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How Tommy Mottola Brought Donna Summer to Broadway

Tommy Mottola was the king of the music business for so long that he had his pick of any A-list star to perform at his 2000 wedding to Mexican singer and actress Thalía. He invited Donna Summer. “She’s my wife’s favorite singer,” Mottola recalls on a recent afternoon. “I didn’t tell my wife because I wanted to surprise her. Halfway through the dinner, ‘MacArthur Park’ starts playing. Donna then walks onstage. It was stunning. And then, of course, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez and Gloria Estefan all got onstage, singing with Donna, doing background. It was a hell of an extravaganza.”

In the run-up to the Tony Awards, Mottola is mapping out plans to take his Tony-nominated Broadway biopic about the disco icon, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” on the road, with U.S. and international tours. The production, in which Summer is played by Storm Lever, Ariana DeBose and LaChanze, has been raking in a robust $1 million a week in ticket sales as fans have turned the aisles into a nightly dance party.

Mottola, 69, who ran Sony Music through 2003, had a Midas touch for launching chart-topping stars, from Michael Jackson to ex-wife Mariah Carey, Céline Dion, Billy Joel and Destiny’s Child. Now, he’s quietly mounting a career as a Broadway producer, with recent credits including “A Bronx Tale” and “Groundhog Day.” For “Summer,” which he made with producing partner Michael David of Dodger Properties, he secured the music rights from her widower, Bruce Sudano. Up next, Mottola is staging a musical adaptation of “Clueless” and one about Johnny Cash set for 2019.

Ariana DeBose plays Disco Donna in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”
Matthew Murphy

Like almost everybody else in entertainment, Mottola is also interested in TV production (he produced “15: A Quinceañera Story” for HBO). Although he won’t name specific projects, most of his productions will be based out of Entertainment One, in addition to a few titles in development at Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment and David Ayer’s Cedar Park. Does he watch a lot of TV? “Yes and no,” Mottola says. “There’s a lot of crap on television. Because of Netflix and the streaming services, there’s also great stuff.”

Sitting at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre between rehearsals for “Summer,” Mottola speaks to Variety about his goals, what has changed about the music business and the advice he recently gave Carey.

Working on a musical is different than producing an album. What brought you to Broadway?

I think everybody needs new challenges and new mountains to climb. This is so much harder than the music business. There are so many moving parts, so many things to think about. Just moving one little thing affects everything. I really felt this would be a lot of fun. It would be an opportunity to explore a combination of the spoken word, dance, lighting, sound and other ingredients it takes to pull something like this off.

Is Broadway a lucrative business?

How’s this: If you have a warm hit, you may break even. But if you get one and you catch the wave, it can be the investment of a lifetime.

Do you invest your own money?

I’m investing in all my shows, yes, along with investors and my partners. Let me talk about that for a second. The one thing I realized: If I’m going to do this, I have to surround myself with people who are much smarter and more experienced. I was very lucky to meet Michael David at The Dodgers. I broke my own rule, which is don’t ever write a check and invest in show business, schmuck. But here I am, doing it.

Were you involved in casting the show?

Yes, I’m involved in everything. I was here almost every night during previews. I sat in different places every night. I give my two cents, drive the sound guy crazy. There are changes sometimes, acoustically. I always give my notes.

How did you get the rights to Donna’s songs?

I knew Donna for 40 years. I approached Bruce, and I said, “I just think we’d be able to hit this out of the park.” He said, “I’ve already been talking to somebody.” I said, “There’s nobody that is going to give this the attention and passion I would.” All he had to do is give me an opening. I tortured and tormented him for a year. Finally, he agreed.

Did you get out of the music business at the right time?

I got out of running a music company at the right time. It’s a whole different business. It’s much more like the movie business. It’s about marketing and distribution rather than finding, developing, nurturing, working with, recording, imaging, branding the stars the way we did. Also, the economics have changed. Companies don’t invest the same. You could create a bigger result and a global superstar.

Album sales are down.

The whole medium has changed. The great stars will rise to the top like all good cream rises to the top, but it’s much harder. Name me someone in the last [few] years who became a superstar.

I was going to ask you the same question. How about Adele? 

Everybody is going to say Adele, because Adele is the only freaking name. Isn’t that scary and sad? It’s not like what went on before.

Have you watched the new “American Idol”?

No. I don’t watch any music competition shows. I was the biggest “American Idol” fan ever, OK? Simon Cowell is my friend. They didn’t develop one star.

What about Kelly Clarkson? 

Kelly Clarkson is a great singer. She never became a recording star. Carrie Underwood had a recording career. When you think about it, not one global superstar broke out of that show, and the show was No. 1 in every country in the world. I think a few elements went on that didn’t come together. You know, it’s a big undertaking and everyone thinks they know how to do it. But few do it.

What do you think of Taylor Swift?

I love Taylor Swift. I liked her last album [“1989”] more, but Taylor is a tremendous talent and will be around for the rest of her life.

You are also entering into TV production. Do you read a lot of pilots?

I get stuff pitched to me every day. The stuff that I’m developing is all stuff that I’ve developed on my own. It will also be music-centric. I haven’t delved into the production process yet. It will be another adventure. I’m really excited about it.

“The one thing I realized: If I’m going to do this, I have to surround myself with people who are much smarter and more experienced.”
Tommy Mottola

Do you attend pitch meetings at the networks?

Yes. In some ways, they go, “What is this guy doing here, coming to us, sitting in pitch meetings?” They scratch their head, like, “It’s a little strange!” I go to all pitch meetings. Hey, man, I’m passionate about this. There are some great young minds out there. The feedback is cool.

What are some of your favorite TV shows?

Let’s start with “The Sopranos.” What can be better than that? Some of the best writing that I’ve ever witnessed is on “Narcos” and “House of Cards.” My wife is obsessed with “Dexter,” so I have to watch it. “Black Mirror” is sick, crazy, amazing. That first episode, there’s enough to spin your head around.

Have the streaming services made producing TV easier?

There are more outlets and points of distribution. The answer is yes.

Are you and Mariah still friendly?

I’m friendly with everybody.

Did you watch her on New Year’s Eve?

I thought she was great. I didn’t have to give her advice again.

Did you call her last year after she had that stage malfunction?

Yeah. It shouldn’t have been her problem. The people she had working for her, how do you allow that to happen? It’s like, “Come on. That should all be fixed in sound check.” There should be no room for error. I felt bad for her. Look, she’s as talented as one can be. Those songs, they’ll go on forever. Some of her vocals and all those albums we did are incomparable. Everybody tries to emulate them.

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