In the heyday of Studio 54, Donna Summer’s megahit “Last Dance” signaled an end to the evening’s revelry, recalls Ron Melrose, a keyboard player at the time in Liza Minnelli’s Broadway musical The Act. Forty years later, Melrose is back at the disco as musical supervisor and arranger of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which begins previews March 28 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
“Donna Summer’s music defined the disco era,” Melrose says of the singer/songwriter who had 14 top 10 hits on her path to becoming one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. “‘Hot Stuff’ is hers; ‘Bad Girls’ is hers; ‘She Works Hard for the Money’ is hers. If you’re looking for an artist to revisit that era on Broadway in the way that Jersey Boys visits the doo-wop era, she’s perfect.”
There’s a lot more to crafting a musical, of course, than stringing together songs people know and love. “My job is to shape a theatrical score out of preexisting records,” Melrose explains. The fun part comes first: sitting in a room with the creative team, listening to everything Summer recorded and finding connections between the music and her life story. Before reigning (sometimes reluctantly) as the queen of disco, Summer was an insecure teenager singing in a Boston church choir. In the decade preceding her death in 2012 at age 63, she began writing and recording gospel music.
Tony Award winner LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, and Storm Lever share the role of Summer in different phases of her life, interacting and commenting on major events in dialogue and song. “They’re all brilliant,” raves Melrose, “and you could hand any song to any of them and make it fly.” Each performer gets special solo moments, and the enduringly popular “MacArthur Park” features a trio harmony “that’s going to take the roof off the theatre,” he promises. In real life, Summer’s Grammy-nominated performance kicked off her quest to be seen as more than a kittenish disco diva. “She was saying, ‘I have a real voice, and I want to sing songs that matter to me.’ Her music got much more interesting after that.”
Melrose mastered the art of arranging pop music for the stage during his stint as musical director and international music supervisor for Jersey Boys, his first collaboration with Summer director Des McAnuff. He’s the first to admit that a song like “Love to Love You Baby” is not typical Broadway fare, but that’s exactly what makes his job an exciting challenge. “Our story is set in the world of electronic dance music,” he says of adapting Summer’s catalog, “but we never forget that we’re theater artists. We’re using this music’s sonic vocabulary in exactly the same way John Kander wrote Cabaret to sound like prewar Germany.”
To understand Melrose’s current assignment, it helps to go back in time to the mid-1970s, when Donna Summer lived in Germany and teamed up with the visionary producer Giorgio Moroder. Explains Melrose, “Moroder had the radical idea of making records using completely synthetic sound.” The relentless bass line behind “I Feel Love,” for example, is too fast to be produced by hand, so synthesizers became a key ingredient in creating lengthy “disco mix” recordings, another Moroder innovation.
Fast forward to 2018, and Melrose has assembled a versatile seven-person band, much like one that accompanied Summer on tour during her 30-year career. But instead of a grand piano and drum set, the orchestra pit will be filled with an array of state-of-the-art synthesizers, keyboards, pedal boards, and pods. “At some points [in the show], the music will sound very close to the original recordings,” Melrose says, “and at other points, we’ll project forward to imagine how those songs might sound taking advantage of today’s technology. You’ll hear sounds that you’ve not heard before in a Broadway theatre.”
Even the musical’s amplification will get an innovative twist: Sound designer Gareth Owen has lined the walls of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with speakers, “not so we can blast the music,” says Melrose, “but so that the sound can come from anywhere. In a disco, the DJ spinning records would constantly change the location of the sound, and we’re doing everything we can to make audiences feel like they’re part of the story. You’re watching and listening, but you’re also at Donna’s church, in her living room, and inside the disco.”
Summer represents a full-circle moment for Melrose, who earned his first of 17 Broadway credits playing keyboards and penning dance arrangements for The Act. “I got swept into Studio 54 on Liza Minnelli’s coattails,” he says with a laugh. “She and Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger and Halston sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Steve Rubell on the first anniversary of the club, and I was there.” Now he’s getting set to bring the best songs of that era to life again eight blocks south of the former hot spot, which is enjoying its own new life as a Broadway theatre.
In a career that includes stints as a composer, musical supervisor, arranger, vocal coach, conductor, and musician, Melrose has never lost his enthusiasm for telling stories through music. He’s particularly delighted that Summer: The Donna Summer Musical offers a fresh look at a beloved — and underappreciated — pop star. “We think of disco as being all about rhythm and sparkle, but her melodies were really good,” he says. “As a musician, Donna had a lot of depth.”
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