When Summer: The Donna Summer Musical opens on Broadway April 23, it will mark a long overdue dream come true for the late disco icon, who always had her sights set on Broadway.
Fans who danced the night away to “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Last Dance” may not know that Summer wrote most of her own material—or that she got her start in musical theatre, landing her first job in the European tour of Hair at the age of 18.
Her theatrical roots remained with her throughout her career, and prior to her death in 2012, Summer had been developing her own Broadway bio-musical titled Ordinary Girl, in which she planned to star.
Ordinary Girl laid the groundwork for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, currently running at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre under the direction of Des McAnuff, who also ushered the long-running Tony-winning hit Jersey Boys to Broadway.
The musical arrives in New York following a sold-out world-premiere run at the La Jolla Playhouse. Transferring with the production are its trio of stars, who inhabit Summer at three distinct points in her career: Diva Donna (Tony Award winner LaChanze), Disco Donna (Ariana DeBose, Hamilton), and newcomer Storm Lever as Duckling Donna.
“In my first meeting with Des McAnuff about playing this role,” LaChanze says, “he shared with me that he’d been in meetings with Donna about directing Ordinary Girl, and how this tribute to her stemmed from those conversations. The show is a combination of a concert, a memory play, and a big old splashy musical. We open the show like we’re at a Donna Summer concert, and she goes back into her life.”
While Summer had audiences dancing in the aisles out of town, LaChanze points out that the musical is also striking a chord in an era when women are speaking out and standing up. “It’s very timely,” she says. “The issues today that women deal with in regards to equal pay and equal status, all that’s happening with women speaking out, it’s important that we see women who have stepped up and taken control of their lives.
“Every time in Donna’s life when she had a major leap forward in success, it was because she chose to listen to her own voice and step out on her own. Prior to that she was controlled by the men in her industry.”
Summer frequently delves into the real-life struggles that inspired Summer to write some of her biggest hits. “She was going through some really serious, difficult times in her life, and these songs turned into beautiful anthems,” LaChanze says. “You hear a lot about jukebox musicals; this is more of a musical about the journey of a woman’s life who happens to be this icon.”