Ariana DeBose is a magnetic performer audiences can’t help but love. From her stage work in Hamilton and Pippin, to name but two, even going back to her days on So You Think You Can Dance, she lights up the screen every time she appears. Her current role in Schmigadoon! is no exception. Ariana charms everyone as schoolteacher Emma Tate in the Apple TV+ series, and that includes Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), who thinks Emma might be his true love.
But how does Emma perceive Josh, who’s already tried that with plenty of other women? And what’s it like to play on a series that has tons of callbacks to some of Broadway’s best-known and best-loved musicals? I asked Ariana these questions and a few others in our interview as Schmigadoon! continues its first season.
Brittany Frederick: As a musical theater veteran, what does it mean to you to be part of Schmigadoon!, which is really a celebration of musical theater?
Ariana DeBose: I’m a huge musical theater fan. Even before I’m an artist, I’m a fan. I really believe in legacy, and growing up I watched old Hollywood movie musicals. I’m a huge fan of the Golden Age—who doesn’t love Singin’ in the Rain or The King and I or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Sure, some of the subject matter can be a little problematic today, but the glory on the screen, the dancing, it’s exciting to watch.
To be able to be a black presenting woman taking on a role like this, that’s an ingenue, and singing these beautiful, glorious songs written by Cinco Paul, it was really exciting to me. I think it’s a series that puts a diverse group of faces at the forefront of storytelling, and that’s really exciting to be a part of.
BF: It’s pretty clear that Emma is analogous to Marian Paroo from The Music Man. For you as the performer, where’s the line between leaning into that or leaning on that source material, and then still making Emma into her own character?
AD: It’s a fine line, to be honest. I think that one of the wonderful things about Emma Tate is that in the world of Schmigadoon! she just simply is. She has one foot in Schmigadoon, one foot sort of outside of Schmigadoon. She’s an incredibly aspirational and inspirational character. I think that’s part of what makes it easy to be able to play on these tropes—the practically perfect in every way trope, the “Marian the librarian” idea—but it does not define her.
Emma is still very much herself because she strides the line. She speaks her mind in a way that is slightly different from these other traditional musical theater characters. She takes on controversy in a slightly different way. She does not sacrifice her sense of self for love, and she is both feminist and feminine at the same time. And I think that’s where you see a little bit of difference in nuance from the rest of the musical theater Golden Age canon of female characters.
BF: We know when Josh first sees her, he’s immediately taken with her, but how does Emma perceive him? Since everyone knows she’s not the first woman that he’s hooked up with, or even tried to hook up with, since coming to town.
AD: I feel like Miss Tate probably sees him the way I saw him as an audience member, which was like, Are you joking? First impressions count and I don’t think he necessarily made a good one. But that’s the thing though; you can’t judge a book by its cover. Underneath the surface, Josh turns out to be quite a compelling character.
But to put a modern word on it, it’s probably like wow, what a douchebag. (laughs) I don’t even know what the 1940s word would have been for that. Probably something not very nice, but yeah, that’s probably what I would’ve said.
BF: Conversely, Keegan-Michael Key is a great person and a very talented performer; both of you also starred in The Prom. What was it like for you to play this storyline with him?
AD: I love working with Keegan. I search for opportunities to work with him, to be perfectly frank, because I love how free he is. He’s a comedian tried and true. He knows comedy, and it was really fun and really challenging to play off of that. The energy is constantly shifting. It’s so exciting. He pushed me to be a better actor.
And I think that’s the thing we forget. Comedic actors are also really incredible dramatic actors, and dramatic actors typically can be really great comedians, because it takes really intelligent people to pull off the spectrum of specificity within these dynamics, within these genres of acting. It’s so fascinating to watch him embody both characteristics so easily. He’s just a jack of all trades. It’s awesome.
Schmigadoon! is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.