On Thursday night in New York City, Tina Turner joined the ranks of Cher, Donna Summer, the Temptations and the Jersey Boys — Carole King, too — baptized, as it were, in the disco inferno of a high-powered Broadway jukebox.
“Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” joins a steady stream of bio-musicals bent on squeezing, often impossibly, the leviathan lives and careers of music’s varied kings and queens onto the Broadway stage, fueled even so by an indefatigable (and lucrative) admiration for their subjects.
But “Tina,” bearing bravely the scars of harrowing spousal abuse and the artist’s own struggle to keep steady her “queen of rock” crown, isn’t an ordinary jukebox musical, and on opening night, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre — with Turner herself inside, held fast to Oprah Winfrey’s steady arm — pulsed with the spirit of triumph.
“Yes, the jukebox musical can get tricky sometimes. It’s like, ‘How do we fit this music into a story’?” Daniel J. Watts, whose volatile portrayal of Ike Turner encapsulates the darkness which marred Tina’s early life and career, admitted on the red carpet. “Thankfully, here’s a story where Tina’s music paralleled her life.”
“We need to know what artists go through. It’s easy to assume that a celebrity is living the high life. Individuals have their own demons, and sometimes art isn’t enough. Putting that on stage, showing that on stage, makes it more real,” Watts explained. “Tina Turner is such an American icon. We’re at a time in our culture where America is looking at itself and asking, ‘How can we do better?’ So, I think this musical is a nice wake-up call to those indiscretions and those injustices.”
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A case can be made that more than a few recent bio-jukebox attempts have bent the medium and the musical into irreparable shapes. But if ever there was a queen whose story — one of ancestry and family, of childhood neglect lived again as spousal abuse, of a fall from grace and a glorious second act — writes itself as theater, it’s Tina’s.
“This musical is my life, but it’s like poison turned to medicine,” Turner said from the stage, addressing the audience during the cast’s bows. “I can never be as happy as I am now.”
“You see her at her lowest lows and her highest highs, and she’s someone who’s had the lowest of lows,” remarked Adrienne Warren, who delivered a rapturous, kinetic embodiment of Tina Turner.
“But, somehow, no matter what obstacle was put in her way, she was able to overcome it, to be resilient and to come out on the other side with love and light,” Warren told Variety at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where cast, crew and friends gathered for the opening night after-party.
“It’s not just the story of the violence and abuse between her and Ike, but of how she overcame that, and we’re able to locate her truth throughout it all. For her, it was her faith, her faith in Buddhism — which many people may not know — and her ability to surround herself with love. She was able to pull herself out of that hole. At the age of 50, she was able to become a rock star, a global icon.”
In that tumultuous narrative — one many of her fans experienced alongside her — is a sense of ownership to protect this story and artist.
“It’s music that means so much to all of us, even if you didn’t live through it,” added Myra Lucretia Taylor, who plays Turner’s grandmother, a hallmark of Turner’s grounding in the strength of her black and native ancestry.
“There’s something so elemental and fundamental, something of the gut and heart, not only about the music, but about her delivery of that music. And, particularly at this time, I think as Americans we need to remember what we’re capable of, what we can go through and come out the other side of.”
“She’s not the only one,” Taylor continued. “There’s so many women and so many people who are suffering. And in that story, we need to see what we see, so we can heal. Like her grandmother says, ‘You have a gift that needs tending to. Tend to your gift and make it grow.’”