Broadway has a new Queen of Rock and Soul! Enter Nkeki Obi-Melekwe. The 25-year-old powerhouse assumed the title character in TINA – The Tina Turner Musical from Tony Award winner Adrienne Warren, who departed the bio-musical last month. Entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with Nkeki to talk about bringing down the house at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre nightly, and more.
You were handpicked to play this role in London’s West End prior to Broadway at age 21 (!!!)?
I had my initial audition — it was just me and the casting director and a camera. To sing all of this rock ’n’ roll stuff to a camera with one person in the room was kind of awkward. And it was radio silence for a good month. I was new to New York at the time and it was one of my first Broadway auditions. I wasn’t expecting anything from it. But when I let it go out of my head, I got a call from my agents and they said, “They want to see you again on Tuesday — and you have to learn these 10 songs and these three scenes and it’s going to be great.” And on that Tuesday, I did all the material they wanted me to do. Wednesday I had my dance call. Thursday I had a work session. And then Friday I had my final audition with the producers, and they were like, “Can you wait out in the hall for a second?” And then the director [Phyllida Lloyd] and [casting director] Bernie Telsey came to me and offered me the role on the spot.
Were you always a Tina Turner fan?
I did not grow up listening to her music on my own. Her music was playing in the house — my dad is a big music person. And he always had something playing and always wanted me to listen to ’80s tunes. It really wasn’t until that audition that I got to know her music quite intimately. And after that initial audition, I was just listening to her music all the time.
You got to hang out with Tina Turner. Tell me about that experience.
I was in London in rehearsal, and there was one day when the company manager came in and said, “You’re flying to meet Tina on Thursday!” And I immediately went shopping the next day to find something nice to wear to meet Tina Turner! Myself and the producer took a day trip to Switzerland. Her husband picked us up at the airport. And then we spent a few hours with her at her home — and it was surreal. She was so interested in me. I wanted to ask her questions, but she wanted to ask me questions.
What did she ask you?
She asked about where I grew up. She asked me about my childhood. She wanted to know about my life, about growing up in the South. I got to ask her many questions, but the thing that was most meaningful was, I got to talk to her about her faith. I read about her faith in the books, and there are notes of it in the movie, and our musical is based upon that faith.
Did she give you suggestions on how to play her on stage?
She’s not the kind of person who would do that. Being with her, I would observe her and think, “OK, this is how she sips her tea.” Or “This is how she is when she’s looking at people.” Just being in her space — and especially being in her home — it answered a lot of questions that I had about how to portray her.
Is it true you and Tina have the same birthmark?
Isn’t that crazy? One day I was looking at photos of her and I texted one of my producers saying, “I think me and Tina have the same birthmark.” And she was like, “Yes, it’s true.”
Let’s talk about your TINA singing voice. How do you go there every night, and how do you maintain that?
I’m so thankful for my voice teacher Joan Lader. She’s a magician!
What has playing Tina taught you?
What amazes me about her that I find new again and again is that she does not hold on to anything that doesn’t serve her. She doesn’t hold on to her trauma, so why should I? There are things that have happened to her that nobody should have to go through. And I thankfully have never experienced half of what she has gone through. But if she could go through that and not hold on to it and work past it and work through it, why can’t I do the same? And that’s on a personal level. This show is hard, and it’s hard to live in that trauma. But at the same time, if she isn’t burdened by it and made tired by what she went through, why should I be? She has chosen a life that is exuberant and joyful. And there is so much catharsis in that for me.
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