What is the strangest moment of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical? This is a tough question, because it recurs a lot while watching this completely bonkers Broadway show, which opened tonight at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Perhaps, the moment where Summer gets a boyfriend, gets married, has a baby, then gives that baby to her parents to bring up—all in the span of a New York minute? Or the moment where Summer faces domestic violence, to the strains of “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” and that this violence is acted out as a micro-ballet with a coffee table book a key weapon?
To be clear, the clunking weirdness of this jukebox musical devoted to the “queen of disco” has nothing to do with the three singers representing Summer at different stages of her life. Storm Lever as young “Duckling Donna,” Ariana DeBose as “Disco Donna,” and—most stage-commandingly —LaChanze as “Diva Donna” do all they can to animate and give variously fierce or smooth fuel to the show’s retinue of Summer’s standards; the same goes for the hard-working, hard-dancing ensemble. (LaChanze particularly stands out. The poor dancers labor through some really odd choreography.)
If you want to hear 23 Donna Summer songs, sung by singers pretending to be Donna Summer, then fine, this will be enough (is enough) for you. The story spun around the songs may leave you baffled. The show is so literal it’s like a demented Wikipedia entry; a lot of incident shorn of any context or explanation.
LaChanze opens the show by telling us—channeling the spirit of Summer, who died in 2012, aged 63—that it’s fine to sing and dance in the aisles, and the night I was there some people did that. Choose your moments wisely; some snatches of songs play and drift to not-fruition. Others become full-on numbers.
But it doesn’t feel very “disco,” at least not in the mood of the era captured in books like Daily Beast contributor Anthony Haden-Guest’s The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. It feels very clean; the on-stage furnishings are sectionals of white sofas and clean desks, and submerged pedestals. There are screens of vivid color and photographs of Summer herself. Eventually, there are gigantic, please-don’t-fall-on-my-puzzled-head disco balls.
Don’t expect the grime of the disco years; this is just sparkles and glitter, with a script that belongs in the pantheon of 1980s mini-series.
You know: Whole years sweep by in seconds, location changes flashing up on the screen, and your heroine in perpetual peril while wearing mink. On one level, the musical is camp, and knows it; on another level it is—without meaning to be—a camp car-crash.
Before going to see this show, watch Joan Collins in Sins. It will really get you in the mood.
“A modest opening, don’t you think? We just threw that together,” Diva Donna announces at the beginning after a full-on rendition of “The Queen Is Back.”
The “we” turns out to be one of the musical’s mysteries. Just say you’d like to know who “Joyce,” and “Brian” are, or how “Helmuth” and “Bruce” became her husbands. Then there’s her wacko boyfriend “Gunther” who abused and pulled a gun on her. Or “Casablanca” (the record label).
The musical assumes you know everything about Summer’s life, and her closest intimates and colleagues; that you will be on first-name terms with all of them.
For Summer herself, “It didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl or anything in between. All that mattered was that you were ready to dance.” Appositely, the stage is filled at various moments by female dancers looking androgynous. (The show’s insultingly hamfisted approach to Summer’s gay fans and her alleged homophobia will be addressed momentarily.)
We learn early on the key public and private distinction in her life. “The very private Donna Gaines was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Andrew Gaines and his wife, Mary. The very public Donna Summer was born in Munich, Germany to an Italian record producer named Giorgio Moroder and his sidekick Pete Bellotte.”
But the musical never bothers to interrogate that schism or dual existence. It barrels toward the big moments of Summer’s life, and then pegs a song to it.
There are no relationships sketched in any depth in the show; when a key figure in her life dies it matters not a jot. We have no idea what anyone on stage meant or didn’t mean to Summer, perhaps save Bruce Sudano (Jared Zirilli), her second husband. Even then, he’s mostly a smiling mannequin.
The musical itself is, she says, a series of “fragments” in what she sees as a “portrait gallery” of her life.
There are some fun moments. She lies down on the floor to sound properly sexy for “Love to Love You Baby.” In a limousine, she asks a man called Bob, sniffing cocaine at that moment, what he does. “Coke,” comes the answer.
“It’s great just to be a queen,” one character says, referring to the “disco queen moniker.”
“Except in a very small town,” says the show’s gay character, the PR “Brian” (the actor goes uncredited in the program, and in his brief moments of stage time he’s notably good).
Summer’s childhood spins by in moments: Her dad is strict and doesn’t like her wearing lipstick, her mother tells her she loves her. There’s a moment where she watches an old lady get mugged by a guy she knows, the old lady dies, and this cements Donna’s desire to get out of Boston to be a pop star in New York City. In seconds.
