When Tony Award–winning costume designer Paul Tazewell thinks of Donna Summer, the queen of disco and the driving force of his latest Broadway project Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, he thinks back to when he first met the music icon. “There was a mystique that I remember,” says Tazewell. In bringing her life story to the stage, the designer wanted to capture that aura, an elegance as he recalls.
Told as a memory play—in which Diva Donna (Tony winner LaChanze) looks back on the rise of her career in Disco Donna (Tony nominee Ariana DeBose) and the young dreamer in Duckling Donna (newcomer Storm Lever)—Summer relies on Tazewell’s ability to use wardrobe as a unifier.
“Holding all of the Donnas together was the most important thing,” says Tazewell. The designer chose royal blue, “piercing enough to break through the rest of the activity,” as the thread to knit his Donnas together.
“I was choosing a tone that would be able to transition from scene to scene, from year to year, and feel a little more seamless,” he says. The succession of flashbacks, flash forwards, and rapid-fire scene changes used to convey Summer’s story presented a singular challenge for Tazewell, but also an opportunity for ingenuity. “When she’s giving up her child and then she turns around and is in the center of the stage doing ‘MacArthur Park’ in a concert and magically transforms into that concert gown, we’re able to do that [onstage quick change] with theatre magic. It’s kind of like Cinderella.”
Of course, Tazewell also needed to recreate the disco era via his designs for the musical’s ensemble. He drew on the warm colors and earth tones of ’70s style for these supporting players to make Donna pop in that blue; but if his colors were an exercise in contrasts and new ideas, his shapes needed to conjure familiarity for the audience. “The contemporary body is so different from that 1970s body; it’s much more athletic [now],” he says. “My design is trying to arrive at silhouettes that will still carry you back and feel nostalgic, but also be inviting, as well, so that you can see them as cool and sexy and party-like and all those things that are about the disco—or our idea of what the disco was.”
Creating authentic silhouettes marked another test for Tazewell, as Summer features an ensemble of women playing both male and female roles. “We’re buying into the idea of androgyny,” Tazewell explains. “We acknowledged the female form and made clothes fit them best and it was up to their physicality [to make] them more masculine.”
As a storyteller, Tazewell’s main concern is that his audience stays swept up in the electricity of Summer’s hits—from “Hot Stuff” to “Bad Girls” to “Love to Love You Baby.” “It’s getting the audience to really connect to what’s going on,” says Tazewell, “so that you’re never pulled out of the moment.”