It was Monday morning in a Manhattan recording studio, and the cast of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical knew they’d made magic.
The performers and musicians had all gathered on their first day off since the musical’s April 23 opening to record the show’s original Broadway cast recording. Of the more than 20 Donna Summer hits they performed that day, one of the first was the disco diva’s iconic “Last Dance,” according to Storm Lever, the actress who plays Duckling Donna, the youngest incarnation of the musical’s three personifications of Summer.
“We recorded ‘Last Dance’ all together, with all the ensemble members and all the musicians, and when we got to that big full-cast moment toward the end, you could feel the studio come to life,” Lever remembers. “I feel like it re-created that moment back then, for Donna herself, back when they put that song together for the first time and they knew, ‘Oh, gosh, we’ve created a hit!’”
By the end of the song, everyone in that recording studio was grooving — because when Donna Summer’s playing, you gotta dance. “No one’s watching or filming you, but you still can’t help moving,” Lever explains with a laugh. “You still can’t help celebrating.”
The original Broadway cast recording, released July 20, gives audiences and fans a new way to celebrate the tunes that made Donna Summer one of the best-loved recording artists in history — and that landed the late singer at No. 12 in a recent Billboard ranking of the 100 greatest female artists of all time.
Tommy Mottola, the influential music executive who produces Summer with The Dodgers, knows why songs such as “Hot Stuff,” “I Feel Love,” “MacArthur Park,” “Bad Girls,” “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” and “Love to Love You Baby” — all featured on the Summer cast recording — made such a mark. “First of all, the songs were great songs. Back then, those beats were the hottest, most revolutionary dance beats,” Mottola says. “But the thing about Donna was, she was an artist. She was as good a singer as anybody ever was. When you put that combination together, of those beats and that artistry, it’s explosive.”
Mottola knew Summer for 40 years; she even performed at his wedding. That made him the perfect candidate to bring the singer’s life story to the stage. “Donna and I were just great friends,” he says. “We hung out a lot. She was a really funny, witty, sharp person, a street girl who could stand up to the best of strong people. You didn’t pull any wool over her eyes. She was a very smart, strong, empowered woman.”
The recording industry veteran was intimately involved in the creation of the musical, charting the ups and downs of Summer’s life and career in three distinct phases, as represented by Lever, Hamilton alum Ariana DeBose, and Tony winner LaChanze (The Color Purple). For the cast album, he wanted to give listeners both a taste of that biographical through line as well as a new experience by featuring expanded cuts of some of the show’s songs and trimming out the snippets of dialogue that are often a part of cast albums.
“It’s the ultimate souvenir,” he says of the cast recording. “It gives you a piece of that storytelling without bogging you down with dialogue. It was important to us to keep the flow going and keep the dance, and yet still make you feel like you’re there at the show.” Lever agrees: “It’s dedicated to the music. It’s just the songs, with extra verses and extra choruses, to really celebrate the originals.”
For the actress, the chance to go into the recording studio so soon after the hectic days of opening the show gave her an opportunity to get back to the basics of the songs she grew up with. “I got to really focus on what I’m saying in each song, and on my dynamics and the sounds that I’m making, and on that memory of how Donna sounded,” Lever says. “I could get back to that phantom Donna who’s there in the back of my head.”
The experience of making a cast album — usually recorded over one very full, 14-hour day — can be a surreal, disjointed one for performers, as vocal and musical elements are recorded separately for some songs and singers in the studio hear their voices blend differently than they hear them onstage. And after all that, you don’t hear the final product until months later. Lever, for one, could hardly wait until the July drop date. “I stayed up ’til three in the morning waiting for it come out on Spotify!” she admits with a laugh.
For the actress, the music of Summer isn’t just a celebration of the life of Donna Summer: It’s a celebration, period. She learned that during her childhood. “She was the soundtrack to taking me to school in the morning, the soundtrack to our Saturday chores,” she remembers. “Every little mundane thing that you do, put Donna Summer on, and suddenly it’s a party!”