When producer Tali Pelman arrived for dinner with Tina Turner and husband Erwin Bach in Switzerland in 2014, their house was beautiful. Turner looked gorgeous. But even before introductions were completed, Turner told Pelman: “I have no intention of doing this, but let’s have dinner before we talk about it.”
By “this,” the legendary singer meant Pelman’s pitch for a musical about Turner’s life. The 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It” had been a smash. An unlicensed 2012 jukebox musical, “Soul Sister,” less so. But as the evening wore on, Turner opened up. By 2 a.m. the singer had changed her tune.
“Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” premiered in April 2018 in London’s West End, earning an Olivier Award for lead actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Ike Turner and nominations for best musical and lead actress Adrienne Warren (who is reprising the title role in a Broadway production that opened last week).
The show’s foundation was always clear to Pelman and Turner: a play where Turner would not be defined by the physical abuse inflicted by Ike, her husband and original musical partner.
“She is about to turn 80 and that was a 16-year period,” Pelman says. “She had a second act in her life, making it back to the top as an African American woman in her 40s, and she has had an extraordinary big love with Erwin for more than 30 years.”
She and Turner also wanted to incorporate into the show one specific element of Turner’s life: Buddhism.
“She is a very spiritual person,” Pelman says. “She wears it lightly, but it is part and parcel of her on a mundane and a profound level.”
But you can’t stage a foundation. The play had to evolve dramatically from the first draft by two Dutch writers, Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. Pelman, who had produced Katori Hall’s hit play about Martin Luther King Jr., “The Mountaintop,” brought Hall on to rewrite the book.
“Katori is, like Tina, from Tennessee, so she could channel Tina’s voice,” Pelman says. “She’s also funny, irreverent and spiritual.”
Hall found the first draft paid lip service to Turner’s Buddhism without capturing its centrality or presenting it theatrically.
“Her chanting is her first shield,” says Hall, who incorporated it throughout the show.
The first version could have been interpreted as white men — manager Roger Davies and Bach — rescuing Turner from oblivion, Hall says. “In my hands, she’s going to control her own narrative, we’re going to see her gathering strength for her shero’s journey.”
Surprisingly, Hall felt one of her biggest responsibilities was to Ike Turner (played by Daniel J. Watts on Broadway), typically portrayed as a villain.
“I’m not excusing his behavior, but I want people to understand why he does those monstrous things,” Hall says. She depicted his insecurities and his frustrations with the racist music industry. “That fueled his anger and resentment.”
Pelman brought in director Phyllida Lloyd, whose credits include acclaimed all-female Shakespeare productions as well as the movie “Mamma Mia!”
“She tells women’s stories like no one else and can turn on a dime from comedy to tragedy,” Pelman says.
The director also creates “a collaborative environment like no other,” Warren says. “Phyllida wants to know how everyone feels about the piece. The process taught me a lot about storytelling.”
Lloyd relies heavily on experimentation in rehearsals to find her way. (“I’m a great one for blind alleys,” she says.) The original script had a straightforward flashback structure, but Hall and Lloyd tried assorted options before opening the show with Turner preparing to go onstage at the height of her 1980s comeback. The audience sees the famous wig and legs but not her face as Turner begins a Buddhist chant to calm herself before facing a crowd of 180,000.
One of the biggest challenges was choosing the right songs, Pelman says. “The greatest surprise was how her songs told the story of her life. There are so many pieces that could capture a moment.”
The song list changed from London to Broadway. One early scene replaces Ike Turner singing “The Hunter,” a self-defining song that was perhaps too on the nose, with his influential “Rocket 88.” It is often seen as the first rock record but also the experience that left him bitter. “We had been a bit blind,” Lloyd says. “Katori had Ike talking about [how] the song was appropriated by the white record company, and we suddenly said, ‘Why isn’t this in the show?’”
They also added Ike Turner performing “She Made My Blood Run Cold” at a club, where a teenage Anna Mae Bullock (Tina’s real name) boldly sings with him and blows everyone away. “We felt like in London we fell too quickly into the pattern of violence, and we needed to see the electricity between Ike and Tina,” Hall says.
The show is much tighter, especially in the second act, Warren says. Hall cut a true story about how Turner stepped in at the last minute for a singer who didn’t show on “A Fool in Love.”
“We were trying to intensify the whole evening,” Lloyd adds.
The second act focuses on Turner’s post-Ike decline and reinvention. In London, the crucial moment when she finally dons her famous 1980s wig happened offstage. On Broadway, it happens in a climactic scene where she reflects on her journey, joined by visions of her younger self (the girl playing the young Anna Mae) and her late grandmother, who raised her.
“It was like a ceremony or a ritual,” Lloyd says, adding that this change — the stage reincarnation of those two figures — reflected the strength Turner gained from Buddhism. “We needed to see her crowning.”
Says Hall: “That was a stroke of genius on Phyllida’s part. It really embraced her spirituality, and the inner strength she found there. She becomes a lioness onstage.”