On Broadway, feeling love for Donna Summer
NEW YORK — A few weeks ago, Bruce Sudano was walking down 46th Street in midtown Manhattan when his eyes suddenly filled with tears. As he rounded the corner, he’d spotted stagehands putting up an image of his wife’s indelible face on the marquee of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” was set to begin preview performances.
Sudano, who was married to Summer for more than 30 years, knows how much this moment would have meant to the late pop superstar and cultural icon. The so-called Queen of Disco, a Boston native, spent nearly two decades dreaming of bringing a musical version of her life story to Broadway, before her death in 2012 at age 63.
Now, that mirror ball has finally begun to twirl, but without Summer there to witness it.
“Every now and then, a moment will arise where the enormity of it all sits on my shoulders and then wells up inside. You don’t know when things like that will happen,” Sudano says.
Summer, born LaDonna Gaines and raised in a family of seven children in Mission Hill, had worked on a musical about her life and pioneering pop career for many years. She’d written original songs and collaborated with several writers. But theater producers wanted her to mine her vast catalog of disco and pop hits for the score, so the project never took off.
After Summer died following a battle with lung cancer, “the number one priority in my heart and on my mind was to get the musical done,” Sudano says. “I felt that was the most effective way to maintain her legacy. She had been so passionate about it.”
He hooked up with producer Tommy Mottola, who urged him to use his wife’s enduring hits, and the project was finally off and running. The resulting show opens on Broadway on Monday and features an array of pulsating disco, R&B, and urban pop anthems from the singer’s decades-long career, including “Love to Love You Baby,” “On the Radio,” “I Feel Love,” “Heaven Knows,” “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Last Dance,” among others.
In creating the show, director Des McAnuff, who helmed “Jersey Boys” and “The Who’s Tommy,” and book writers Colman Domingo and Robert Cary hoped to push the boundaries of the so-called jukebox musical, a form that’s come to proliferate on Broadway but could use some freshening. Indeed, they wanted to do justice to a trailblazing artist who, alongside German producer Giorgio Moroder, forever altered the pop landscape. Summer and Moroder’s sound eventually paved the way for the electronic dance music explosion of later decades.
Based in part on Summer’s own autobiography, “Ordinary Girl,” the show shifts back and forth in time, told from the point of view of an older Donna looking back at her life.
McAnuff describes it as “a mosaic” and “a mythic concert that the audience gets invited to.”
“Donna’s at a point in her life where she looks back and sees fragments that don’t necessarily fit together,” he says. “It’s about somebody who led a lot of different lives, and she’s trying to reconcile those contradictions. You want to look back on your life and make sense of it. So I think her journey is about accepting that those fragments create one human being and that it’s OK to lead a life that’s paradoxical.”
The show deploys three actresses to play Summer at different stages of her life. LaChanze, a Tony Award winner for “The Color Purple,” narrates the musical and plays “Diva Donna,” the mature, self-possessed woman looking back on her ups and downs. Ariana DeBose portrays “Disco Donna,” as her career blasts off and she rises to the top of the charts with a new sound. And Storm Lever embodies the Boston-bred “Duckling Donna,” the shy and insecure girl who honed her voice as a member of the gospel choir at Grant A.M.E. Church but was self-conscious about her looks and sometimes questioned her talent.
“It’s ironic that the image we have of Donna Summer is this glamorous, beautiful woman,” Lever says. “But that’s not how she viewed herself. That part of her personality only really came out when she was performing.”
LaChanze says she’s relishing the opportunity to bring to life the human being behind the legend. “I love that I get to dig in and discover the woman who became famous way before she was ever ready to handle it,” she says. “I think one of the first challenges for Donna was being pigeonholed as the ‘Disco Queen’ and trying to break free from that. She’s a down-to-earth, humble woman that the world turned into the image of female sexuality and desire, and she kept trying to strip away that image. But it was also a part of who she was.”
As the show unfolds, Lever says, Summer “wants to control the narrative and she wants to own the decisions she made and own the things that happened to her in her life and her career. And oh, goodness, what didn’t happen to this woman?”
Besides the hurdles she faced as an African-American female in show business, perhaps her biggest obstacle was reconciling the abuse she suffered in several relationships as a young woman (before she met Sudano) and even as a young girl, something that took her a long time to face. “As it turns out, the show suddenly seemed to fall in step perfectly with the times,” McAnuff says. “When you have that going on, that’s when real electricity can happen in theater.”
While Summer dropped out of Jeremiah H. Burke High School in Dorchester at 17 to eventually join the German company of “Hair,” she returned to Boston throughout her life. Three of her siblings, Ricky, Jenette, and Linda, still live in the area. “She always considered herself just an ordinary girl from Boston, but she had this extraordinary gift,” Domingo says.
Indeed, Sudano insists that his wife was a product of the multicultural neighborhood where she grew up. “Boston is a city of great art and music and great soul, so I think all those things played into forming who she became,” he says. “One of Donna’s greatest gifts was her curiosity. She was a sponge, and she had a drive to assimilate what she learned and to put it into her artistic vision, and Boston was foundational in all of that.”
Pleased that Summer’s vision has finally come to fruition, Sudano says the show captures her indomitable spirit.
“When people left a Donna concert, they had a full experience,” he says. “They had an intimate moment, they had a big show-stopping moment, and they had a soulful moment, and they left feeling empowered and encouraged. I think we accomplish that in this show, where people walk away feeling those same things. It just thrills my heart to see my wife’s name on the marquee, and to see 1,200 people jumping up and singing her songs every night.”
SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical
At Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York. Tickets from $48. 877-250-2929, www.ticketmaster.com