But ha, no! She goes to Germany—her father’s response, “Mein Gott!”—and becomes a star of Hair. No one has seen a black woman before in Germany. The Germans touch her skin, which, she says, offends her, but then she gets “a whole new set of feathers.”
We do not discover what these “feathers” are. We do not discover her thoughts on racism.
Instead, being in Europe seems to mean: Culture! Which means art, and artists, and people talking about art and artists and White Zinfandel! It means salons! Oh, the whirl, my dear!
And then Summer meets Helmuth, her first husband. On stage, their meeting, courtship, having a baby (the nurse walks off stage smoking a cigarette), all takes place in seconds to the strains of “Love to Love You, Baby.” Suddenly they’re moving in with his parents outside Munich; then she’s giving up her baby to her parents and going back to singing.
Then, snap fingers, she’s the lonely diva: “On a good day, I felt like Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ On a bad day, I felt like Judy Garland, period. I couldn’t sleep at night, I was depressed all day. There’s always a price. I did have some friends, though. These little blue pills called Marplan.”
Instead of getting into what that addiction might mean, what the loneliness of her celebrity consisted of, and just what were her demons, instead of going full Valley of the Dolls, we are suddenly in her home in Benedict Canyon, with a crazy German guy called Gunther who we have already been glancingly introduced to (we know he’s Trouble). Gunther is suddenly a dangerous psychopath who wants to kill her.
No way, Gunther. Listen to the song, buddy: Enough is Enough.
Summer knocks him out with a book.
Gunther is deported.
This leads to Summer going back in time to being abused by her church pastor as a young teenager. We get “Bad Girls,” which is fun to watch. Then she’s in impenetrable legal troubles, which—like everything else—take about 30 seconds to relate and which make no sense to anybody who doesn’t already know Donna Summer’s contractual arrangements and legal troubles in great detail.
Still, as she is told by “Norman”: “This may seem disingenuous coming from a middle-aged white guy like me, but the music business is dominated by white men. It’s time you took control of your life. It would be better for both of us. Hell, it would be better for the whole industry.”
This gust of cheer-worthy feminism and desire for financial equality leads to the best-performed song of the show, “She Works Hard for the Money,” featuring the ensemble dancing in slick business suits.
Quite what makes Summer contemplate suicide in a Ritz Hotel, and how a chambermaid’s kind words saved her, is not made clear. But Summer converts to Jesus, and on stage the actors playing the youngest Donna and her sisters suddenly become her three daughters.
Then she’s sick, but we don’t know with what.
In a stretch of its last third, the show becomes a morass of unmemorable songs. (Completely omitted are her 1989 hits: “This Time I Know It’s For Real,” and “I Don’t Want to Get Hurt.”)
The show blunders into its most controversial zone, when it confronts Summer’s now-notorious anti-gay musings, which she denied saying. She most famously (according to her, never) said that AIDS was God’s punishment for gay men. Except in this show that goes unmentioned, and the controversy instead becomes when, as Summer relates, “Years ago, at a concert in Cleveland, I was trying to get the girls in the audience to sing along with me on some song. I don’t even remember which one, but the boys kept drowning them out. And I said, ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’”
It is left to her gay PR Brian to ask her, “What were you thinking?”
“Bad joke, I know,” replies Summer.
Bad joke?! That’s where the musical leaves that infamous mess.
Also, Summer even denied saying that “Adam and Steve” remark in an interview with The Advocate. Is the musical claiming she actually said it?
“It was not the best timing,” says Brian. (Though unstated, the missing words here are: this being at a time when so many men who had sex with men were dying of AIDS—but then why not make reference to the more notorious AIDS comment?)
The musical has Summer next claiming, “I would never sit in judgment over someone else. I lost so many friends. We all did. People I loved, people I respected. People I needed.” She says this to Brian, implying he died too.
“God made Adam and Steve and Eve and Louise and everybody else,” Disco Donna claims to resounding applause in 2018.
But that doesn’t explain or interrogate her remarks, or what her beliefs around homosexuality actually were. Instead, in this show as in life, what feels like a hasty, pre-emptive PR job to pacify her fans who were outraged at the time has been mounted.
Then another weird line: “You could say I’ve spent half my life on my knees for one reason or another.” This gets laughs. It sounds saucy. But, hang on, in relation to what? Prayer and sex? Summer doesn’t come across as that sexual or promiscuous during the show. Did we miss something?
No matter: “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” send us into the night, every “Donna” and all the dancers shaking and gyrating to their last. The audience is left feeling as pumped as intended. But after this bizarre musical, Donna Summer, like the disco era itself, remains a blur.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Booking to Nov. 18.