The Donna Summer musical arrives at the Emerson Colonial Theater in Boston
R. Scott Reedy
Before being known worldwide as “the queen of disco”, Donna Summer, born in Boston, sat in several districts of the city.
So it’s only fitting that the North American tour of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” the 2018 Broadway show about her life, plays her hometown as it relates to Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theater from February 22 to March 6.
From childhood, Summer – born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, the daughter of Andrew and Mary Gaines who grew up in Mission Hill, attended Grant AME Church on the South End/Lower Roxbury line and attended Jeremiah E High School Burke in Dorchester – seemed destined to go places.
As a teenager with a powerful voice, Summer had her first recording sessions on Newbury Street. In 1967 she moved to New York, and in 1968 she joined a German company of the musical “Hair”.
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After that production closed, Summer stayed in Munich, where she eventually began working with music producers and songwriters Giorgio Moroder, known as the founder of disco, and Pete Bellotte on songs such as the epic “Love to Love You Baby” and electronic dance music. – fueled “I Feel Love”, which helped establish her as an international recording artist.
Summer’s success only grew from there. She charted 42 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 during her lifetime, 14 of which reached the top 10. Hits such as ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Dim All the Lights’, ‘On the Radio,” “Last Dance,” and “She Works Hard for the Money” helped make the five-time Grammy Award winner one of the greatest female artists of all time, selling 100 million records.
A non-smoker, Summer died of lung cancer at her home in Naples, Florida on May 17, 2012, at the age of 63.
The musical includes songs by Summer, Moroder, Bellotte, Paul Jabara and others, and a book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff. The role of Summer is played by three different interpreters, Brittny Smith in “Diva Donna”, Charis Gullage in “Disco Donna” and Amahri Edwards-Jones in “Duckling Donna”.
Smith, an Austin, TX native and veteran of touring show productions including “Dreamgirls” and “Step Afrika!”, was in Portland, Maine recently when she spoke over the phone about the iconic singer, what it’s like to play her at the peak of her career and more.
Q: Was Donna Summer the first real person you played?
A: Yes, it’s also interesting because I love jukebox musicals. I’ve done quite a few, but Donna is the first real person I’ve portrayed. Donna was such a great singer. She had covered disco, of course, but also pop and rock, which made her so great. When it comes to doing a show like this, it’s all about taking the audience back to an earlier time. It’s all about nostalgia – doing covers of songs that people love. That’s why jukebox musicals work, especially when you have so many amazing songs like these to work with.
Q: Will you and your mates do a Donna Summer roots tour while you’re in Boston?
A: I really hope. We have people in the cast who are like our resident historians, finding interesting places to visit wherever we play. It will be great if we can see where Donna spent her childhood and places related to that time in her life.
Q: When did you first meet Donna Summer?
A: I was a huge Selena fan and saw her very last concert, in February 1995, at the Astrodome in Houston, when I was in maybe fifth grade. Selena did a disco set and that gave me my first introduction to Donna’s music. Later, my mother, who was a Donna fan, took me to see her in concert.
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Q: Your mother introduced you to this music. What else did you learn from her?
A: My mom told me everything she knew about Donna Summer and her place in pop music. One Halloween, she even dressed up as Donna. My mother sings jazz and plays six instruments, so my brother and I were exposed to music from an early age. My mother is very funny and smart too. She made us listen to her albums while we cleaned the house. We would dust and vacuum while singing with her. She wanted us to enjoy the music, but she also made sure we worked well.
Q: Is it a safe bet that your mother was one of the first people you told when you landed that tour?
A: She was the first. The casting process was interesting. I’ve toured a lot – that’s what I love to do. For this one, auditions took place last summer. I was in for Diva or Disco Donna. I reached the final in New York, and they offered me the role of Diva Donna there, which is unusual. It was very flattering.
I called my mom from the rehearsal room and she was so happy. She immediately started singing Donna’s songs on the other end of the phone.
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Q: Is your mother your biggest fan?
A: We are closer than close, but I must say that she is my biggest criticism. She is always supportive, but she is also very honest. She always tells me what she really thinks. I live in the Baltimore area, so she comes to stay with me and see the show there, just before Boston.
I can’t wait for my mother to see it. I hope she likes it, because every time I impress my mom, it’s a big deal. That’s when I feel the most accomplished.
Q: What kind of research did you do to prepare for this role?
A: I listened to his albums, of course, and watched YouTube clips to learn his movement, and some of his inflections. I wanted to embody it, not imitate it. Diva Donna opens and closes the show. She’s the guideline, almost like a narrator, so I want her to be perfect.
Q: How’s it feel to share the role with two other actresses?
A: That’s wonderful. It’s really cool, because with three Donnas, you can see her at different ages. The book offers an intimate look at Donna through the different stages of her life. With Duckling Donna, you see her young, in a period of self-discovery. With Disco Donna, you meet her at the peak of her fame, and then you see her fully evolved as Diva Donna. The three of us playing her are like sisters, united in our love of Donna.
Q: It is clear that you are having a good time in this production. What can the public expect?
A: Donna Summer left an incredible legacy. Like everyone else, she’s had her ups and downs and we’re taking care of that. His music is amazing, however, and we have brilliant choreography, which makes this show a joy for us and a joyful experience for our audience. We perform 20 of his hits and when people hear their favorite they immediately start clapping. By the time we get to “Last Dance”, everyone reacts and gets up, dances and sends love and respect to Donna.
See the musical ‘Summer’
What: “Summer: The Musical Donna Summer”
When: From February 22 to March 6
Or: Emerson Colonial Theater, 106 Boylston Street, Boston
Tickets: From $44.75
Information: 1-888-616-0272 or BroadwayInBoston.com
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