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Disco on the stage

ALEX JEFFERY, AUTHOR OF DONNA SUMMER’S ONCE UPON A TIME, ON PERFORMING DISCO IN MUSICAL THEATRE.


At one point in the late 1990s, if there were still cause to doubt it, it became apparent just how forcefully the disco revival had hit the mainstream. When not one but three jukebox musicals where disco music was featured hit London’s West End, the proof was undeniable. 

After Saturday Night Fever came Boogie Nights and then the phenomenally successful ABBA musical Mamma Mia!, the first envoy in what became a still-ongoing franchise. Jukebox musicals tend to follow shifts in taste and genre acceptability rather than the other way round, so none could be said to have caused the revival. It should hardly be a surprise that all three reared their heads in the UK – disco had barely gone out of fashion there since its supposed demise at the end of the 1970s.  

However, the original disco era (approximately 1974-80) had also seen its fair share of disco musicals, or at least planned ones. A lesser known fact about Donna Summer is that she was once developing her Cinderella-at-the-disco themed album Once Upon a Time for the stage. She had hoped that it would debut in Philadelphia and Boston before eventually making its way to Broadway, but the project never even made it to workshopping. How serious was she about the project? Summer’s producer Pete Bellotte admitted to me that he thought little work had happened around it. However, Summer appeared to be focused on it throughout 1978, mentioning it in multiple interviews and even registering it under the name “Cindy” at the US Patents Office.

She wasn’t in fact the first to come up with the idea of a disco musical. That honour had gone to Bob Crewe, the former producer and co-writer of most of the early hits for the Four Seasons like “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Rag Doll” as well as the soundtrack to Barbarella. In the disco era, he’d had some notable successes, co-writing Labelle’s funk masterpiece “Lady Marmalade” and as an integral (if non-visible) part of Disco Tex and the Sexolettes, whose 1975 debut Disco-Tex & His Sex-O-Lettes Review, overdubbed with crowd noise throughout, was arguably one of the first disco concept albums. Crewe’s proposed musical “Street Talk”, a story of a boy on the make for stardom in New York, signalled its queer content in some of the track titles like “Cherry Boy” and“Ah Men”. In retrospect the subject matter seems too ahead of its time for Broadway, the place Crewe was aiming his project towards (perhaps he’d have had better luck if he’d tried Midnight CowboyThe Musical instead). It’s hard to assess the project just from Crewe’s music on the Street Talk album (released by The Bob Crewe Generation in 1976). It is the inevitable redux of a larger project, tided up for an entirely different kind of consumption, trying to salvage some use out of its failure as a stage show. As fun as titillating sex disco tracks like “Menage á Trois” are, there’s not much there that immediately says “narrative”. This is also something you might say about the Saturday Night Fever musical, organised mostly around Gibb Brothers-written material, as well as a few other disco classics. By this point in time, twenty years later, the sheer familiarity of most of the music got the concept across, and the success of jukebox musicals anyway usually depends more on their ability to get audiences dancing in the aisles than their gripping storylines.

As for Donna Summer’s musical, it seemed doomed to life as a one-woman show. The album on which it was to be based is, save for the opening prologue, all delivered first person from the point of view of a single character – Summer’s disco Cinderella. There are barely any other characters referenced in the songs, and even her Prince Charming is a distant projection, a cipher even, who seems to exist mostly in her imagination. Whether Summer planned to perform the show herself (just as her solo performing career was about to go into overdrive) seems unclear. Given her recording and touring commitments, it seems more likely that she would have passed the role to another singer, content with her achievements as a songwriter and story-deviser.

Of all the disco musicals that various artists and producers tried to get off the ground in the 1970s, the only one to make it to the stage was Got Tu Go Disco.  Panned by critics (but still remembered fondly as a so-bad-it’s-good gem by many who got to see it), it closed after just five days. The show at least had a librettist, but the ten different songwriters on the show meant that the music (remembered by those who saw it as generic disco fodder) didn’t have much to offer. The story: the heroine Cassette (played by a pre-Fame Irene Cara) works in a clothing store selling high-fashion for the disco crowd. Her aspiration in the show, to get into Studio 54 against the odds, echoed the story in Paul Jabara’s hit medley “Shut Out/Heaven Is A Disco”. Donna Summer herself appears on the track, switching roles from Cinderella to fairy godmother and then to Tina-Turner-tough-talking bouncer. Like Summer, Jabara was an artist on the Casablanca roster. The production company behind Got Tu Go Disco? Casablanca again. In fact, the musical was just one of a number of Casablanca disco stories where one or more protagonists fixed the disco as the site for their social climbing ambitions (see also the movies Thank God It’s Friday and Can’t Stop The Music). What lay underneath the spangled tops, roller skates and girls/boy ingenues on the make was essentially the same basic story trope – Cinderella, a fairy tale of social mobility if ever there was one. Quite possibly all of these half-baked attempts had simply been unnecessary. They could have got it right the first time round by using the one with the most compelling music and story structure – Once Upon a Time.

What would such a production have looked like? We will likely never know now, as Summer took most of the knowledge to the grave.


Alex Jeffery writes and teaches about popular music, and currently lives between London and Berlin. Alex lectures on popular music in several institutions in London, including City, University of London BIMM London and the University of Cambridge. He has also worked as associate editor at the long-running music review site MusicOMH, and runs the YouTube channel DocPopterTV, which posts audiovisual essays on his research and other audiovisual creative work.

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