Tonys 2018: LaChanze and Ariana DeBose on Echoes of Donna Summer's Story in the #MeToo Era

The Tony-nominated stars speak to The Hollywood Reporter about playing the late music icon in 'Summer: The Donna Summer Musical' — and explain why her narrative feels more relevant than ever.

When LaChanze and Ariana DeBose began workshopping Summer: The Donna Summer Musical for Broadway in 2016, they never imagined the show's core message would be amplified by today's societal surge of female empowerment. Ahead of Sunday's Tony Awards, the actresses — both of whom received nominations for their performance as Summer — spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the significance of the late superstar's narrative in 2018's #MeToo and Time's Up era.

"Even a year ago, I'm not sure that work like this would have made it on Broadway," admits DeBose, whose role as pop ingenue Disco Donna earned the newcomer her first Tony nomination for featured actress in a musical. "But it feels amazing that there's a place for this story right now."

LaChanze, who is up for lead actress in a musical for her portrayal of the mature Diva Donna, couldn't agree more. "It's interesting because even when we started working on this project in 2016, the #MeToo movement hadn't started," she says. "So the lines still had meaning in accordance with the time they were written for. But now, when we finish 'She Works Hard for the Money' and I explain why that song was written, the way the audience reacts to it and relates to it today is that much more powerful."

The theater vet and previous Tony winner adds: "Donna's experiences mean that much more because of the #MeToo movement and because of gender equality and because women are so much more in the forefront these days — and unapologetically so."

That heightened sense of feminism is reflected in Summer, which illustrates the undisputed disco queen's triumph over adversity. From Summer's humble beginnings in Boston to her rise to fame, even all the way up to her untimely 2012 death at age 63, much of the musical is a joyous celebration of the superstar's life, emphasized by her catalog of hits.

However, book writers Colman Domingo and Robert Cary felt it also was necessary to shed light on Summer's darker days. Indeed, the script calls for LaChanze and DeBose — along with Storm Lever, who plays the young Duckling Donna — to depict the musician's encounters with sexual abuse as a child, domestic violence as an adult and relentless sexism in the music industry. 

"Every scene that deals with domestic violence or physical abuse, or any of the scenes where Donna had to deal with being taken advantage of simply because she was a woman, even her having to sue her manager for what was rightfully hers, was hard," says LaChanze. "It was tough, but that was her reality." 

According to LaChanze, conversations with Summer's surviving husband, Bruce Sudano — who served as a consultant on the project and was available to the cast during rehearsals — were crucial in helping her understand the Grammy winner's mind-set. 

"Bruce made it clear to me that Donna was a survivor and she thought of herself that way. All of the abuse she endured, whether it be personal or professional, none of that is ever easy to re-create onstage because we're talking about a real-life person," LaChanze continues. "Thankfully, Donna made it out on the other side and was still able to leave an impact by fearlessly standing up for herself."

Below, LaChanze and DeBose elaborate on Summer's legacy, her perceived betrayal of the gay community — the singer's most ardent fans, many of whom were hurt after her controversial "Adam and Steve" comment in the early '80s — and share their thoughts on Broadway's cultural shift toward more starring roles for women of color.

Tell me about your connection to Donna Summer. Were you big fans before you were cast?

LaChanze: I wasn't a super fan. I loved her music. I was a fan of certain songs just because of her voice. "State of Independence" was one of my favorites, "MacArthur Park," "Dim All the Lights," these were great songs to sing as a young teenager who wanted to sing for a living.

DeBose: I knew of her music before I got the part. My mom and I used to exercise together in our living room when I was a kid to her music. But I didn't exactly understand who she was until I started auditioning for this job. So it was a good pre-introduction to her.

After getting to know Donna in a more intimate way by playing her, what would you say was her most admirable quality?

LaChanze: How down to earth she is. With Donna, she was very relatable. She loved her fans. She loved talking to her fans; she loved embracing them. She didn't miss an opportunity to hold hands and pray with someone. She was very generous in that way with herself and it made her very humble. Even as an actor, I learned to appreciate each moment. That's how Donna has inspired me.

DeBose: That's a good question. She possessed so many admirable characteristics. I loved how goofy she was. I've been able to infuse a lot of joy in my character as a result of her sense of humor. She'd make a joke and sometimes people didn't laugh. But I also find that very endearing. She loved to play characters. I think that's very fun. It spoke to a level of escapism. I also really appreciate how she didn't hide the fact that she made mistakes. She never claimed to be perfect. I appreciate that, since she was an icon and there was a lot of pressure on her.

