The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story shows rival 1950s gangs prowling the ruins of the residential buildings that were demolished to make way for the creation of Lincoln Center. On Saturday, April 8, Ariana DeBose—who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Anita in the film—will make her solo concert debut at David Geffen Hall, which stands on the ground of that very space.
In many ways, it’s a Broadway homecoming celebration for a star who has more recently taken a seat at the Hollywood table. When she booked West Side Story, DeBose was one of three women playing disco icon Donna Summer at different stages in her life in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, for which she earned a Tony nomination; prior to that, she had risen from ensemble roles in four shows, including the original cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, to a lead role in A Bronx Tale The Musical.
DeBose is now in London to rehearse her concert, titled Authenticity, for its debut at the London Palladium on April 1, a week before its New York performance as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. The actress, singer and dancer has collaborated with her longtime musical director, Benjamin Rauhala, on a set list that includes songs by Dionne Warwick, Judy Garland, Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ray Charles and ABBA—and even a nod to the opening number she performed at BAFTA Film Awards ceremony earlier this year to much amusement (and some criticism) on social media.
Time Out New York spoke with her about how the show reflects her as a person and how she’s navigating a new tier of stardom.
At the beginning of the pandemic, you performed outside at Tavern on the Green. Two years later, you’re headlining Lincoln Center. What does that mean to you?
I am floored that they even asked. I made my New York City debut back in 2009 at Alice Tully Hall which is now [across from] the reimagined David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. That was in Stephen Sondheim’s Company starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Katie Finneran, Martha Plimpton, Anika Noni Rose and Steven Colbert. There I was in the ensemble pushing the couches and dancing in a yellow nightie. Every time I walked by when I first moved to the city, I was just so enamored [by the buildings]. There’s something so majestic and magnificent about the whole space. I’m tickled pink that I get to come back to this space and get to do this—and do this as myself. The show is called Authenticity and that’s exactly what I am doing. I am bringing my whole self to this and telling pieces of my journey and all the things I have learned.
What might audiences be surprised to learn about you in this concert?
People will be pleasantly surprised to realize what you see is really what you get. I feel like you would probably agree with this. I don’t necessarily feel like I have changed, especially over the last couple of years. I’ve always tried to bring kindness and joy into any space that I’m in. I don’t treat people differently because they’re famous or because they’re fans or because they worked in finance. I treat you as if you come into my home. You’re getting honesty. I started when I was 19 years old. I’m 32 now. I can’t believe I’ve made it this far. but it’s not without challenges and without struggles at times. I think I present as a fairly confident human being. But even the most confident human beings have their moments, and I plan to explore some of that with the audience.
Have people asked you about changing at all now that your celebrity has been magnified?
No. Most of the time people ask me about award shows, or Morgan Freeman, or what Meryl is like.
But I want to know about you.
Exactly. That’s what the show is about. When you’re someone like me who comes from what I deem to be quite humble beginnings, and you’re kind of thrust into it, people want to know what’s going on around you. It’s very rare that people actually ask how I am. The show explores a lot of that. Yes, I am allowed to feel that things are incredibly fabulous and allowed to feel the magnitude of the wonderment of it all. I’m also allowed to have very human reactions to things. Just because it’s shiny doesn’t always mean that it feels good. What do they say? To every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. I remember watching Daveed Diggs every night [in Hamilton], and he would say, ‘To every action, his equal opposite reaction.’
How are you doing after two award seasons?
I’m probably handling it as well as anybody could. I feel like I’m doing pretty well. It’s a funny thing. Nobody gives you a handbook on what happens after you win an award or a series of awards. I’m lucky that I’ve got a really good group of people, a great home base and a really strong team around me who helped me navigate. I also go to therapy, like every other person.
I think I present as a fairly confident human being. But even the most confident human beings have their moments and I plan to explore some of that with the audience.
Will you perform your epic BAFTA number?
I don’t shy away from it. I’m not gonna give any details on how we do it. But I can tell you that I own every ounce of what that BAFTA rap is. I have fun with it in the show. So if you’re coming to have fun, you’ll enjoy it.
