Tina Turner appeared on the second cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ on November 23rd, 1967 — the first frontwoman in the publication’s history. Now ‘Tina,’ the musical based on her life and music, opens on Broadway November 7th. In anticipation of the queen of rock & roll’s Broadway debut, Turner — who turns 80 years old on November 26th — penned this personal essay for ‘Rolling Stone’.
I remember the way I felt the first time I came to New York in 1960 to perform at the Apollo Theater. I was so excited to see the buildings — taller than any buildings I had seen before — that I was practically hanging out of the car window, shouting “New York!” The city had a special light, almost golden. And the people! I loved to read fashion magazines, and the women in the city looked as if they had stepped right out of the pages. Beautiful! The sounds, the energy … I loved it all. Even the hot dogs tasted a little bit better than they did at home. It was a special place, and it made me feel special just to be there.
I’m just as excited about Tina coming to Broadway. I’ll tell you that my enthusiasm for doing a show based on my life was hard-won. The first time I heard the idea from my husband, I told him: “No, I’m not interested. No. No. No.” I didn’t feel like talking about that stuff from the past because it gave me bad dreams. I was just settling into retirement, a newlywed, content to be Mrs. Erwin Bach, and the last thing on my mind was working anywhere but in my garden. But Erwin had other plans. I was battling several medical problems at the time, and he wisely knew that working on the show would be a healthy distraction for me, as much as I wanted to do absolutely nothing.
He surprised me by inviting the producers to come to our house in Switzerland to talk to me in person. That’s when Joop van den Ende and Tali Pelman walked in and worked their magic. “What is a musical?” I asked, wondering how it was different from a rock concert. I mean, I knew what a musical was, but I didn’t understand how my life fit into that form. Why would anyone want to see that?
As soon as Joop pointed out that a musical is a story told through songs, I saw the possibilities. My life has been quite a story. The story of a little girl who grew up with big ambitions; the story of a naive young woman who entered into a troubled marriage with nothing but her voice and her dreams and who escaped — just barely — with nothing but her voice and her dreams; the story of a middle-aged singer with strong winds against her who found success and true love with the man she never thought she’d meet. I thought about that, and of all the people who tell me that my story gives them hope and is my legacy, and I said, “Yes.” Then, I sat back to watch director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Katori Hall do what they do best.
I can admit now that I had a bit of a “show me” attitude. Not that I wanted them to fail, but I’m very exacting, so I knew it would be hard for them to get it right. I met with Katori, (a Tennessee girl, just like me) to tell her everything, no holding back. Tina had to be truthful, or there was no point in doing it. It also had to be entertaining. That was a tall order.
The odds were in their favor when they found Adrienne Warren to play Tina. Her performance couldn’t be an impersonation — my fans would never accept that — they know every look, every gesture. So, my advice to Adrienne was, “You’re not Tina. Don’t try to mimic me. And you have to be a little bit yourself.” She had to find a way to communicate “essence of Tina,” in the way she sang, moved, and related to the audience. I got my energy from my audience and I always gave it right back to them. That relationship is key.
Adrienne and I worked together, and there were some funny moments when I tried to teach her how to do the Pony. Then, when I saw the wigs onstage for the first time, I realized that I’d have to give the production my wigs to make the hair look the way it should. I always styled my own wigs so they’d be an extension of me, and I wanted that same look for Adrienne. She took it all in, worked harder than hard, and stepped into the shoes. She transformed herself into the person she needed to be. With every note and every move of her hips, Adrienne is pure Tina. She has my admiration and my blessing. In fact, I like to say that I want to thank her parents because now that she’s onstage, I can truly retire.
My faith in the musical and its message became stronger and stronger during the three years that we worked on it. But every now and then I was a little uncertain — even nervous — about how I would feel when I sat in the darkened theater with a real audience and experienced the show from start to finish. I never saw What’s Love Got to Do With It because I was too close to those painful memories at the time, and I was afraid it would be upsetting, like watching a documentary. Thankfully, seeing Tina was not that way. What happens on that stage has lost the power to hurt me. I can sit back and enjoy the show.
Let me tell you what surprises me. I’m struck by the way so many of the songs I sang during my career matched my life — that’s not something I thought about while I was performing, but I can see it now. The emotions I expressed were real because I lived those feelings. “A Fool in Love,” “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” that was my life. The thrill of finding my true voice when I first sang “River Deep Mountain High.” Even “Private Dancer” — which seems to be about prostitution, but is also about wishes, hopes, and dreams — tells the story of women like me, caught up in sad situations, who somehow find a way to go on.
I’m also surprised by the truth in the acting. The Ikettes! If I close my eyes and peek a little, it’s like seeing the originals. The girls do the steps just as we did them in the past. I remember everything, every little detail, from those times, and there it is onstage, in Tina, in Ike, in everyone. My feeling is, How do they do that?
What makes me very happy about the musical is that it speaks to people of all ages. When I was doing concerts, I looked out into the audience and saw teenagers, mothers and fathers, grandmothers — all generations, enjoying the show. That meant a lot to me, and I believe Tina has the same kind of appeal. The period of my life that is best known is my time with Ike, but my childhood is an important part of my story, too — my pain when my mother left, my joy in singing in church, my close relationship with my grandmother. This part of my journey speaks to the child in everyone.
I also hope my story touches a new generation of women. I want to pass the baton, so to speak, to them, and anyone facing a challenge, so they leave the theater standing proud, with their chests out and chins up, inspired to believe, “I can do it.”
As I’m about to turn 80, I’d like to think I’ve become wise in some ways. Life throws terrible obstacles in our paths, but they can be overcome if we are strong, resilient, and never lose our faith in ourselves, our belief in big, big dreams. What does New York City mean to me? The Statue of Liberty. I left Ike Turner on the Fourth of July. That was the beginning of my freedom. Now, Tina Turner, my name in lights on that theater … this is not real. It’s bigger than life! I’m very happy and proud to be on Broadway. I want to shout “New York!”