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'I Done Been Through Some Things': The Tina Turner Musical Is Now On Broadway

Dec 8, 2019
Originally published on December 8, 2019 4:20 pm

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical tells the rags-to-riches — to rags again, then to riches again — saga of Tina Turner's life.

It starts in Nutbush, Tenn., where the young Anna Mae Bullock was born. Then it documents her rise to stardom with Ike Turner — who she eventually married and then left after years of abuse — and then her improbable (but somehow entirely fitting) second rise to fame as a solo performer, in her mid-40s no less.

Adrienne Warren plays the adult Tina Turner in Tina, which opened in London and is now on Broadway. It's a physically demanding role, and Warren is on stage for much of it — from Turner's teenage years to the 1980s.

The book for the musical was written by playwright Katori Hall, along with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. Hall wrote the award-winning play The Mountaintop — her imagined account of Martin Luther King Jr.'s final night on earth.

Hall and Warren spoke from NPR's New York bureau.


Interview Highlights

On Adrienne Warren's initial doubts in taking the role

Warren: Well, yeah, that first time they called me, I thought: "Nahhh, I can't do that." I remember my dad even said — my dad is the biggest Tina Turner fan ever, and here I was in [the musical] Shuffle Along playing ... a flapper from the '20s that was singing like a bird, and here I am, someone's going to let me be Tina Turner: I'm sorry, what? — he said, "I don't know, champ. I don't think you can do that one." ...

So it was definitely a challenge for myself that I had to think: "Well, can I do this?" And I just basically just did the best I could.

On the advice that Tina Turner gave Warren

So much advice. One of the great things about this show that doesn't always happen in these bio-musicals is: She was quite involved in our process. So we had — I had time with her one-on-one where I was able to ask her anything I wanted to ask her: about her as a woman, about her as a performer, about her time with Ike, about her time after Ike. And that was very, very crucial to the development of this performance for me. And I'm so grateful for it, because she is full of so much light and love and so giving — and she didn't have to be, and she was. And I learned a lot from her. ...

First thing — I was like: "How do you do this? How do you be you?" [That was] the first thing I said and you know, she said, "The thing is, there are no shortcuts to hard work." And she's right. And I really took that to heart. And I put that in everything — in my training. I trained for about eight months, before I even started the run in London, in boxing and transformed my body and tried to find her voice within my own voice. And I knew I had to give everything — every part of myself into this role in order to do it successfully, and to truly pay homage to her in the way in which she deserves.

On adapting a story already told in an autobiography and biopic movie

Hall: It's interesting. You know, when I first sat down with Tina, the first thing she said, she was like, "Now, I don't want no sanitized version of my life, you know. I done been through some things." And I'm like: "Oh, child. Yes you have." And so the fact that she is such a transparent person and so grounded — I knew that was going to be my entry point. I feel as though there was no competition with the autobiography. There was no competition with the movie. The fact that I was going to be working with this living icon to re-tell, re-frame and revise her story was just an amazing opportunity for me.

And, you know, another thing I said to her is: I really want people to understand the cultural context, the psychological context ... and to answer these big questions that are still haunting her, like: Why? Why did she stay? And so we just had a tremendous time really delving into those hard questions and going through these workshops and refining the script.

On Tina Turner's changing voice, and how Warren changed her voice for the part

Adrienne Warren plays the adult Tina Turner in the new biographical musical.
Manuel Harlan / Courtesy of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical

Warren: Tina Turner is interesting because her voice changes quite a few times when she's in America. And then when she leaves and goes to London, her voice changes again: the way in which she speaks, the way in which she uses her constant — just her speaking voice. And her speaking voice is very different from her singing voice. So it's somewhat about four different kinds of voices that I had to research and find. And I sat and I watched interview after interview. And even her singing is really rhythmic. And the way in which she uses her consonants, and the way in which she uses the rhythm of the music and the drums — she uses her voice as such as well.

