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From Annie to Tina Turner, and Trained to Go the Distance


“There is only one.”

That’s the tagline for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which opens on Broadway Nov. 7. When Adrienne Warren, who plays the title role, saw those words, she took them personally, but she didn’t disagree.

“She’s incomparable,” Warren, 32, said of Turner. “I looked at it and thought, ‘I know there’s only one her. I’m doing the best I can.’”

Warren’s best has catapulted her career to new heights. She originated the part in London’s West End last year, generating a frenzy of rapturous reviews. (“Astonishing” was a word often used.) Playing the musical’s subject from age 16 to nearly 50, she sings more than 20 beloved hits from Turner’s catalog, ranging from soulful gospel to ferocious rock ’n’ roll.

Weathering the excruciating lows and thrilling highs familiar to Turner’s fans, she leaves the stage only briefly to swap out the singer’s signature looks, and sometimes not even then — wig reveals abound.

It’s the kind of leading performance that can make or break a $16.5-million production. And it almost broke Warren, too.

One crucial element differentiates “Tina” from the jukebox shows about female stars that never fully caught on in the last two Broadway seasons. Both “The Cher Show” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” split diva duty among three performers.

There is only one Adrienne Warren. A tenacious athlete with a voice like an electric guitar, she has the nonchalant self-assurance of someone used to winning. Yet determination to do her idol justice nearly undid her during the London run, she said. If she’s learned anything from playing Tina Turner for more than two years, it’s that she doesn’t want to fight herself anymore.

“I can’t try to be Tina,” she said over lunch one recent afternoon. “If I do, I’m going to fail.”

It was the first week of the show’s Broadway previews, and Warren seemed improbably well-rested, her warm eyes calm and smiling.

She’d taken the summer off after returning from London and was happy to be home. On her T-shirt, a pair of disembodied legs swiveled in at the knee. The wording: “What would Tina do?”

The leather jacket she wore seemed like the start of an answer.

Like Turner, she is a preacher’s daughter, and sang in the church choir. Warren says she gets her drive from her father, who once pushed her to run so fast that she passed out crossing the finish line of a 400-meter race. Her mother taught physical education, and is now executive director of Governor’s School for the Arts, which her daughter attended, in Norfolk, Va.

Her father also taught his only child to sing, and his records shaped her musical taste — jazz and Elton John, the Jameses (Taylor and Brown). She discovered the Rolling Stones, and of course, Tina Turner. “I had never seen any woman like that,” she said. “Especially a black woman.”

One of her first stage forays inadvertently stirred controversy when she landed the title role in a local production of “Annie,” over a group of white hopefuls in a televised ceremony.

Jet magazine headlined her the first black Annie; the NAACP offered her family support amid community backlash. “That’s when I realized that I could do something outside of myself, that there’s power in this hobby,” she said.

While studying acting at Marymount Manhattan College, Warren joined a rock band, and managed to swing a semester touring with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra into academic credit.

“I was going to be this rock chick,” she said. She showed up to her first real theater audition in leather pants. (“The casting director was like, ‘Adrienne, no.’”)

Weeks after graduating, she was understudying Ashanti in “The Wiz” for City Center’s Encores! series. She toured in “Dreamgirls” and Bring It On,” a musical adaptation of the teen cheerleading movie that eventually reached Broadway. (Tina was a cheerleader, too.)

She broke through in 2016, with a chameleon-voiced double turn as the vaudevillian show-woman Gertrude Saunders and the more delicate-timbred Florence Mills in “Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.”

George C. Wolfe, the director, doubted he’d find one actress to play both. He praised Warren’s “stunning talent” and disciplined work ethic. Hoofing to exuberant choreography by Savion Glover, she earned a featured actress Tony Award nomination and a surge of industry attention.

It was during that show’s six-month run that Warren was tapped for “Tina.”

Hers was the first name the casting director Bernard Telsey brought up when the musical was being developed by the Dutch-based production company Stage Entertainment and Tali Pelman, the creative director.

