During the disco era, Donna Summer reigned as queen of the dance floor, infusing pop music with sexiness and glamour. But there was a lot more to Summer — born LaDonna Adrian Gaines — than a catalog of hits that won the late singer/songwriter five Grammy Awards and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To convey the full story of her rise from church soloist to superstar, three magnetic actresses will share the title role in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which begins previews March 28 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Directed by Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) and written by Robert Cary, Colman Domingo, and Des McAnuff, the musical is packed with more than 20 hits. Summer stars Tony Award winner LaChanze (The Color Purple) as Diva Donna, who looks back on her eventful life through the lens of a farewell concert; Hamilton and A Bronx Tale alum Ariana DeBose as Disco Donna, the singer at the height of her fame; and newcomer Storm Lever as Duckling Donna, the shy Boston teenager discovering her voice. In separate interviews, the dynamic trio shared their excitement at telling the true story of a legendary performer.
Why is Donna Summer a great subject for a Broadway musical?
LaChanze: This is an American icon! She created a style, and her music has lived for generations. In this era of so-called “jukebox musicals,” there are very few stars whose music can actually tell the story of their lives. It just so happens that Donna’s does that, and people are going to learn a lot about her while having a great time hearing her music again.
Ariana DeBose: She was a powerhouse star, but she also got to be a normal human being. It’s like she led a double life. I think people are going to be fascinated by her journey from the church to disco and then back to singing the music she loved.
Storm Lever: You love her music, but you don’t know the woman behind it. Her life wasn’t all glitter; she struggled with feelings of not being worthy and didn’t see herself as this glossy figure the public loved. Our show celebrates what it means to be a strong woman and take control of your own life.
Were you a fan of Donna’s music before being cast in the show?
Storm: Oh, my gosh, when I was growing up, my mother would turn on Donna Summer during our family’s Saturday morning cleanup! That music made cleaning the house seem like the most fun thing in the world.
Ariana: My mom worked out to Donna’s Greatest Hits album when I was a kid, and I would stand on the side and try to copy what she was doing. As a ’90s baby, I didn’t exactly know who I was listening to, so it’s been fun to put a face and a spirit to that incredible voice.
LaChanze: I’ve always been a huge Donna Summer fan. I love her life, and I wanted to be a part of telling her story. And I have to tell you: She made everything look effortless, but this is not easy music to sing. Her voice was really, really powerful, so I’m preparing every day to keep my vocals strong.
Give us a preview of what Summer will look and sound like.
LaChanze: It’s going to be a spectacle in the sense that we’re using a lot of LED screens, but it’s also going to harken back to Donna’s childhood, as well as to the Studio 54 era. You’ll experience the life of this icon in a very contemporary fashion. It’s fast-paced and filled with hits, but you’ll also be moved by the story.
Ariana: If you love a disco ball, this show is for you! And I’m proud to be in a company in which 17 of 22 cast members are female, many of them women of color. It’s so powerful for audiences to see diverse faces reflected on a Broadway stage.
Storm: The show is like a roller coaster ride. The disco beat hooks you even before you hear the songs you know and love. We look out into the audience and everyone is dancing and singing along with us.
What’s it like to share the role of Donna with two costars?
Ariana: It’s such an interesting way of looking at a life, like those magazine articles that ask “What would you say to your 15-year-old self?” We embrace that device and give you the inside scoop on Donna’s psyche at many different moments. You get more bang for your buck with us!
LaChanze: It’s written and staged so that we interact with one another at different points in Donna’s life, which is fascinating. You get to see the ambition of the very young Donna, the determination of Disco Donna, and my point of view as Diva Donna in her fifties.
Storm: It’s such a blessing to share the storytelling with two incredible women who are as eager as I am to make Donna a full person on stage. We lift each other up, we inspire each other, we challenge each other, and we’ve become great friends.
What’s your favorite song to sing in the show?
Ariana: They’re all exciting! We give you the “Hot Stuff” you remember, but we also use a lot of her songs for storytelling. “Love to Love You Baby” has more than one meaning, and you find out that “MacArthur Park” was, for her, about her daughter. I’m excited to share moments that are both poignant and an absolute thrill for the audience.
LaChanze: I get to sing “On the Radio” and “I Feel Love,” but I’m drawn to “Friends Unknown,” one of her more theatrical numbers. She wrote it later in life as an homage to her fans, and I love having the opportunity to speak directly to the audience and share this beautiful song.
Storm: The most meaningful one for me is “Pandora’s Box,” just because the lyrics are so universal and gorgeous. Part of the chorus is, “Oh, promises are made to be broken, that’s all I ever learned from loving you.” Everyone knows the feeling of being let down by someone you love, someone you trust, which happened to Donna many times.
As you prepared to play Donna Summer, what surprised or touched you the most?
LaChanze: I was touched to discover how humble Donna was. She started out singing in church and in the theater [appearing in the German production of Hair], and when her career took off, she wasn’t prepared for fame. In fact, she resisted it for most of her life. [Summer died of cancer in 2012 at age 63.]
Ariana: I’m most touched by her humanity. She made mistakes, but she owned up to them and tried to do better. And I was surprised to find out that as a child, Donna didn’t like the sound of her own voice. She thought she sounded like a police siren. One of the gifts Donna has given me is the chance to love my voice in all its glory and all its imperfections.
Storm: I was surprised to learn about everything she had to overcome. While creating this amazing music, she was taken advantage of by the men working with her, but she remained true to her values. She was determined to be more than the queen of disco.