So Nick Skilbeck, our musical director — he and I sat down in rooms over and over again, drilling the beats and drilling the rhythm and what she sings — you know, a certain phrase. And we would just do it over and over and over again. And also, it's funny, I always joke and I say: I don't know if Broadway really knows how my voice sounds like. Because at this point ... everything that I've done, I've been using another voice in some way, shape or form. So it's very interesting, but it's been a challenge that I've been grateful for. And I think I've grown so much as a vocalist and a musician because of it.

On depicting domestic violence and Ike Turner

Hall: You know, [Tina Turner] had a lot of trepidation about showing people the violence, and to put people in the room with it. I think the most beautiful thing about theater is that in it, in that space, we get to tell stories of witness. And if you put an audience in the room with violence, it lands more. You feel the hits. You put yourself in Tina's position. You are on that floor with her because it is happening right in front of your eyes. And so I think it was extremely important to be very brutally honest about those slaps. And also just about, you know, the financial control, the emotional control ...

Obviously, Ike Turner is the villain in the Tina Turner story. And that was actually one of the things that Tina was very interested in. She wanted to reframe Ike. She wanted to give him his humanity. You know, even looking back and having gone through that abuse, even today, there's this — I wouldn't say love, but a knowledge and a healing that she's going through where she wanted to give him the space and the real estate to be seen as a human being.

Now, I don't want to make excuses for the man. Like, he did some monstrous things. But I was very interested in investigating ... the "why." And so in my reframing of him as a character in her story, I was interested in investigating the fact that he grew up in the Jim Crow South; the fact that he saw his father get beaten within an inch of his life for courting a white woman; the fact that, you know, he had his song, his voice taken away from him. And so that resentment really kind of, you know, folded in on itself. And unfortunately, he decided to displace his anger at himself and his anger at America onto Tina.

On what Warren has learned in telling this story

Warren: Man, when I tell you, I've grown up doing this. I've been working on this show now since 2016, is the first reading. And I feel like I've grown up so much because of this. And I mean, in the sense of, as a performer, as a woman, I — as I told you earlier, I didn't think I could do this. And to now be on the other side of London, to be on the other side of now opening this show on Broadway — with Tina in the audience with her best friends, Oprah and Gayle [King], and all the people that you could possibly look up to in this world as a young black actress, Whoopi Goldberg, all these people in the audience who I'm looking at watch[ing] me — that has done everything to me.

Because it just shows you there's no limit to what you can do if you put everything you have into the work. The work is what's important. And so now I know when I put in that work and I can find that strength within myself just as Tina did. And so that I realize there's a little bit of Tina in all of us. And that's the beauty of this show and that's the beauty of what this process has been for me. I'm so grateful because I'm a much stronger and I'm much more of a warrior of a woman and a being and a performer because of this.

Hall: And that's what we want audiences to walk out of that theater feeling, like: I can conquer the world. Any demon, any obstacle. And I can slay any dragon.

Gemma Watters and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And, finally, today, there's a new Broadway musical we want to tell you about. It's about the one, the only...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLY THE BEST")

TINA TURNER: (Singing) You're simply the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone, anyone I ever met.

MARTIN: ...Yes, Tina Turner. It is called "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical." And it tells the rags-to-riches-to-rags-again-to-riches-again saga of Tina Turner's life, starting in Nutbush, Tenn., where the young Anna Mae Bullock was born, then her rise to stardom with Ike Turner - whom she eventually married and then left after years of abuse - and then her improbable but somehow entirely fitting second rise to fame as a solo performer in her mid-40s, no less. Adrienne Warren plays Turner from age 16 to nearly 50 in "The Tina Turner Musical." And she's already gotten raves, both in the U.K. and the U.S. for her show-stopping performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL")

ADRIENNE WARREN: (As Tina Turner, singing) I left a good job in the city, working for the man every night and day. And I never lost one minute of sleeping worrying about the way things might have been. Big wheel keep on turning, proud Mary keep on burning. We're rolling, rolling...

