Four decades ago, Donna Summer shot to fame with a groundbreaking hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” that found her simulating an orgasm that lasted nearly 17 minutes. In real life, she “didn’t even like to be touched,” said Ariana DeBose, who portrays the star in “Summer,” a new Broadway musical based on the singer’s life.
“If you look at Donna’s old concert footage, you’re looking at someone who’s massively uncomfortable,” DeBose said. “She does this concave thing in her upper torso that speaks to what’s going on inside. What she became known for initially isn’t remotely what she was like in her personal life.”
That disconnect is but one of many in the singer’s life explored by “Summer,” which opens at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Monday, April 23. Highlighted by 20 songs from the singer’s globally successful catalog, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” aims to offer a multifaceted view of its central figure by employing a rare conceit. It features no fewer than three actress-singers playing the star.
Besides DeBose, who embodies the public image of Summer, there’s Storm Lever (who inhabits her younger, awkward incarnation) and LaChanze (who represents the grown woman who’s trying to reconcile the different aspects of herself). “The public sees her as this one thing — this sexy, glamorous person,” Lever said. “But she had such drastically different sides. There’s the hyper-sexualized Donna versus the very religious Donna. There’s the woman who was really into feminism, who was taken advantage of by the men in her life. Then there’s the woman who had to give up her child at one point, who later became a dedicated mother.”
The story of Donna Summer also involved molestation, racism, drug issues, spousal abuse and financial exploitation. “She went through just about everything a person can struggle with,” Lever said. “It’s insane how difficult her life was.”
At the same time, many of her hits had a joyousness, and freedom, the show uses to leaven the heaviness. The show’s director and co-writer Des McAnuff, had the task of balancing those tones, a goal he has proved more than up to in his agile direction of the hugely successful Broadway production of “Jersey Boys,” about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as the hit Broadway take on The Who’s “Tommy.”
The origin of “Summer” dates back to 2011, one year before the singer died of lung cancer at the age of 63. In 2003, Summer published her autobiography, “Ordinary Girl,” which she felt had enough drama to warrant a musical. Her husband, the musician Bruce Sudano, approached McAnuff late in the singer’s life about transforming her prose into a play. “It touched my heart that she had faith in me,” said the Canadian-born director, whose wife hails from Huntington. “I was happy to take up the challenge.”
Considering the range of Summer’s accomplishments, that wasn’t an easy feat. At her peak, the woman born LaDonna Adrian Gaines had enough commercial clout to chart four No. 1 singles in 1978 alone (“MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “Enough Is Enough,” her to-the-death faceoff with Barbra Streisand). Overall, Summer amassed 14 Top 10 singles, and 32 Top 40 scores. While she was best known for disco/club hits, she also excelled at pop, reggae, proto-electronica, show tunes and rock. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After struggling against her image as a disco queen and sexpot, as well as battling her record company in court, the singer eventually proved herself a multifaceted, cross-cultural star, in the process providing a role model for many later female artists.
“Without Donna Summer, other artists would have a harder time crossing over and changing their style,” McAnuff said. “People think of Madonna as the real pioneer for women in music. But Donna predates her.”
Summer had special resonance for African-American stars. “Especially during her era, black singers were kept in certain musical categories,” LaChanze said. “Donna Summer had her own category. She was a musical icon who happened to be black, as opposed to a black musical icon.”
The play doesn’t shy from including a significant controversy in the star’s career. In the 1980s, Summer was said to have made a homophobic comment during a concert, a moment she maintained was misinterpreted. “I think we found an elegant way of dealing with it,” McAnuff said.
In a similar vein, the show’s singers honor the elegance of Summer’s vocal approach by echoing the restraint in her phrasing. Unlike many major female singers, who favor florid riffing in their performances, Summer trusted the sheer power of her tone and timbre to sell the song. “There was a purity to Donna Summer’s singing, an effortlessness,” the director said.
To boldface Summer’s bucking of stereotypes, the play features nontraditional casting. Three-fourths of the actors are women, allowing many of them to play male parts, while simultaneously mirroring the androgyny that ruled the era of the star’s ’70s and ’80s prime. In addition, black actors often play white characters and vice versa, reflecting the universal ideal of club culture.
The freedom implicit in this underscores the show’s more encouraging aspects. “Donna Summer managed to overcome so many obstacles in her life,” McAnuff said. “She was truly courageous. I find her very inspiring. And I hope those who see the show will be inspired by her, too.”
MORE POP STORIES COMING TO BROADWAY
“Summer” arrives during an upswing in pop-star-driven musicals. Last month, a show based on Jimmy Buffett’s songs and persona, “Escape to Margaritaville,” opened on Broadway. Here are other pop musicals on the horizon:
TINA — THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL Last month, a musical based on the life of the bold star opened in London’s West End. Its producers hope it hits Broadway next year.
JAGGED LITTLE PILL A work based on the songs of Alanis Morissette from her 1995 international debut, which sold 16 million copies, will premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 5.
THE CHER SHOW On June 12, a play about the campy star will have its premiere at Chicago’s Oriental Theater. This fall, it will open at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater.
HEAD OVER HEELS Inspired by the songs of The Go-Gos, “Heels” opens at the Hudson Theatre on July 26, with previews starting June 23.
THIS AIN’T NO DISCO Created by Stephen Trask (composer-lyricist of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Peter Yanowitz (of The Wallflowers), “No Disco” takes place in the fractured and edgy New York of 1979. The show aims to bridge the uptown/downtown divide between two key clubs of the day: Studio 54 and The Mudd Club. The musical opens June 29 at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th St.
— JIM FARBER
WHAT “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”
WHERE|WHEN Opens April 23, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46 St., Manhattan
INFO $48-$169, 212-575-9200, ticketmaster.com