It wasn’t the response Tali Pelman had hoped to receive. The group creative managing director of Stage Entertainment had traveled to Küsnacht, Switzerland, with one goal in mind: Convince Tina Turner that her life could be the stuff of a successful stage musical.
“We walked in the door,” Pelman remembers. “Tina was already there, and she greeted me with: ‘Just so you know, I haven’t said yes. It’s probably a no. Let’s sit down to eat.’”
Over the course of dinner, Turner changed her mind. She’d been pitched on the idea of having her catalog of hits such as “River Deep — Mountain High” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” turned into a jukebox musical before, but Pelman wanted to do something different. She didn’t just want to highlight pop anthems. She wanted to showcase Turner’s often painful rise, digging into her abusive relationship with her then-husband, Ike Turner, as well as her difficult bond with her mother, Zelma, who left her daughter as a young girl to escape her own abusive marriage.
“For us, we wanted to tell Tina’s story honestly,” says Pelman. “We didn’t want to sugarcoat it. We were really clear about that. It was a risk to tell her that. It was traumatic material, but that was what spoke to her.”
To pull it off, Pelman enlisted some important collaborators. She tapped Katori Hall, the Olivier-winning playwright behind the Martin Luther King Jr. drama “The Mountaintop,” to write the book, and she convinced director Phyllida Lloyd to return to the world of musicals nearly 20 years after she helped turn “Mamma Mia!” into a global stage smash (she later directed the 2008 film). Like Turner, Lloyd was resistant until she read Hall’s book.
“We were asking the right questions,” recalls Lloyd. “It wasn’t just give me a theater and throw it onstage because we’ve got the rights to songs. It was about producing something that lived up to the legacy of Tina Turner. It was about bringing a message of hope and possibility to millions of mainly women, worldwide, who might be trapped in similar circumstances. We’re letting them know they can transcend those circumstances.”
Now, after two acclaimed European productions, including a year-plus West End run, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” is making its Broadway debut. It officially opened on Nov. 7 and has already been playing to sell-out audiences through previews. The initial response is comforting, because the competition stands to be fierce. One of a wave of new musicals this season that will highlight catalogs of rock icons, “Tina” will vie for attention with “Jagged Little Pill” (Alanis Morissette), “Girl From the North Country” (Bob Dylan), and “Moulin Rouge!” (anyone who’s released a Top 40 song in the 20th or 21st centuries).
“It’s not a new concept,” Pelman admits. “But the way we treat the music is different. We’re putting the drama onstage.”
Turner’s story has been told before — first in her acclaimed memoir, “I, Tina,” and later in the Oscar-nominated film “What’s Love Got to Do With It” — but the musical doesn’t stop with the singer freeing herself from Ike Turner. It also charts her improbable comeback, after the age of 40, when she teamed with producer and manager Roger Davies to create the album “Private Dancer,” which became the best-selling record of her career.
“We make you cry in Act 1,” says Pelman. “Then we lift you up in Act 2, and by the end you’ll be dancing in the aisles.”
When she sits down with Variety, Pelman is in the midst of technical rehearsals for the show. Onstage, Adrienne Warren is running through a complicated piece of choreography in which a young Turner (at that point still known by her given name, Anna Mae Bullock) gets ready for a night on the town in St. Louis. It’s a sequence that finds her jumping off a bed while performing a quick change into evening wear. The pressure, Pelman admits, and the hours have been punishing, but with good reason. Though the European productions have done well, the “Tina” creative team believes that the show will be a true success story only if it’s embraced by New York audiences. “This is the zenith,” says Pelman. “As Tina keeps reminding me, ‘If you can make it here …’”
If the show works on Broadway, Stage Entertainment hopes to mount similar productions across Europe and in other corners of the world. For Lloyd, the hope is that each new show will help a younger generation of theatergoers connect with Turner’s life story and music.
“You would not have Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez or a lot of other artists without her,” says Lloyd. “She’s the mother of all of these huge female solo artists. And by speaking out in such a candid way about her abuse, she gave so many other women the courage to change their lives.”
The show has already received a significant endorsement. Early in its West End run, the producers sneaked Turner into a preview performance. Afterward, the rock diva met up with Pelman.
“You found the love,” Turner told the producer as she embraced her. “You found the love.”