In Donna Summer’s songs, women take center stage.
In turn, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” is made up of a largely female cast that takes on both male and female roles during the biopic musical. The creative team said they made this casting choice to increase the number of roles available for women on Broadway and because they felt it fit with the legacy of Donna Summer.
“So often there aren’t enough roles, so this just seemed like an obvious opportunity,” said Des McAnuff, director and one of the book writer’s of “Summer.”
In recent years, the theater landscape seems to be including more female-empowered roles or at least talking about it, said Storm Lever, who plays Duckling Donna, the youngest version of Summer. These exist amid the traditional female roles that tend to portray women only in relation to the men around them.
“You’ll see this abundance of male-driven shows or if they do have a female lead you often have the classical ingenue role,” Lever said.
In “Summer,” the majority-female ensemble takes on the gender swapping throughout the musical. For example, the role of Giorgio Moroder, Summer’s producer, is played by female ensemblist Kaleigh Cronin.
While the cast is largely female, the show’s existing creative team is all male. Asked about this disparity, McAnuff said Summer had initially reached out to him several years ago to see if he would create a musical about her life and had been represented throughout the process by her three daughters as well as her husband.
“The primary songwriter of the show is Donna Summer and, while she’s not with us, she is a key member of the creative team,” McAnuff wrote in an email.
He added that there are women “in leadership roles” on the production team, dance department, stage management and producing team. Overall the cast features 16 women and six men and a band of six women and one man.
The idea for the largely female ensemble began early in the creative process for “Summer” and evolved out of Summer’s own emphasis of feminism and the idea that she would enlist women to tell her own story, said Colman Domingo, one of the show’s book writers.
“It’s very much part of the central mission Donna Summer had — female empowerment,” Domingo said.
Summer herself is portrayed through three Donnas — Diva Donna, Disco Donna and Duckling Donna — in what McAnuff sees as a memory play. The story begins with an invented concert and then evolves in a nonlinear fashion with the other Donnas appearing and showing her growing up in Boston and visiting Germany.
Having women play male parts in the show did not have much of an impact on how the book was written, but may change how certain scenes are read by the audience, McAnuff said.
“We knew that there would be a level both in terms of the drama and the comedy that we could kind of turn to because we were casting women,” McAnuff said.
To emphasize the show’s focus on women, McAnuff recently added an extra curtain call to the musical in which all members of the female ensemble take a bow together.
“It’s a small, small, small thing to change, but that image is powerful,” Lever said.