In what ways do you bring yourselves into the role of Donna?

LaChanze: I have a career in the performing arts, she had a career as a musical icon. I'm raising two daughters, she raised three daughters. There are some similarities that I can apply myself to in the story. Particularly, what I call our second act, which is really just later in the play, there's this scene where all three of Donna's daughters leave for college. And I just happen to be at that time in my life with my daughters. I identify with what Donna must have gone through and also when she had to give up her daughter Mimi to raise because her career was so demanding. I don't know if I could have done that.

DeBose: I identify with Donna in several different ways. I hate being put in a box. I don't like it when other people put limits on me. I definitely understood where she was coming from when she said, "Hey, I can do more than gasp and moan. I actually sing." She had to really fight to be taken seriously in that way. When I first read the script, I was like, "Yes, girl, I know exactly what you're talking about!"

How would you describe the reaction from die-hard Summer fans?

LaChanze: I've done several Broadway shows, concerts and performances, but I have never heard the type of audience reaction that we have every night once we go black onstage. It's astounding. The reaction is just so overwhelming. It pierces our ears. It's amazing, the screams and appreciation that we get every night. When I go out to the backstage door and I sign autographs, there are people that have come so many times already and we've only been open for about a month and a half. I met DJ Donnie, who was apparently a DJ at Studio 54, the other night and he couldn't wait to share with me the altar that he has in his home for Donna. To these fans, Donna was their goddess. It's so great to see that her fans have a place to come and release some of that love and admiration for her.

DeBose: I knew going into this that it was going to be challenging at first because she was so beloved by so many people around the world. To see people leaping to their feet every night, it brings me such joy and I know that we did our job. We can't bring her back, but we can remind people of what she accomplished and how it felt to hear her music.

It's so much fun to see all three Donnas perform onstage together. What is that experience like?

LaChanze: I had no point of reference of how to play a character looking at herself onstage. Throughout the process, we developed this connection that was a combination of empowerment, support and acknowledgement. It's almost as if we are affirming each other and the choices Donna made in each stage of her life.

DeBose: We have such a beautiful friendship between the three of us. Having LaChanze around to support the two of us and to learn from has been wonderful. There's a kinship that's part sisterhood, part mentorship and friendship. We got to share artistic ideas, we got to create together and now we lead a company together. That's a beautiful testament to the idea that women can work together. We found a balance. It's about understanding expectations of each other, finding how our powers can work well together.

In this current climate, how does it feel to play a woman who fought against sexism, sexual abuse and domestic violence?

LaChanze: It gives us, the three women playing Donna, and the female ensemble just more validity and more confidence as we're telling this story. It makes us all pretty proud to be up there.

DeBose: It's 2018 and we are in the midst of a giant female revolution — and I do believe the future is female — that's helped us find our place in this community, which is a wonderful, beautiful thing. It's very empowering. We're starting to see young people, young women in particular, come to see the show. I'm beginning to get some fan letters that are saying, "Hey, this was such a great reminder that what Donna went through wasn't that long ago." And yes, we have made progress, but this one girl said in particular, "It fuels me to keep going. If Donna could accomplish taking ownership of her career and creating her own corner in the world, then so can I." That's really, really heartening and exciting.

What is it like depicting Donna's experience with domestic violence? (In the show, one of Donna's ex-lovers, Gunther — played by Aaron Krohn — hits Disco Donna before pulling a gun on her, prompting her to fight back.)

LaChanze: It was heart-wrenching because sometimes her daughters would be watching or her husband would be watching. It's tough in the show because people are jamming out to her music and then they see the irony of what was also going on in her life. Despite that duplicity, she was able to thrive and survive. I hope these scenes empower young women who come to see the show.

DeBose: When we first started performing the show here in New York, that moment was received with a huge hush. The hush fell over the crowd because it's not something that the audience really sees coming, especially not in the context of our show. But it's a reminder that what they just witnessed is happening right outside their door. This is still a rampant issue in our society and in our communities. We're seeing audiences have a range of reactions that include people getting up and getting a little aggressive. And then other people are like, "Yeah, girl, fight back!" Then every once in a while, I'll look out into the audience and see the men looking away. Men won't watch it, whereas the women are at the edge of their seat about to cry. But Donna fought back and I want women to know how important it is to do the same.

Do you think the support of the LGBTQ community has helped this show succeed?

LaChanze: I don't know how we would have the show without the support of the LGBTQ community, to be honest. We're doing about a million bucks a week and I don't know how that would happen without them. If it weren't for the LGBTQ community, Donna wouldn't be as huge of a success. Donna wouldn't have been the icon that she was to so many without them and I think everybody knows that. That was her largest audience, her largest supporters internationally.

