Ariana DeBose on Playing and Forgiving Donna Summer: “Legends Make Mistakes, Too”

Meet the Tony-nominated queer disco diva we love to love, baby.

Who says disco is dead?

Donna Summer’s greatest hits are alive and high-kicking on Broadway in the bio-jukebox Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, and Tony nominee Ariana DeBose is giving audiences life as Disco Donna, one of three spangly incarnations of the late icon.

DeBose, an out triple threat who worked hard for your money in musicals like Hamilton, talks about being hot stuff—and why for those holding grudges against Summer for her alleged anti-gay statements, maybe enough is enough.

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Congrats on your first Tony nomination. Has it sunk in yet?

Absolutely not. It still feels like people are joking. It’s so exciting, but I don’t even know what to do with it yet. I did realize the other day that whenever anyone announces me from now on, “Tony nominee” will be in front of my name. That’s pretty cool.

As with Alison Bechdel in Fun Home and Cher in The Cher Show, Donna Summer in Summer is played by three actresses of different ages. What’s the benefit of having you, LaChanze, and Storm Lever sharing the role of Donna?

When you have three woman embodying one character, it lets the audience get to know all the different perspectives of the person as they change throughout their life. With a memory show like this, it also allows the most mature version of the character to really look back on her life.

The show deals with domestic abuse and has an overarching message of female empowerment. How does it fit into the #MeToo and #TimesUp conversations?

It’s right on point. What Donna went through was only a few decades ago, so it’s a great reminder that we’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go.

A largely female chorus plays both male and female supporting roles. What does that bring to the show?

That echoes the androgyny that was so prevalent in the ’70s, but it also allows women to stand in their power. In a number like “She Works Hard for the Money,” the women behind me are dressed in power suits, so you don’t actually know if they’re men or women. That’s beautiful, because you obviously don’t need to be a man to run a business or handle your shit.

Joan Marcus

When Donna’s dancing with guys in numbers like “Hot Stuff,” you’re actually dancing with women. That’s a nice bonus, isn’t it?

Heck yeah. Jenny Laroche is my dance partner during “Hot Stuff,” and she’s truly the best partner I’ve ever had. And she’s hot! That short wig really enhances her bone structure. I told her the other day that she might want to consider that look for her real life.

What song do you most look forward to performing every night?

That changes, depending on what’s going on in my life or in the world. But lately it’s been “She Works Hard for the Money,” because I’ve been on a tirade about contracting and salary equality. As an artist, I’m a walking business, so I’m connecting to that quite strongly right now.

The audience really gets into the hits, singing along and carrying on. Does the crowd ever do too much?

The enthusiasm can get a little loud, but we have the best sound mixers who adjust appropriately. There was a man the other night who got up and started doing an interpretive dance while I was singing “Dim All the Lights.” I guess he felt the spirit because he was living his whole life. It took me out of the show just for a second, only to think, God, I hope he doesn’t fall over the railing! But if a song can do that for you, I ain’t mad at you.

I yelled, “Yas, queen!” at more than one costume and wig change. Do you have a favorite look?

Paul Tazewell, our costume designer, has done such a beautiful job with all the looks, but my favorite may be my final look for “Hot Stuff.” It fits like a glove, like it’s an extension of my body. It doesn’t even feel like I’m wearing a garment, and I love that.

Joan Marcus

You also have a two-in-one costume reveal that would do very well on the RuPaul’s Drag Race runway.

Oh, honey, RuPaul needs to let me up on that runway and I will show him that magic trick. I’m gunning for a RuPaul moment for the three Donnas.

Some of your past shows, like Hamilton and A Bronx Tale, weren’t really known for glamour. Do you enjoy glamming it up?

It’s fun, and I’m glad I have opportunities to do that in my real life, too. I’m working with Prabal Gurung on my Tonys look, and we’re going full-glam, so I can’t wait. I love an excuse to play with color or enhance my ’fro. I only have two fashion rules: I have to be comfy and feel fierce.