MARTIN: Whew. And the book for the musical was written by Katori Hall, along with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. You may remember that Katori Hall wrote the award-winning play, "The Mountaintop," her imagined account of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s final night on earth. And Katori Hall and Adrienne Warren are with us now from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for being with us. Congratulations.

KATORI HALL: Thank you.

WARREN: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Let's take a minute to catch our breath here. Like, whew, I'm just tired listening to it. Where to start? Adrienne Warren, to be playing Tina Turner. Now, you already had the experience of playing a demanding physical role in "Shuffle Along," which was also a hit. But in this, you are onstage almost the entire show, even through wardrobe changes. There are 20 musical numbers. Was there any point at which, when you got this role, you thought to yourself, nah?

WARREN: Well, yeah. The first time they called me, I thought, nah, I can't do that. I remember my dad even said - my dad is the biggest Tina Turner fan ever. And here I was in "Shuffle Along," playing like a jazz standard, you know, flapper from the '20s that was singing like a bird. And here I am. Someone's going to let me be Tina Turner? I'm sorry. What? He said, I don't know, champ. I don't think you can do that one.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

WARREN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And this is Dad.

WARREN: Yeah, this is my dad. He knows everything.

MARTIN: He's got to be your biggest fan.

WARREN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, what made you decide to go for it?

WARREN: I love Tina Turner so much, and I'm her fan, first. And I think because Katori Hall, because Phyllida Lloyd, because Tali Pelman our producer - because they believed in me - and Tina also producing the show as well, I knew there's a reason they wanted me here. And I just had to find that within myself.

MARTIN: Did she give you any advice on how to play her?

WARREN: So much advice. I had time with her one-on-one, where I was able to ask her anything I wanted to ask her about her as a woman, about her as a performer, about her time with Ike, about her time after Ike. And that was very crucial to the development of this performance for me.

MARTIN: Can you just give me without - you know, I don't care if you violate any confidence. Who am I kidding?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What I was - so do you mind sharing, like, what was one thing you asked her?

WARREN: Yeah. First thing, I was like - how do you do this? How do you be you was the first thing I said. And, you know, she said, the thing is there are no shortcuts to hard work. And she's right. And I really took that to heart, and I put that in everything, in my training. I trained for about eight months before I even started the run in London, in boxing and transformed my body and tried to find her voice within my own voice. And I knew I had to give everything, every part of myself into this role in order to do it, successfully, and to truly pay homage to her in the way in which she deserves.

MARTIN: Katori, you know I've got to address the pain points in this piece.

HALL: Yes.

MARTIN: The abuse that Tina Turner experienced in her relationship with Ike Turner - it's known at this point. But, you know, I have to tell you. Seeing it acted out is kind of a harsh meal at first.

HALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's just - and I just wondered about the conversation you had with you and your co-writers and with her about how to depict this.

HALL: Depict it. You know, she had a lot of trepidation about showing people the violence and to put people in the room with it. I think the most beautiful thing about theater is that in that space, we get to tell stories of witness. And if you put an audience in the room with violence, it lands more. You feel the hits. You put yourself in Tina's position. You are on that floor with her because it is happening right in front of your eyes. And so I think it was extremely important to be very brutally honest about those slaps and also just about, you know, the financial control, the emotional control...

MARTIN: Right, the emotional abuse as well. But, you know, the other thing that fascinated me, Katori, is I feel that you make a case for not just why she stayed but why he did it. And that's a conversation that we often aren't having at the moment because people say, oh, why did she put up with it? But then, you know, I also want to know - why did you treat someone like that?

HALL: And their humanity. Give them their humanity, yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. How is it that you...

HALL: I think...

MARTIN: This is a person you're intimate with. And yet - and so what - I'm interested in how you came to a philosophy about how you wanted to depict his why.

