Ariana DeBose has had quite the extensive career onstage, starring in the original cast of Hamilton and being nominated for a Tony Award for playing a young Donna Summer in Donna. But it was Steven Spielberg‘s film adaptation of West Side Story that turned her into a star: for her portrayal of Anita (who sings the musical’s signature song, ‘America’), she won every major award (Oscar, BAFTA, SAG, Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice). But DeBose only became a household name recently – and entirely by accident.
She opened the BAFTAs with a number celebrating the female nominees. Some found it cringe-worthy, others thought it was ‘camptastic’, but all publicity is good publicity… The ambiguous line “Angela Bassett did the thing” has become a pop culture phenomenon, with both Lizzo and Adele referencing it at recent concerts, Todrick Hall sharing a remix on to his Instagram story, and Bassett herself referencing it when she won an NAACP Award: “I guess Angela Basset did the thing!”
DeBose had suggested she might open her first-ever headlining concert with a redo of the BAFTA rap. I thought she was joking…
She was not.
Before DeBose even took to the stage, she sang the verse, beginning with the Angela line. She then took to the stage, wearing a smart black blazer, and offered a rendition of Madonna‘s ‘Vogue’, which her BAFTA number had been inspired by. Clearly, she would be replacing Madonna’s iconic bridge, in which she celebrates female icons, with her own – and she did just that.
“Angela Bassett did the thing!” she chanted, the audience erupting into an applause so loud that you could hardly hear her sing the next line, “Viola Davis, my Woman King“.
She followed this with her dance cover of ‘Shall We Dance?’ from The King and I – which is very marmite but undeniably fun. It was after this that she offered an introduction. She referenced a few of her favourite artists, including fellow Latina (and my favourite artist) Shakira! She also told us that Madonna had played at the Palladium, which made her cover of ‘Vogue’ extra special.
The final song of the first section was a medley that included Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep – Mountain High’.
She arrived back onstage in a beautiful white gown, with a slit right up to her crotch – classy but sexy – and covered Liza Minnelli’s ‘Sorry I Asked’. It was clear that the evening was going to be a mix of pop songs, theatre standards, and DeBose’s own music.
She then covered Sam Sparro’s ‘Black and Gold’, which I had been listening to days before, and told us that she had danced to it on So You Think You Can Dance – on which she came last! She felt no shame about admitting that – heck, she’s one of the most successful people to come out of the show. She competed alongside Karen Hauer who did not do too great either but is now the longest-serving professional on Strictly Come Dancing.
She then sang another Madonna song, ‘Ray of Light’ (dedicated to New York City, with the lyric, “I feel like I just got home”), with elements of ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music. Quite the mix, right? Our girl is eclectic!
It became apparent that the concert was semi-linear, with DeBose reliving her career so far. She told us that she starred in the original cast of Hamilton as The Bullet and a member of the ensemble. As a Hamilton fan, I know that the only number The Bullet sings is ‘Blow Us All Away’, but it is sang with several other performers so it would not have been the right choice for a concert. Instead, DeBose sang her favourite song from the musical: King George’s ‘You’ll Be Back’. It was quite witty singing that to a British audience, and I’m here for it.
DeBose then spoke a little about West Side Story, and I expected her to sing ‘America’, but she did not. Her musical director (and best friend), Benjamin Rauhala, then interrupted and told us that the teleprompter included text from a conversation the pair had had earlier on about ordering fish and chips! “Authenticity,” DeBose joked, referencing the name of the two-date tour.
The penultimate song of the first act was ‘A Quiet Thing’, which was sang by the aforementioned Minnelli in Flora the Red Menace. DeBose then told us that there was one more song before the “interval”, being careful not to say “intermission”, before Rauhala told us that proceeds from merchandise sales would be going to the queer charity Mermaids.
DeBose closed the act with a rendition of Richard Harris’ ‘MacArthur Park’, which was famously covered by Donna Summer and included in the musical Summer. DeBose said that the role of Disco Donna earned her her “first” Tony nomination, with Rauhala sassily remarking that she is manifesting another.
Theatre fans will recognise the outrageously camp ‘MacArthur Park’ from Priscilla Queen of the Desert, with its hilarious lyric, “Someone left a cake out in the rain”. I remember Nicole Scherzinger singing it at her solo concert back in 2019. Andrew Lloyd Webber had told her that he had a song for her, and she presumed he was blessing her with one of his standards – but she was very wrong.
For the second act, DeBose wore a gorgeous, glittering, see-through, black gown. She opened the act with a diva medley that she had first sang over a decade ago – and which inspired her fabulous Tony opening number. The medley included ‘All That Jazz’ from Chicago, Ruth Etting’s ‘Get Happy’ (most famously covered by Judy Garland), Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, Barbra Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ (from Funny Girl), ‘Buenos Aires’ (from Evita), and Beyoncé’s ‘Love on Top’. Talk about variety…
The second song of the second act was ‘Alyssa Green’ from The Prom – which DeBose sang in the film adaptation. The role is close to DeBose’s heart because of the queer, brown, female representation.
DeBose revealed that she is voicing a character in an upcoming Disney movie called Wish, which has a score by Julia Michaels (‘Issues’). Sadly, she cannot yet sing anything from the film so instead she covered Michaels’ ‘That’s the Kind of Woman’.
The penultimate song of the main set was a beautiful cover of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, which received a stellar applause. She ended the set with ‘Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)’ from West Side Story. DeBose of course played Anita in the recent film adaptation, starring alongside Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original film. In the new film, Moreno plays Valentina, a reworked version of Doc, and it is she who sings this touching tune.
The encore was made up of The Carpenters’ ‘Close to You’ and ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ – which she ended with one line from ‘Dancing Queen’. It was a fun end to a fabulous concert.
I was very surprised – disappointed, even – that DeBose did not sing ‘America’. The second act had opened with part of an instrumental from the song, and the audience had cheered with excitement, only to realise that it was merely an overture. DeBose had backing singers and dancers so there was no reason not to include it, but alas – she may not have sang ‘America’ but she still did the thing!