Interview with Summer: The Donna Summer Musical stars Ariana DeBose & Storm Lever
Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever are both currently wowing audiences at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway with powerhouse vocals doing justice to some of the greatest songs of the disco era. In Summer: The Donna Summer Musical they portray the titular music icon in different stages of her life, alongside Tony Award winner LaChanze as Diva Donna. Ms. Lever, whose playing age is enviously younger, is perfectly cast as Duckling Donna in her Broadway debut, whilst Ms. DeBose takes on the slightly older variant and is giving a career-defining performance as Disco Donna.
We caught up with both leading ladies at the official Opening Night afterparty at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square to chat about the Queen of Disco and the current exploding trend of crowd-pleasing, jukebox musicals...
There are a number of celebrated musicians that are receiving or about to receive the Broadway treatment. What is it about Donna Summer's life in particular that warrents a Broadway bio-musical in your opinion?
Ariana DeBose: Donna Summer is a legendary icon of the 1970s. She literally created a genre of music with her writing partners Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte and Paul Jabara. In Summer, we tell the story of who this woman actually was. She wasn’t just an icon. People are more than one thing, right? She was a mother, a daughter, a lover, a sister, a teacher, a student, shepherd and sheep and we’re giving all these different shades in a jam-packed 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. We use her music to storytell for that time period. That’s what’s so interesting about it - and I think her fans find this interesting as well – is that the music she made ended up telling the story of her life. That’s what makes it a good musical.
Storm Lever: So many people know and love her music, but what’s incredible about Donna is that she was living in the disco era and she was the Queen of Disco and so a glitzy, glamorous, beautiful image is what comes to mind, but what this woman was going through behind it all was anything but glitzy or glamorous. She was this oversexualized being that didn’t really own her sexuality. She looked at herself as the Ugly Duckling. She was insecure. She went through a lot of those difficult struggles women of today go through and more. This show spans through issues of domestic violence to suicide to molestation – there are so many things that this woman struggled with. The public didn’t know and I think the public should know because that’s what makes a full woman. If we’re going to celebrate the artist, we should celebrate all of her.
'Duckling Donna' is quite self-explanatory, but what would you say were the main differences between the title character as 'Disco Donna' and LaChanze's version of 'Diva Donna', Ariana?
Ariana DeBose: Disco Donna takes you through the woman she was becoming at the very start of her career. She was a fledgling - if I could continue with the bird analogy here – and as a fledgling star, you see her record “Love to Love You” and then she takes you all the way through to “She Works Hard for the Money”. That’s the moment she realises that her friends, her manager, her publicist, potentially, people that she has come to rely on, have been taking advantage of her and essentially stealing her money. We take you through a lawsuit and ultimately a resolution of her taking control over her career and taking her power back, separating ties from Casa Blanca Records and moving onto David Geffen Records, where she can become the artist that she wants to be and make the music she loves. It’s not actually unlike a story you would hear today. The circumstances are the same today, specifically for women in the music industry. We’ve come a long way, but still not as far as we think we’ve come.
There is quite the “jukebox musical” explosion breaking out at the moment. Of course, there’s Summer, but also Jimmy Buffett's Escape to Margaritaville is running now, The Cher Show is on its way, The Go-Go's musical Head Over Heels is coming, Alanis Morisette's Jagged Little Pill is rumoured to be on its way, and there’s a Bee Gees musical in the works. In London, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical just opened, the Meatloaf-infused Bat Out of Hell just re-opened and Sinatra: The Musical is in development. How do you explain this current phenomenon?
Storm Lever: It’s a genius idea for musical theatre. You have songs and a product that you know you already have an audience for. There’s an audience that love this music and wants to celebrate it. Too often in the pop industry, I don’t feel you get to dive into the artist’s stories. So much of it is about presenting an image. What theatre does is we peel it back a little bit. We ask those difficult questions. We still get to hear that music that we love but we can also find out a deeper story behind it.
Ariana DeBose: I think people nowadays are drawn to musicals that are somewhat familiar. Donna Summer’s music, Cher’s music, Tina Turner’s music – they all create a certain bit of nostalgia for folks. I think in today’s world, familiarity is a good thing. But it’s the storytelling behind the music that pushes them forward. I’m all for knowing where we’ve come from and where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going and how to create change. Personally for me, that’s what I think is pushing this trend. And yes, the music is amazing! I wanna see The Cher Show! I love Cher! I wanna see Tina: The Tina Turner Musical – and not just because my friend Adrienne [Warren] is starring in it – but because these women, in particular, were some of the first rockers! They were creating change in a time when women were not at the forefront of things and they became their own lady bosses and that’s bad-ass… for lack of a better term!
Is there a dream jukebox musical you’d like to see in the future – either as a fan or to star in it yourself?
Ariana DeBose: Oh, gosh! I think after Summer I’m going to take a break from jukebox musicals because I like to keep challenging myself in different ways, but I would have to say I’d love to see Tina: The Tina Turner Musical because we all think we know the story of Ike and Tina Turner, but I’m very interested in what I may not know. I’m a huge fan of [director] Phyllida [Lloyd]. I think what she’s able to do with “jukebox musicals” to bring depth and meaning to them is really special and I would love to support my friend over in London.
Storm Lever: A jukebox musical that I would love to see? Another pop diva… Maybe a Beyoncé musical! We know her songs. We love her. She’s definitely got the fan base here. That would be a great one!
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical Tickets are available now for performances through to November 18, 2018.
(Header photos by Joan Marcus)