HALL: Absolutely. You know, obviously, Ike Turner is the villain in the Tina Turner story. And that was actually one of the things that Tina was very interested in. She wanted to reframe Ike. She wanted to give him his humanity, you know, even looking back and having gone through that abuse even today, you know? There was - there's this kind of I wouldn't say love but a knowledge and a healing that she's going through, where she wanted to give him the space and the real estate to be seen as a human being.

Now, I don't want to make excuses for the man. Like, he did some monstrous things. But I was very interested in investigating, like you said, the why. And so in my kind of reframing of him as a character in her story, I was interested in investigating the fact that he grew up in the Jim Crow South, the fact that he saw his father get beaten within an inch of his life for courting a white woman, the fact that, you know, he had his voice taken away from him. And so that resentment really kind of folded in on itself. And, unfortunately, he decided to kind of displace his anger at himself and his anger at America onto Tina.

MARTIN: Adrienne, I wanted to ask you the point at which you're going through this - I noticed in the curtain call that you and your co-star Ike - the person who plays Ike Turner, you hug. And I assume that that was a way of sort of saying to the audience that this is OK...

WARREN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You know, that this is - I'm OK. And this is just - you know, you can - it's OK. But I was curious for you when - the point at which things turn around for Tina, where she really starts to take control of her career and her relationships. Like, what's that like for you to feel redemptive? Does it feel - like, what's that like for you as a performer?

WARREN: It definitely feels redemptive because you've just, you know, seen someone go through such a roller coaster of a journey of a life and go through some of the most horrific moments and - you could think someone could go through, especially in a partnership and a business partnership as well as a personal partnership. And so, yes, when you do see Daniel Watts - who plays Ike - and I hug at the end of the show, it is a moment for the audience to breathe and realize that we are telling a story. And Daniel is family to me in real life.

So it's important to show the audience that because we are bringing violence into a room and having people sit there and see the ramifications of it and, also, on the other side of it see how much strength and power and healing - making a choice to better yourself, you're seeing someone go through that and actually succeed and get to that.

MARTIN: And I don't want to make the mistake of thinking that, you know, performance is - tracks with life. I mean, this is Tina Turner's life. But, Adrienne, it does make me wonder. You lived this incredible journey of this woman's life. And I just wonder - is there anything you learned about yourself in the course of going through this?

WARREN: Man, when I tell you I've grown up doing this - I've been working on this show now since - 2016 is the first reading. And I feel like I've grown up so much because of this. And, I mean, in the sense of as a performer, as a woman.

As I told you earlier, I didn't think I could do this. And to now be on the other side of London, to be on the other side of now opening the show on Broadway with Tina and the audience with her best friends - Oprah and Gayle and all the people that, you know, you could possibly look up to in this world as, you know, a young black actress, Whoopi Goldberg, all these people in the audience who I'm looking at watch me - that has done everything to me because it just shows you there's no limit to what you can do if you put everything you have into the work. And so now I know when I put in that work and - I can find that strength within myself just as Tina did. And so I realized there's a little bit of Tina in all of us.

HALL: Absolutely.

WARREN: And that's the beauty of this show. And I'm much more of a warrior, of a woman and being and a performer because of this.

HALL: And that's what we want audiences to walk out of that theater feeling like. I can conquer the world, any demon, any obstacle. And I can slay any dragon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL")

WARREN: (As Tina Turner, singing) When I was a little girl, I had a rag doll.

MARTIN: That is playwright Katori Hall. And we were also speaking with Adrienne Warren, who stars as Tina Turner in the Broadway show "Tina: The Tina Turner Musical." It's showing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. Katori Hall, Adrienne Warren, thank you both so much for joining us.

HALL: Thank you, mama.

WARREN: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL")

WARREN: (As Tina Turner, singing) And it gets stronger in every way. And it gets deeper, let me say. And it gets higher day by day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.