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‘Summer’ actor gets info from the source

CLEVELAND — Unlike the three women who play the title character in the national tour of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” Steven Grant Douglas got to meet the man he plays for eight shows a week.

Douglas is cast as Bruce Sudano, who married Summer in 1980, and they were together until her death from lung cancer in 2012. It started as a professional partnership with Sudano co-writing several songs for Summer, including the hit “Bad Girls.”

Sudano dropped in last month during New York rehearsals for the national tour, which started Sunday in Rochester, N.Y., and opens Tuesday at Cleveland’s Connor Palace for a three-week run.

“Nobody informed me he was coming to rehearsal,” Douglas said during a telephone interview. “He was incredibly warm and welcoming. He’s excited that the show is happening. It was great to have him come and support us. He pulled me aside, whispered certain things in my ear about the importance of certain moments. He gave me a slice of what actually happened and said I could call upon him if I needed to.”

Douglas said this is his first time playing a living character, and getting to meet him was beneficial.

“I think it reinforced a lot of what I was doing. It helped free up the limitations I was giving myself — ‘Cool, that’s how he talks. That’s the type of person he is.’ Everyone was really comfortable around him. He’s a force. And to be one degree away from Donna is even cooler. That’s as close as we will ever get to Donna Summer.”

Summer first gained acclaim for the erotic hit “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975 and continued her success in the disco era with songs like “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.” Later hits include “She Works Hard for the Money” and “Unconditional Love.”

The musical weaves those songs and others around an autobiographical story with three women playing Summer at different stages of her career. “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” ran for 289 performances on Broadway and received two 2018 Tony Awards nominations.

Douglas said he considers Sudano to be Summer’s one true love.

“Once she meets him, she has this foundation, this renewed confidence in everything she does, because she doesn’t have to do it alone,” he said. “Even though his feelings were genuine, it was hard for her to see it because of her status … He becomes the one true love of her life, becomes father to her children, and they have two of their own.”

Douglas remembers hearing a lot of Summer’s music growing up, but he didn’t know she was the one singing those songs. Being immersed in her music during the rehearsal process, he said it’s clear that artists from Madonna to Lady Gaga drew on the experimentation that Summer started doing doing in the ’70s.

He also found elements of her life that he could relate to as an actor.

“I didn’t know she was an actress,” Douglas said. “Like a lot of us, she was just trying to get her next gig. She was doing a production of ‘Hair,’ of all things, when she had her first hit.”

Douglas still was in rehearsals with the show when this interview took place last week, and he was looking forward to seeing the reaction of an audience.

“Though it does chronicle Donna’s life — the good, the bad and the ugly — the show really comes to a capstone of just sheer excitement and joy and disco love. It’s pretty awesome that we take the audiences and take ourselves on this rollercoaster of emotion and just have a big dance party.”

agray@tribtoday.com

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