Hailing from Boston, Donna Summer went from the church choir to disco dance floor over the years. She broke through music boundaries with hits like "Love to Love You Baby," "Dim All the Lights" and "I Feel Love."
Summer announced to Windy City Times in 2009 that she would never retire, then sadly passed away from lung cancer in 2012. In 2013, she was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, in 2018, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical was created to continue her legacy.
Performer Dan'yelle Williamson plays Summer in her later years in the stage show, as well as Summer's mother Mary Gaines during her early years. Williamson brings experience from other musicals to the table such as Mamma Mia!, Memphis, The Lion King and Wicked.
Windy City Times: Where are you from?
Dan'yelle Williamson: I'm from Tampa, Florida, originally. I attended Howard W. Blake High School of the Arts.
WCT: Did you always want to be in musicals?
DW: No. [Laughs] I didn't know I wanted to do musicals until much later. I knew I wanted to sing, because I had always been a singer. I grew up in the church and sang in the choir. I wanted to keep singing and musicals found me. It's cool when your purpose finds you.
When I went to college, then I decided to do musicals.
WCT: Did you like Donna Summer songs in the past?
DW: I actually didn't listen to her music at all growing up. My parents were more into Parliament, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. We listened to soul and funk.
I wasn't familiar with her life either, so I learned a lot at the beginning of this process. Some cast members in the show have been following her forever.
WCT: Do you people say you look like her?
DW: Yes. People do say that a lot!
WCT: How deep does the storyline go into her struggles?
DW: They touch on some challenging topics in the show. Overall, the show focuses on the highlights of her life. Some of the topics are brief and I wish that they went a little deeper.
I want a deeper understanding of her as a full woman, mother, sister and wife. She was so any things. She wasn't just the disco queen, but the show is very fast, so we are in and out.
WCT: Why is your character described as the "Diva Donna?"
DW: There are three different Donnas. Each Donna represents a stage in her life. Olivia Elease Hardy is the "Duckling Donna" that is Donna in her younger years when she sings in church. Alex Hairston is "Disco Donna" and goes into her teen years. My character represents Donna Summer in her later years. She is already established as a huge megastar. With my character they introduce her journey as a mother and wife, while being in the music industry.
WCT: So she wasn't a diva who demands things in her dressing room?
DW: No. I never met Donna, but her husband Bruce Sudano said she was very loving, kind and giving. She wanted her children to know she was their mother first and not some big star.
WCT: So the family is very involved with this production?
DW: Yes. Bruce came to a few of the rehearsals. He was very close to the project. He had a lot to say in regards to his wife and her journey.
WCT: When I interviewed Donna in the past, she spoke of wanting to make a musical about her life called Ordinary Girl. Was that part of this production?
DW: Yes. That was the book she wrote, so they pulled things from the book to put it in the show.
WCT: She told me she wanted to try opera.
DW: She did? Well, she does have a very versatile voice and it was something no one had heard before.
WCT: Do you have a favorite song of Summer?
DW: I liked "Hot Stuff" and "Bad Girls" for a while, but lately I like "She Works Hard for the Money." I have had my own challenges with this tour, so that song is really resonating with me right now.
WCT: What does the Summer show have for gay fans?
DW: As her character, I do address the controversial situation that happened where she called out gay fans. That is something I wish we elaborated more on in the show. It felt like it was put in there because it happened, then we move on to the next thing.
I do believe the music will have everyone on their feet. This show speaks to everyone and anyone. We have all had challenges in our careers and this is a very relatable show in that way. Last night, people were dancing in the aisles for "Last Dance."
WCT: You play Mary Gaines in the show?
DW: Yes, I play Donna's mother as well so I have a very intricate role. I play the narrator, Donna Summer and her mom.
WCT: Are you changing clothes backstage all the time?
DW: I am doing costume changes every five seconds. If I am offstage, I am changing into another outfit, then running to the other side of the stage to enter for a scene.
WCT: What changed from the original production for the tour?
DW: As opposed to the original production, I know all the props and set pieces for our show are being manually operated by cast members. Our ensemble does so much for this show. They play men. They play women. They work so hard and don't get enough recognition.
WCT: You performed in Wicked here in Chicago?
DW: I did. It was my first professional job after college.
WCT: Were you in the Wicked cast with Telly Leung or Brian Justin Crum?
DW: Telly came in after I left, but I was in the group with Brian. I booked The Lion King tour, so I left in 2008.
WCT: Is there anything you want to accomplish after the tour?
DW: I want to shift into TV and film after this. It's something that I've been actively working towards for a while now. I am hoping, with the platform of this show, that the opportunity will come to fruition this year.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical feels the love at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Feb. 12-23. Tickets and information can be found at BroadwayInChicago.com .