Play That Funky Music: How Broadway Keeps Trying to Get the Disco Beat

Posted May 18, 2018 1:28 a.m. EDT

Could Donna Summer make peace between Broadway and disco?

Maybe not with critics, as “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” got largely hostile reviews. But fans seems to be responding: The show has been clearing more than $1 million a week since early April.

Efforts to bring the nightclub-friendly four-on-the-floor beat to Broadway go back to 1979, when disco was at its commercial and artistic peak. Yet off-Broadway renditions, such as “The Donkey Show” and “Here Lies Love,” have clicked more successfully.

Up next: “This Ain’t No Disco,” which is set in 1979 New York and starts previews at the Atlantic Theater Company on June 29. Until that show tries to revive the glory days of Studio 54 (now a theater itself), here is a look back at Broadway’s best efforts, rated on a scale of 1 to 5 mirror balls.

‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’ (2018)

IN A NUTSHELL: Three women portray the late singer at various stages of her life in this new bio-musical.

STAR POWER: LaChanze (“The Color Purple”) and Ariana DeBose (“A Bronx Tale”) are nominated for Tony Awards. But the show’s real star is Donna Summer herself.

ANTHEMS: The score features 23 songs, including such classics as “Hot Stuff” and “I Feel Love.” While the original’s 17-minute duration might have tested Broadway audiences, “Love to Love You Baby” needs a few minutes more than it gets here. And where is “This Time I Know It’s for Real”?

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Recording industry mogul Tommy Mottola is a producer, and Summer’s husband Bruce Sudano is the story consultant. The show features an all-female dance ensemble, which leads to the odd sight of the producer Giorgio Moroder being played by a woman with a fake mustache.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID: “Can’t they do any better than this?” Jesse Green wondered in The New York Times.

THE UPSHOT: No more tears for the show’s producers: Nostalgia-loving women and gay men are filling the seats, and a nearby restaurant has even announced a nightly after-party.

DISCO RATING: 4 of 5 mirror balls

‘Got Tu Go Disco’ (1979)

IN A NUTSHELL: A young woman named Cassette sells clothes by day and turns into the queen of a nightclub by night — think “Cinderella” on the dance floor.

STAR POWER: A pre-"Fame” Irene Cara in the lead.

ANTHEMS: Casablanca Records (Donna Summer’s label) released the title song performed by disco singer Pattie Brooks. Broadway flop connoisseurs are known to sing “Bad, Glad, Good and Had” in piano bars.

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Music supervisor Kenny Lehman co-wrote Chic’s “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah).” For street cred, the show cast Studio 54’s actual doorman (Marc Benecke) and barman (Bob Pettie).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID: “As uninteresting to watch as a row of barflies drinking themselves silly,” Richard Eder opined in The Times.

THE UPSHOT: Much of the $2 million budget (reportedly the most for a Broadway show at the time) went to structural upgrades to the theater, including pipes for a water effect that promptly went bust. The show played less than a month.

DISCO RATING: 2 of 5 mirror balls

‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1999)

IN A NUTSHELL: The life and dancing times of Tony Manero, Bay Ridge’s most famous denizen. The 2001 Odyssey nightclub, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the disco contests — it’s all there.

STAR POWER: Soon-to-be-notables turned out to lurk in the bottom half of the cast: Andy Blankenbuehler (who choreographed “Hamilton”) and Casey Nicholaw (the director of “The Book of Mormon” and “Mean Girls”).

ANTHEMS: All the classic cuts from the movie soundtrack, heavy on the Bee Gees: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “If I Can’t Have You,” “Jive Talkin’,” “More Than a Woman” — even “Tragedy,” which came out two years after the film. Who’s countin’ when you’re dancin’?

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Producer Robert Stigwood (who also produced the film) and director Arlene Phillips helped adapt the screenplay for the stage; their production originated in Britain before moving to Broadway with a new cast. Like “Got Tu Go Disco,” it played at the Minskoff Theater.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID: “Has the body temperature of a wax effigy,” Ben Brantley wrote in The Times.

THE UPSHOT: “Saturday Night Fever” stuck around for just over a year, a total of 501 performances — no mega-flop, but not the hit you might have expected from a brand property loaded with great songs. The show, however, did not need Broadway: It tours regularly all over the world and is especially popular in Britain (where it did and continues to do better than in the United States). Cruise ships and the German market have also helped the dream stay alive.

DISCO RATING: 2 of 5 mirror balls

‘Xanadu’ (2007)

IN A NUTSHELL: Inspired by the cult 1980 film of the same title, “Xanadu” captures disco’s camp spirit more than its beats per minute. A Venice Beach doofus and his Greek muse team up to open a roller disco.

STAR POWER: Tony Roberts doubling up in the Gene Kelly role and as the god Zeus, plus the musical favorites Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson. Patti Murin, currently Anna in “Frozen,” made her Broadway debut as an understudy.

ANTHEMS: A bundle of earworms from the movie, including the title track, “Magic” and “Suddenly.” Welcome additions included a scenery-chewing, show-hijacking rendition of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman” by Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman.

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Cast as the male lead, James Carpinello, who somehow survived “Saturday Night Fever,” left the show after a freakish roller-skating accident. He was replaced by Jackson, and a Broadway hunk-story was made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID: “Can a musical be simultaneously indefensible and irresistible?” Oh yes, Charles Isherwood argued in The Times.

THE UPSHOT: Rarely has a production so defied — and exceeded — expectations. Based on a widely mocked film, the little-show-that-could opened to generally positive reviews, landed four Tony nominations and stayed on Broadway for a year and a half.

DISCO RATING: 4 of 5 mirror balls

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2011)

IN A NUTSHELL: Three sequin-loving, gender-bending performers from Sydney go on a wild road trip and spread a message of love, acceptance and the camp way.

STAR POWER: Australian showman Tony Sheldon as Bernadette; Will Swenson and Nick Adams as the drag queens Mitzi and Felicia; Swenson would look a lot more comfortable as Javert in “Les Misérables” a few years later.

ANTHEMS: This jukebox show leaned heavily, though not exclusively, on such disco chestnuts as “It’s Raining Men,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “I Will Survive” and “Hot Stuff.”

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner nabbed a Tony to match the Oscar they won for the 1994 film. The producing team included Bette Midler and Martha Wash.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID: “Wants so desperately to give audiences a gaudy good time that the results are oddly enervating,” Isherwood wrote in The Times.

THE UPSHOT: “Priscilla” was relatively divisive for such a fluffy musical. Some found its relentless cheer enjoyable, while others found it grating. The show ended up running for a year and a half, but its post-Broadway life has not been as fruitful. Disappointing sales cut short a Las Vegas engagement, and if you can’t sell drag in Vegas ...

DISCO RATING: 3 of 5 mirror balls