If Ariana DeBose walks home with a trophy at the 2018 Tony Awards, she might have to thank Nicole Kidman in her acceptance speech.
The 27-year-old Tony-nominated actress channelled Kidman to play Donna Summer in the new Broadway musical Summer — which chronicles the Grammy winning singer’s journey from church choir adolescent to disco queen diva to cancer-struck painter through her collection of chart-topping hits (DeBose is one of three stars who plays Summer in the show, including LaChanze and newcomer Storm Lever).
Of course, Kidman isn’t the first person you’d think of when it comes to playing Donna Summer. But DeBose ultimately found inspiration from the Australian star when tackling one scene in which Summer faces the turmoil of domestic abuse head-on.
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“I first starting rehearsing that scene around the time Big Little Lies was airing, and the work Nicole Kidman was doing was so brave that I ended up using that as an inspiration,” DeBose tells PEOPLE of the moment in the show, which is set to Summer and Barbra Streisand’s 1979 single “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).”
“I think it’s so interesting what people do when they’re playing in the darkness,” DeBose adds. “I’m not afraid of the dark. It was one of the things that excited me when I first read the script because I was aware of the ‘jukebox musicals don’t tackle subjects like this’ stigma and I thought that was very brave of them to do just that.”
“Brave” would be a good word to describe Summer herself.
Born in 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts, the late singer was the victim of sexual abuse as a young child before crashing into the music scene with the release of her first major single, 1975’s “Love to Love You Baby.” Hits like “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “On the Radio,” “I Feel Love,” “Bad Girls,” and “Last Dance” brought her fame, but Summer struggled with the sexual icon persona that came with it. After a suicide attempt and that aforementioned abusive relationship, Summer eventually took control of her career — leaving her record label and rebuilding her career on her own terms before her untimely death in 2012 from lung cancer. She was 63.
“She really showed us that all that glitters is not gold,” DeBose says, looking at Summer’s life. “People don’t realize that a giant star could have these dark situations. And yet, because 50,000 people are waiting for them in the concert stadium, she has to put that aside to perform. Things that are worth it are not easy. Being an icon and being a public figure is harder than it seems because people forget you’re human and you make mistakes.”
DeBose has certainly learned some of those lessons in her own way.
The Raleigh, North Carolina native was just 18-years-old when she made it to the Top 20 on So You Think You Can Dance‘s sixth season. But her time on the hit Fox show would be short lived, as she was cut from the competition in the first week.
“I was horribly embarrassed,” she recalls of her time on reality TV. “I thought I had let everybody down. My mom was there for the taping. I had asked her to fly out because I didn’t think it was going to go well. And then when looked out in the audience I thought, ‘Oh my God, my mom just saw that,’ And then I heard there were 6 million people watching that night and I was like, ‘Oh no. How embarrassing.’ ”
“I was young and I didn’t have the capacity to understand what it is that was happening at that moment in time on that type of platform,” she continues. “For a minute, it felt like the end of the world.”
Unlike many reality competition castoffs, that setback didn’t stop DeBose. At the urging of Broadway vet Charlotte d’Amboise — a “friend and mentor” — DeBose moved to New York and went on to build herself a wildly successful career on the Great White Way, with roles in shows like Hamilton, Bring It On, Motown, Pippin, A Bronx Tale and now Summer.
“I do take pride in the fact that somehow — perseverance, determination, hard work, and a little bit of luck — been able to work consistently in so many different kinds of musicals,” DeBose says. “Every single one I’ve taken on a different role. Sometimes I’ve been in the ensemble and understudied the leading lady, sometimes I took over for the leading lady, sometimes I was the featured player. I’m really proud of my body of work. No one can take that away from me.”
For Summer, DeBose worked closely with LaChanze and Lever to craft the different sides of the star.
After getting down her essence, all three were able to find ways to make Summer her own by infusing her dance background into the singer’s performances.
“We don’t know Donna Summer as a dancer, but when I first read the script, I thought there was some room on the page to interpret what she was doing through movement,” DeBose says. “Auditioning, I brought some of that into the room with me — which thankfully, they received. It’s fun. Dance is my first language. I was really excited to be able to utilize that skill.”
As for the Tonys, win or lose, DeBose says she’ll be okay. “I’ll have my mom next to me as my date,” she gushes. “No matter what it’s going to be better than that night on So You Think You Can Dance.”
Summer is now playing at New York City’s Lunt Fontanne Theater.