DeBose: It's a testament to how forgiving the LGBTQ community is. As a member of that community, it makes me feel really good to know there's an overwhelming sense of forgiveness. People acknowledge that perhaps the LGBTQ community moved away from Donna. But once you realize that people make mistakes every day, we're all human and the thing that unites us is love. For us in connection with Donna Summer, it all goes back to the music and how she made you feel. Even though people can make giant mistakes and say the wrong thing at the wrong time, it doesn't mean they don't have a good heart.

What would you say to Summer fans who may feel like the show doesn't adequately portray her troubles with her core gay fan base? (She was notoriously quoted as saying, "It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" at a concert in 1983, during the height of the AIDS crisis.)

LaChanze: There was no way we could tell the story of Donna Summer's life without addressing that hurt, without taking a moment for the legacy of Donna to say sorry for something she never intended in the first place. After doing the research, I personally feel that Donna wasn't given a good enough opportunity to explain the entire situation. She apologized in a press announcement, but I feel because of her intimate connection with her fans, the way we address it in the show, speaking directly to the audience about what was going on for her, I feel would have been a more appreciated approach for her.

DeBose: Today, had something like that gone down, of course Donna would have been reprimanded. But you can name countless examples of stars who've been forgiven for really crappy things they've said or done. People are still buying Chris Brown's albums. We'll never know exactly what was said or wasn't said. When you're caught up in a life like the one Donna was living, information can be misconstrued. She tried to live the most loving, accepting life possible. I also think she dealt with her own trauma and as she got older, her trauma manifested in different ways. I don't give her a personal pass. I don't know what I would have done in her shoes. I would like to believe if I had said something like that, that I would have jumped at the chance to apologize immediately.

Do you think Broadway's ambivalence toward jukebox bio-musicals is changing?

LaChanze: No. I don't think Broadway's attitude toward them is changing at all. With the success of so many and with the onslaught of them continuing to come in, I think there needs to be a separate category for the biographical jukebox musical. We're using the music of someone's career to tell a story. That's unique, interesting, exciting and takes another level of creativity that isn't just sitting down writing music for a new narrative. We're taking a song and applying it to a moment in a story, which can be quite challenging at times. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn't. But when it works, it's magic. Just like we have a category for revivals at the Tonys, why don't we have one for the biographical musical?

DeBose: There's a trend that you're seeing in the commercial Broadway community. Jukebox musicals are starting to come back because people crave nostalgia. People want to be reminded of a time where things might have been stressful, but they could forget their cares and their woes. There's a certain generation out there who wants to be reminded of the good old days. You never know what song's going to do that for them.

This show champions diverse talent, especially with three black women leading the company. Do you feel like there are better opportunities on Broadway for women of color in starring roles?

LaChanze: Absolutely. Just look at our cast for example. It's a musical led by three African-American women about an African-American woman. The ensemble is predominantly women of color, the orchestra is full of women of color. If there is ever a time for women of color to be celebrated on Broadway, it's right now. Going back to when I started 28 years ago, when I was Ti Moune in Once on This Island, it was very different. I was nominated for a Tony, but I was nominated for best featured actress in a musical. I wasn't even considered a leading actress. Now it's a very different time. Now the young woman playing Ti Moune [Hailey Kilgore] in Once on This Island's revival is considered a leading actress. We've come a long way.

DeBose: We're definitely getting there. The fact that a show like ours has found a place on Broadway, that's a great sign that people are realizing that theatrical experiences should reflect the world around us. We are a piece about a black woman, a black icon, so it makes so much sense to hire beautiful women of color, all colors for that matter.

You both are nominated for Tonys for your work in Summer. How does that feel?

LaChanze: It always feels so good. But I was so thrilled for Ariana because she is quite the talented young woman. She works so hard and her talent is undeniable. I stand onstage every night and I'm blown away by her consistency and I think, "Boy, she makes me look really good as older Donna."

DeBose: To win would be a beautiful, beautiful surprise. I'm honored to be recognized in a season where Chita Rivera is also receiving a special Tony award. That's really exciting because she is a woman I've admired for so long. I've made it a goal of mine to try and further the legacy of triple-threat women on Broadway. This nomination has helped me accomplish a goal in that way. It's not really about winning for me. But on the off chance that it does happen, it would be a beautiful reminder that there is a place for triple-threat women on Broadway in leading roles. It's not just about loading your ensemble with triple threats. It's about letting them lead.