When you hear the name Donna Summer you probably immediately think of any number of her smash hit songs—from “Love to Love You” to “MacArthur Park” to “Enough Is Enough” and “She Works Hard for the Money.” “Donna Summer was the women singing about ‘Bad Girls’ in my sister’s room as my sister was dancing and blasting her LPs,” says Colman Domingo, co-writer of the new musical Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, officially opening April 23. “That’s all I knew who she was.”
But Domingo and his co-writers Robert Cary and Des McAnuff, who also directs the new production, dug into the story of the woman behind the voice and have unearthed details that may surprise even the savviest of Summer’s fans.
As told by three Donnas—Diva played by Tony winner LaChanze, Disco played by Ariana DeBose, and Duckling played by Storm Lever—Summer combines an intimate concert with a memory play with a showstopping disco frenzy.
Here are seven revelations about the Queen of Disco we learned from the cast and creative team of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical:
“She gets this disco image thrust upon her, this oversexualized image thrust upon her, but at the end of the day you need to see this girl who didn’t think much of herself—who thought she wasn’t worthy of these things and that the important thing is the music.” —Storm Lever, Duckling Donna
“I didn’t know that she was a painter. She actually went on to have some art shows and she was so influenced by the early years of her life. You see so many examples of abstract expressionism in her work, which I think is so beautiful.” —Ariana DeBose, Disco Donna
“The influence I think she had on music. She has terrific melodies. Disco gets a funny rep—I didn’t realize what an influence it had. That idea, when Moroder and her recreated the inside of the studio as an instrument—if you think about these days how much is done inside the studio, that’s how groundbreaking they were.” —Aaron Krohn, Neil Bogart and Gunther
“She was dear friends with Sophia Loren. Sophia Loren was living next door, coming to take care of her kids—babysitting! Just, like, Auntie Sophia!” - Colman Domingo, co-book writer
“She has this very unusual story. She grew up in Boston and basically learns to sing in church. She goes to Germany when she’s just 17 and really becomes an artist in Germany speaking German. When she landed in the airport [in the U.S.] she didn’t know her song was already traveling up the chart. She heard it and thought it was a tape recording; she didn’t understand it was being played on the radio.” —Des McAnuff, director co-book writer
“She was a survivor of abuse and she had to find a way to, despite this tremendous talent, grow for herself the kind of esteem and kind of support that would allow her to get past that.” —Robert Cary, co-book writer
“You learn about some very psychologically dark things about her—I don’t want to spoil them. I think even the biggest fans of Donna Summer might not know some of these events. Bruce was her rock.” —Jared Zirilli, Bruce Sudano
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.