailed as one of the most revolutionary shows in theater history.
“Hamilton” became an instant phenomenon, winning a historic number of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical. And the sold-out audiences have included a steady stream of celebrities and dignitaries, including President Obama and his family.
“With ‘Hamilton,’ we were making history in the moment. We knew it was something special but no one knew what was going to come from moment to moment,” she said. “It just grew. We were living history.”
DeBose left “Hamilton” this summer, ready to try her luck in Hollywood. But the Bronx came calling.
“A Bronx Tale,” based on the 1993 movie, celebrates the street smart Italian life of the 1960s. It is in this world, that a young man, Calogero, struggles to figure out which path to follow – that of his everyman bus driver father or the path of the mob boss who takes Calogero under his wing.
DeBose plays a pivotal role – Jane, the black girlfriend of the young man. Their interracial romance serves as a major twist that propels the show’s second half.
“She’s a catalyst for a lot of the major plot points that you see come to fruition,” DeBose says of her character. “Without her, I don’t know that Calogero would fully begin to understand who he was and what he stands for.
“She ultimately helps him become a better man.”
A storyteller at heart
The role has also proven to be a boon for DeBose, who graduated from Wake Forest-Rolesville High School (her mom is a teacher at Wakefield Middle School).
While growing up in Raleigh, she studied dance at CC & Co. Dance Complex.
In high school she was in the marching and concert bands, did choreography for the color guard, was president of the chorus department, and was active in her high school’s dance department, art and photography clubs. She also performed with the school’s theater group.
“I’ve always prided myself in being versatile,” she said of the leap from the hip hop of “Hamilton” to the doo wop of “A Bronx Tale. “But what’s been great, even though it’s a challenge, is going from being an ensemble member to taking center stage again.
“It’s one thing to sing, dance and act in the ensemble. It’s another thing to do it as a lead character.”
And, while the role of Jane calls for a bit of dancing, it’s primarily a singing and acting role.
“I love storytelling. I always have,” DeBose said. “I don’t like to call myself one thing – a dancer or an actor or a singer. I really refer to myself as a storyteller. So whatever I have to do to tell the story I will do.”
And DeBose says Jane’s part in the “A Bronx Tale” is an especially important one.
“The (interracial relationship) is something that definitely drew me to the piece as well,” she said. “I think, given the state of the world right now, their romance serves as a mirror for our country and our society in a way.
“We get to see who we were as a people and how we treated young folks like Calogero and Jane. It’s a great reminder of who we do not want to be. And it’s a great symbol of hope. We’re reminded that love can win.”
DeBose had planned to attend Western Carolina University after high school. But when she successfully auditioned for “So You Think You Can Dance” she deferred her enrollment.
She did eventually go to WCU but left after a few months when she broke her ankle while performing. She ended up booking her first major job a week later, despite her broken ankle – dancing on the soap opera “One Life To Live.”
Now that “A Bronx Tale” has officially opened (with DeBose earning almost universal acclaim from the critics), DeBose has time to enjoy being in another hit show, albeit one that has been a very different experience from “Hamilton.”
I’ve gotten very good about turning my drawl off when I need to. But every once in a while, in rehearsal, (DeNiro) would say, ‘Did Jane go home to North Carolina?’
Actress Ariana DeBose
“I’ve never had the opportunity to work with a team like this,” she said of the superstar-laden creative team headed by Zaks and DeNiro, along with writer Chazz Palminteri, songwriter Alan Menken and choreographer Sergio Trujillo.
“With this team, there’s a different feeling just because these men have the respect of the entire industry,” she said. “There’s a different scrutiny, a different way that people look at the show and look at us who represent the show.
“I think that people will look at me differently now, not just because of my role and this character, but because of these men. It takes someone very special, I’ve discovered, to get them to say ‘yes’ to you. So just that I’ve got this job has changed things for me and my career.”
But some things probably won’t change, DeBose said.
The smell of good home cooking, for example, can still bring her right back to her days growing up back home in North Carolina.
“I’ve gotten very good about turning my drawl off when I need to,” she said, laughing. “But every once in a while, in rehearsal, (DeNiro) would say, ‘Did Jane go home to North Carolina?’ So yes, I still have it in me.”
“A Bronx Tale” is playing on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York City.
For tickets and information go online at http://abronxtalethemusical.com/