HomeLife StyleAriana DeBose, Tonys Host, Just Might Be the Busiest Woman on Broadway

Ariana DeBose, Tonys Host, Just Might Be the Busiest Woman on Broadway

“Baby,” Ariana DeBose confided, “you are always on.”

DeBose, an Oscar winner and a longtime Broadway phenom, was speaking of herself, in the second person, last Saturday evening. Dressed in a beige ribbed tank, athletic shorts and chunky heeled boots, she was still glistening from a rehearsal for Sunday’s Tony Awards broadcast. “On” is an understatement: This will be her third time hosting the ceremony, and her first time producing and choreographing.

“Why I did that, I’ll never know,” she said. “Dear lord, the Tonys is just one giant learning experience. You have to be humble.”

Humble. And very busy. DeBose is 33 but still very much a theater kid. Her speech was fast, excitable, and when not vaping from a hot pink pen, she had a tendency to reach out to pat my arm or leg, an intimate form of emphasis. Soon, she would take herself out for a hurried plate of pasta before racing to an evening show. For the past two weeks, DeBose has been on a mission, however implausible, to see all of the nominated plays and musicals.

Until the end of May, DeBose had been in Winnipeg, Manitoba, shooting an action film, “With Love.” She arrived in New York City the Saturday before Memorial Day and saw her first show that Sunday. On the day we spoke, a week before the broadcast, she had just three shows remaining. (One, “Water for Elephants,” she would see that night.) And this was in addition to arduous rehearsal days.

“These are opposite processes,” she said of hosting and spectating. “They’re very different disciplines, but you can’t host if you don’t know who’s involved. So to me, it’s a requirement.”

That schedule seemed grueling. DeBose chose a different word: inspiring. “I’m not exhausted by Broadway,” she said, flashing her 100-watt smile. “I’m like, ‘Y’all are doing it. Y’all are doing the moves.’”

This Broadway season struck her as unusually varied. Still she recognized overarching themes. Many shows were about the indomitability of the human spirit. “Which is so beautiful,” she said. “That’s the function of art, a reminder that there is hope in the world.” Others asked the audience to consider difficult topics — prejudice, aggression, acceptance. As a dancer, she also had enthusiastic words for some of the choreography, especially the fight scene in “The Outsiders.” She described Justin Peck’s “Illinoise” as “a new generation’s ‘Movin’ Out,’ or the original Bob Fosse’s ‘Dancin’.”

Occasionally she has felt jealous, though mostly in a joyful way, dreaming of what it might have been like to feature in this season’s “Cabaret” revival or to have played Gussie in “Merrily We Roll Along.” And she has admired this season’s mix of Hollywood names and newly minted talent. “For every ‘Mother Play,’ there’s a ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’” she said, referring to star turns from the veteran performer Jessica Lange (“Mother Play”) and the Broadway newcomer Maleah Joi Moon (“Hell’s Kitchen”).

When the Tonys approached her about hosting its 2022 show, she was fresh off an Oscar win and wasn’t a household name. (She is more recognizable now, though in bathroom lines at shows, she most commonly hears: “Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Ariana DeBose?”) She figures that the producers were attracted to her story, an ensemble member made good. “Beyond that, I don’t know what they were smoking,” she said.

On the other side of the pandemic, her exuberance was most likely a draw, as was her sunniness. “I have a personal rule of positive vibes only,” she said. For the past two broadcasts, she has delivered celebration without snark, even in the midst of last year’s writers’ strike, when she had to work without a script.

But underlying this exuberance is what she described as “crippling anxiety,” because she wants to be the best host possible and because she feels that as a queer woman of color, she doesn’t have much margin for error.

“If I get it wrong, then it could lessen somebody else’s chances,” she said. “If I go out there and blow it, I don’t know when they’re going to hire a woman of color or a queer person, just because I got it wrong once.”

DeBose has announced that this will be her last year as Tonys host, at least for a while, in large part because she hopes to return to Broadway. When she left, she was an ingénue, now she’s in her leading era. And she wants to lead a show that is “humane and doable, because I have worked in productions that are not,” she said. “When I come back, I just want to try and get it right.”

In the meantime, she had these last shows to see and one giant awards ceremony to prepare for. There would be dazzling outfits, a showstopping opener and a chilled bottle of rosé once she had pulled it all off. Which she would.

“I am an entertainer,” she said. “This is about pleasure and enjoyment and celebration. Those were my mandates. And that’s what we’re doing.”

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