What was the behind-the-scenes process of writing it?
[My musical director Benjamin Rauhala and I] wrote that little ditty in my living room doing exactly what we’ve always done: being silly together. We also understand that each and every one of these women are a part of massively different projects. And we only had a certain amount of time to get these beautiful women their deserved shoutouts. When you’re using a rap and essentially a pop [culture] moment as a device, it does elevate it. These lyrics were never meant to be Charles Dickens. They are what they are. On Ben’s TikTok people were asking about why [one lyric was] ‘Blanchett, Cate?’ It’s literally a play on Madonna’s “Vogue” rap. It was a real collaborative effort on everyone’s part including the BAFTA team of producers. We did about what feels like five different versions of that rap before we got to the one that you saw on camera. It was like a mini workshop-of-a-musical moment, where you get notes and you make a change, you get more notes and you make a different change. And it was a grand experiment. I still maintain what it was. It was just fun. I enjoy the memes. There are DJ remixes to this little rap.
Rita Moreno always said she didn’t book jobs after winning an Oscar for West Side Story. Has that changed? Because you seem to have so many projects.
Rita was the first. When you’re the first, you will go through things that people who come after you may not have to experience. Because of Rita’s journey, I do believe things have been different for me. I’m very grateful to have all the opportunities I have. I’ve made several projects in the wake of my Oscar win. Even before my Oscar win I was starting to receive more job offers. I began work on Kraven the Hunter for Sony/Marvel before I won an Oscar. I’ve done really cool, really different projects since that time and I’m looking forward to sharing them—notably, Wish, celebrating 100 years at Disney Animation. Disney’s getting a new heroine. And I’ve gone back to hang out with my Schmigadoon! family. Schmigadoon! Season 2 comes out very soon (April 6th on AppleTV+). It’s more sinister, with a little darker tone, but it’s sexy. It’s very funny.
Did you have an input in your role this season, or did creator Cinco Paul just say you’re going to play the Emcee-type character from Cabaret?
He asked me well before we finished Season 1 about what kind of character I’d like to do next. I said I’d love it to be something a little dark. [My Season 1 character] Emma Tate was very Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. That man’s a genius and he’s written me a beautiful song.
What role or what show would it take for you to block out a year on Broadway?
I’m still working on that one, to be honest. When I come back to Broadway, I want it to be the perfect thing. I have a little stage fright, so this concert’s kind of helping me work through it. Isn’t that silly? I still get really nervous. The things you want to come back to do, they mean more. I don’t want to let anybody down. And I want to make sure I’m giving people the best show that I have to give. So I have work to do. I’m training. Not only am I working on my physical stamina but my vocal stamina—both singing and speaking. People forget that when you’re doing a Broadway show it is a full-time job. You really have to dial in. It’s not for the faint of heart. It will take me a beat to be really ready because I want to give those audiences a show!
Will you ever perform an original song at an awards show again?
Yes. I try not to let things scare me away from doing things. So will I perform an original song at an unknown award show at some future moment? Probably.
We asked DeBose to share her top five places of inspiration here in NYC:
Tavern on the Green
I love Central Park, and it is the perfect city destination for me because you get to walk through the park, see all the people, and end up at this magical destination complete with great cocktails and twinkle lights if you sit outside.
The perfect midtown hole-in-the-wall combination of an intimate environment, fabulous service, great tapas, and delicious pink bubbles.
Real old-school diner realness with the best turkey burgers in the city hands down.
The Fluer Room (at the Moxy)
Because it is magical all around. The views are absolutely stunning in conjunction with flowers EVERYWHERE. It’s an experience.
Pebble Bar (Rockefeller Center)
Great post-show destination. They specialize in seafood and ambiance. Chic location with different energy on each floor and a phenomenal staff.
Click here For tickets to Ariana DeBose: Authenticity Saturday, April 8, 2023, at 7:30pm at David Geffen Hall. Prices range from $35 to $85 there is also a pay-what-you-can rush on the day of the show at the box office.