You understudied and went on as Diana Ross in Broadway’s Motown: The Musical. Did that help prepare you to play Donna Summer?

Totally. Diana and Donna’s sensibilities are different, but at a certain point they both had to take ownership of their careers. That’s what I’ve learned to do through my Diana and Donna experiences, which I’m grateful for, and I think that will serve me well moving forward. They taught me that being a diva doesn’t have to mean being a bitch.

What’s something you’ve learned about Donna that surprised you?

Donna didn’t like to be touched, which I thought was funny because she’s such a sexual icon. Unless you were in her circle, you probably weren’t going to get a big hug from her.

Walter McBride/WireImage

Although it would’ve been easy to gloss over, the show addresses Donna’s alleged 1983 public comments that alienated many gay fans: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Why was it important to include that controversy?

That was a big moment in her career. She was the Disco Queen, that community had made her a star, and that was a “fall from grace” moment that changed the course of her life. Most importantly, it happened. What good are we as a show if we’re not willing to tell the truth?

Donna repeatedly denied making those remarks in real life before her death in 2012, but she takes responsibility in the show, calling it a “bad joke.”

I believe what we portray is a similar version of what happened behind closed doors, and that moment in the show is supported by her family. They’ve been protective of her legacy, rightfully so, but they haven’t been afraid of telling the truth, which is really admirable.

That moment comes as part of the “Friends Unknown” number, honoring fans and friends lost to HIV/AIDS, which Donna also allegedly disparaged. Is the show trying to make amends for a woman who can no longer defend herself?

Yeah. It’s important to remind people that icons and legends make mistakes, too. They’re human, just like the rest of us, and they can have regret in their hearts.

Has the LGBT community been embracing the show?

Yeah, I definitely think so. Some are still diehard fans, and some might be coming through just to see what’s happening. No matter what you thought about the woman herself, you can’t deny the music.

Walter McBride/Getty Images

When did you come out as queer professionally?

I never felt I had anything to hide, and I’ve never felt I had to claim a label. I’ve always been open about my views and about loving whomever I love. But when an outlet approached me in 2015 to talk about who was dating, I realized I hadn’t really had a coming out. So I called my grandparents, like, “Hey, just in case you hadn’t picked up the hint, I date both genders, I like what I like, but I do move toward women, so I hope you’re okay with that!”

Has being out impacted your career?

At this point, is anyone shocked by what anyone likes? After that article came out, though, I did see an increase in auditions I got sent on for lesbian roles.

You’re active on social media. Have you heard from fans you’ve inspired just by your living your truth?

Yeah, I have. I get messages from young people I’ve helped find the courage to come out or to tell someone they like them. I don’t take that lightly or for granted, so I try to be careful with my words and how I respond. I encourage young people to try new things, to be cautious without censoring yourself, and to allow yourself your feelings.

You do a lot of work with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and its annual Broadway Bares striptease fundraiser. Why is that cause close to your heart?

I was 21, I’d just moved to New York City, I was making my Broadway debut in Bring It On, and Broadway Cares was screening a documentary about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s. I didn’t know anything about it—that wasn’t in my textbooks—so I went to the screening and a talk they had afterward with Judith Light. I realized AIDS never really went away, but people are ignorant because no one talks about it anymore. Maybe because of figuring out who I was, it bothered me so much to hear the statistics of HIV increases among young people not using protection. From then on, I wanted to give my time to this organization working to create awareness.

You made Broadway Bares history in 2016 by raising the most money ever by a female performer. Are you amping up your workouts to prepare for this year’s event?

I may go to hot yoga a few more times than normal. Being Disco Donna takes so much out of me anyway, so I think that will be enough. I did kick up my routine the first year I participated, but these days I’m trying to be more body-positive. You don’t need a six-pack to be sexy, you know? But trust and believe I’m not getting up on that stage looking flabby.
 

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is now playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York.

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.
@brandonvoss