An initial reading of the script by Katori Hall (written with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) wasn’t meant to include the musical numbers, but being a Tina Turner fan, Warren was game to try “Private Dancer.” There happened to be a piano in the corner.

“A kind of electric shock went through me,” recalled the director Phyllida Lloyd, who set a standard for jukebox musical success with “Mamma Mia!” “She makes you believe Tina’s in the room, but makes the material entirely her own.”

Turner, an executive producer on the show, has been “gracious and loving” from the outset, Warren said. Now 79 and happily retired in Switzerland, Turner said she was entrusting Warren with her stage persona. “‘I’m giving her to you,’” Warren recalled her as saying. (Warren’s response? “I bawled my eyes out.”)

Much of the life story covered by the musical, especially her marriage to the abusive Ike Turner, has already been publicized in the memoir that was turned into the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

But when Warren wanted details, Turner was there to help. “I wanted to know weird, quirky things, like, ‘What do you eat?’” Warren said. (“A big breakfast,” was the reply.)

And Turner phoned Warren backstage just before her final London performance. “That’s the first time I heard her say, ‘I’m tired,’” Warren said. The remark hit home.

Being Tina Turner is a feat of endurance; as in London, Warren is doing six performances a week, with Nkeki Obi-Melekwe assuming the role at matinees.

She still does physical therapy to heal from the West End run, and boxes with a personal trainer. As Tina, strenuous legwork is a given, but building her upper body has also been critical to safely catching herself in falls during staged fights with Ike.

As for protecting herself emotionally in such scenes, “I just think about her,” Warren said. It helps that the actor playing Ike, Daniel J. Watts, is a close friend. And it’s rare to have so many women behind the scenes. “There’s been a lot of sensitivity and empathy,” she said.

Warren looked serious. She stood bent forward at the waist and gripped the chair back, her head resting on her hands. A sideways yawn escaped as she disappeared behind a lowering curtain.

The company was back in rehearsal after a day off. Preview performances would resume that evening.

The curtain rose and Warren was back upright, beginning “Private Dancer” in a gravelly rasp of resignation. It’s the top of Act II. Tina has finally broken away from Ike, but she’s poor and languishing in Vegas purgatory.

In the song, Warren’s voice crumbled into a near-sob before bursting through a key change with defiance.

Tina was ready for a comeback.

The year and a half Ms. Warren spent preparing and performing “Tina” in London “fully defeated” her, she admitted.

Fear of failing to do her idol justice meant staying on guard, a stance she said became both lonely and painful. “You get scared that you cannot possibly keep up,” she said. “It’s survival mode.”

“She keeps her own counsel,” Ms. Lloyd told me. “Almost to a fault. She is so self-reliant that you can be wrong-footed into thinking she doesn’t need any assistance. Then suddenly you can think, ‘Goodness, she’s really taking on more than she should in terms of the burden.’”

Since returning to New York, Warren has committed to being more candid. On social media, she sometimes shares the trials of her job alongside Instagram stories of post-show midnight snacks (corn dogs, Insomnia cookie deliveries) and messages from fans. Many of her friends are fellow Broadway performers, but the only person she is seeing right now is Tina. “It’s super lame, but I love this relationship,” she said.

As for herself, she says she’s a “work in progress.”

“I’m trying to do whatever I can to be truthful and honest about who I am,” she said. “It’s O.K. to not be a warrior all the time.” That’s a lesson she said she learned from Turner.

Turner had another bit of counsel for Warren: get back to being her own artist once she’s done being Tina. During days off from the London run, Warren started work on an album, even collaborating with writers who had credits with Turner.

Producing may be next, if it means she can create more opportunities for underrepresented voices. Pointing to the lack of other leading roles for black women on Broadway, she said, “There is no excuse for it anymore.”

Warren is especially devoted to diversifying arts education and access — even suggesting she’d consider a pay cut to make tickets more affordable for an aspiring generation of nonwhite Annies.

“We need to make work that actually represents the world we live in, she said. “We are leaving stories out of the narrative.”

For now, she has Tina Turner’s.

“I’m doing the hardest thing I have ever done, but I’m grateful,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to be perfect anymore.”

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar


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