When producers Stage Entertainment approached Tina Turner about turning her life story into a musical, they didn’t want anyone to sugarcoat it. The global superstar, one of the top selling recording artists of all time, likewise wanted the show to tell the whole truth, with all the lows as well as the highs, so they turned to Katori Hall, the Olivier Award–winning playwright of The Mountaintop.
The result is the hit musical Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, cowritten by Hall, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady, All Female Shakespeare Trilogy), and starring Adrienne Warren in the buzziest Broadway performance of the fall. Following an Olivier-winning premiere in London, the show comes to New York in a run that begins October 12 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Broadway Direct talked with Hall about her work on the show, and why Turner’s music means so much to her.
Was Tina Turner’s music particularly meaningful to you before you joined this project?
I am the daughter of a mother who named her first child Tina after Tina Turner, because she was such an inspiration to my mom. We’re from Memphis, and so Nutbush, Tennessee, which is where Tina Turner’s from, is really around the corner. Those songs were something that I always heard in my house. My mom really looked up to her because she exuded a sense of confidence and freedom, and also just being comfortable in her own sexuality as an older woman. She was so strong and brave and unapologetic. Watching my mom idolize her — this iconic, game-changing singer — made a huge impression on me.
Did you have a favorite song?
Probably “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” just because that’s the one that my mama would sing badly in the car. I think that was also around the time that MTV got really popping, and so I grew up seeing that video, with this woman walking down the streets of New York City with this lioness hair. That image emblazoned itself on my mind, even when I was super-young. And so when the opportunity to work on this musical appeared, I felt like I was born to be part of it.
What was important for you to highlight in Turner’s life story?
I wanted to lend a cultural specificity to the show, especially being from Tennessee and having my personal connection to Tina. I really wanted the character of Tina to have a lot of agency in her journey. I looked at the show as a she-ro’s journey, where you see this woman overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and win. But I wanted to be extremely honest about those obstacles, and also wanted to contribute the social context and also the psychological context.
What kind of research did you do?
I didn’t watch the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It again, because I didn’t want our show to overlap too much. But I read every book! Including Ike Turner’s book, just to get his side of the story, too. Probably 15 books in all. And I got to meet Tina and hang out with her in Switzerland. I got to talk to her manager, her best friend, her husband. Extensive, journalistic interviewing really was the centerpiece for my research.
How did you go about weaving the songs into the biographical story you were telling?
What I did not want was for the show to feel like just a concert, with this long string of songs that we had to smoosh into one show. I am very adamant that every moment, including the musical moments, needs to move the story forward or reveal character. I wanted to figure out a way where every song is actually doing dramatic work in the construction in the show. That’s how musicals are, but a lot of bio-musicals run into a wall because those preexisting songs don’t service the transformation of the character. But for some reason, every song that Tina ever sang fits some moment of her life. We get a little anachronistic and take some songs that were from the ’80s and have characters singing them in moments set in the ’50s, or in the ’70s. We kind of did a remix, in a way that all of her hits can contribute to telling her story.
Why was it important to you to depict the hardships that Turner endured as much as her triumphs?
Tina would say, “I don’t want this to be an idealized retelling of my life. I want it to be honest. I want it to be the truth.” And I think our bio-musical really is successful in getting into the cracks and crevices of her life, and showing how impossible her comeback was. I want audiences to see her performing in Vegas and then flip to the lights going off in her house because she didn’t have the money to pay the electricity bill. She went through everything she could possibly go through, and yet she triumphed. To take people on that journey, from the bottom to the top of the mountain, was a tremendous opportunity. And you have to get audiences to take that journey with her, so that when she gets to the top of the mountain, you’re so ecstatic and moved by her story. “If she went through all that, then I can make it through anything.” That’s what we want to leave the audience with: “I can conquer any demon in my life.”
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