Meet the Tony Nominee: LaChanze on Bringing Donna Summer to Life

Matthew  Murphy
LaChanze in "SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical" 

As LaChanze began researching Donna Summer for her role in Broadway’s Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, she was surprised to learn the Queen of Disco’s life was more volatile than her classic tunes ever suggested. 

The singer-actress -- who won a Tony Award in 2006 for her portrayal of Celie in the original production of The Color Purple, 15 years after her first nomination for Once On This Island -- leads a trio of stars playing the title character in Summer, which traces its heroine’s rise from gospel-singing teen to global icon. Now at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the musical features 24 of Summer’s hits, including “Love to Love You Baby” and “Last Dance.”

LaChanze, 56, shares the title role with Ariana DeBose (Hamilton) and newcomer Storm Lever, with each portraying Summer at a different stage in her life and career. As “Diva Donna,” LaChanze plays the mature Summer, narrating the show and offering sage observations about her character’s professional highs and personal lows.

Now nominated for Best Actress in a Musical, LaChanze spoke to Billboard about the thrills and challenges of becoming a disco diva and why she believes Summer’s story resonates in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era.

Does receiving a Tony nomination now mean the same to you now as it did 28 years ago, when you were first nominated for Once On This Island

It means more, because it validates the longevity of my career. It’s not easy to keep going in theater, particularly in musicals because of the work that’s required. It’s a very physical, arduous job. The fact that I can pop back into a musical after not having done one since If/Then [in 2014] where I wasn’t the lead, and to then get a Tony nomination is wonderful. I wasn’t expecting it [but] I appreciate the magnitude of it differently now.  

What was it about Donna Summer that attracted you to this role?

I loved the idea of telling an African-American female music icon’s story on Broadway. I love her music, and once I read the script, I was even more enthralled. As an actor, I get to go into places emotionally that I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t realize her story was so rich, complex and relatable. I wasn’t prepared for the depth of her life. 

What was your biggest discovery about Donna?

That she didn’t like being called a "disco queen." Donna grew up singing in church and she loved gospel, jazz and classical. At the time, disco wasn’t considered to be on the same level as R&B and soul. She didn’t want to have that label, and she fought it for most of her career.

Does playing a real-life person, especially one who is a pop icon, present challenges you wouldn't face if she were a fictional character? 

I’ve spent time with Donna’s husband [Bruce Sudano] and her children. I appreciate their perspective and input, but I’m acutely aware this is personal for them. I try to be respectful in my portrayal of Donna, but also live truthfully as an actor would with any role. I want to lift Donna up to the respect she deserves dramatically, but I also want to honor the woman they knew and loved. Finding that fine line was a challenge. 

How did you work with Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever to ensure that your performances didn't read like impersonations and also felt unified?

The first thing that our director, Des McAnuff, said was that he didn’t want an imitation of Donna. That freed us up to just be actors telling her story. The three of us don’t resemble Donna or each other, even. [But] the moments we connect onstage are the most moving, electric and solidifying for us. That’s what I think helps make it work. 

You've been outspoken about gender inequality in theater. What does it mean to you to be portraying such a pioneering female artist at this time?

I wasn’t aware we’d be living in such a politically charged time when I first read the script. Donna Summer’s entire life -- every choice, every career move -- was led by men. It wasn’t until she took control of her life that she started to gain her own power. Women just weren’t doing that at that time. Her success is an affirmation of how much that’s necessary. I’m so proud to be telling this story right now.

You're developing an autobiographical musical project of your own, Feeling Good. What are your hopes for that piece? 

The idea came from working on my memoir. I do concerts all over the world, and I got bored with [traditional] themes like Broadway or Stephen Sondheim. I wanted to take moments of my life and thread them through music -- some of which has been written, some of which I’ll write. I started working with director Tamara Tunie, and she got me to delve into more intimate moments which made it very impactful. I’m calling it my one-woman musical.