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How the musical Tina reveals new facets of the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll
When Tony-nominated playwright Katori Hall was approached about penning the book for Tina, the new Broadway musical about legendary singer-songwriter Tina Turner, she initially worried there might not be anything new to say. "Because she has lived her life as an open book, I wondered how much more could be told," says Hall, citing Turner's two autobiographies as well as the 1993 biopic What's Love Got to Do with It. But then Hall sat down with the diva. "Tina said, 'I don't want the Disney version of my life to be put out there,'" Hall recalls. "She wanted to be even more transparent about the things that she had experienced, and she wanted to have agency in telling her story. For me, this desire for a nuanced and deeper excavation of her life is why I wanted to be a part of the project."
Tina, which received its world premiere on the West End last year, isn't just a slew of hits. Hall and her collaborators, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, delve into the details of Turner's story: How she started singing in church as a child; her early years collaborating with Ike; their abusive marriage; her post-divorce Vegas slump when she made ends meet by scrubbing floors during the day and playing lounges at night; and finally facing down racist record label suits to become a solo star. Even those who think they know all about Turner have never heard her whole story until now.
Adrienne Warren, who earned an Olivier nomination when she originated the title role in London, embodies Turner throughout the show six times a week. (It's such a demanding part, an alternate, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, performs at Wednesday and Saturday matinees.) While she rocks the icon's statement hairdos and scintillating costumes, and nails her signature dance moves and soulful crooning, one of the most poignant scenes actually takes place when Turner is not performing. She's backstage quietly praying as we hear the roar of 100,000 fans cheering in the background. But the only people on stage are from the community that raised her as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee. The ghosts of her grandmother, father and members of her father's church surround her, all appealing to various gods. Then, it is time for her to put on a show. The singer's arrival at this level of spiritual grounding, in conjunction with commercial success, is the climax of the musical.
Director Phyllida Lloyd has spent the last five years immersing herself in Turner's life in order to be able to create such moving moments. She visited Nutbush, sorted through costume archives and met with members of Turner's family. Lloyd is known for helming projects that spotlight resilient women (the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, the stage and film incarnations of Mamma Mia!). So working with Turner, who's a producer on the show, is very much in her wheelhouse.
"Tina's story is always going to be necessary because there are millions of people all over the world trapped in situations that they can't see a way out of," says Lloyd. "Tina is a model of how to make your way out of hell. It is a story of hard-won joy." Lloyd compares watching the show to attending a church service, noting the way theatregoers worship Turner and her music, with hits such as "Better Be Good To Me," "Proud Mary," "Private Dancer" and "What's Love Got to Do With It" inciting an almost religious ecstasy.
As they ready the production for Broadway, Lloyd and her team have been reworking and rewriting scenes. In addition to delivering "an unrepeatable night of thrilling theatre," Lloyd's goal is to fill audiences with hope. "I want them to take strength from Tina's strength," she says about Turner's tumultuous but ultimately triumphant journey. "She's a highly evolved human being with great wisdom, insight, humility and tenacity. She never strayed from her dream."
Follow Kelundra Smith at @PieceofKay. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Adrienne Warren in the London production of Tina - The Tina Turner Musical. Photo by Manuel Harlans.
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