Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Katori Hall and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the Tony-nominated bio-musical follows the life and career of the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll. Nkeki Obi-Melekwe is currently starring as Turner on Broadway. She succeeds Tony winner Adrienne Warren, the original Tina on Broadway and in London’s West End, where Obi-Melekwe also later played the role.
For Obi-Melekwe, the physicality of her performance is rooted in “mental athleticism,” recognizing that mental and physical health are deeply connected. While she polished her powerhouse performance in the West End production and at certain performances on Broadway since it opened in November 2019, the COVID-induced shutdown allowed her to stop, take a breath, and shift perspectives.
“A lot changed from pre- to post-pandemic for me,” says Obi-Melekwe. “I really wanted to be mindful and intentional about how I came back to the show — like getting into therapy on the emotional level, changing my food habits on a mental level, and my eating habits on a physical level. It wasn’t just a bunch of cardio and strength training.”
To center herself spiritually and physically before a performance, Obi-Melekwe begins with meditation, a practice gifted to her directly from Turner herself. From there, she starts moving her body in “fun and whimsical ways,” whether it’s with a jump rope, a Hula-Hoop, or a dance party.
“I like to move my body in dynamic ways since I’m moving my body in the same way for the show every night,” shares Obi-Melekwe. “I’ll listen to neo-soul music for chiller vibes. Some days I’m like, ‘I need David Bowie.’ When the sun is out, it’s country music all day.”
Once she steps on stage, the marathon begins.
“Anytime I’m on stage and I have some downtime, I check in,” says Obi-Melekwe. “I’ll adjust my head a little bit. I get my tongue moving a little bit, some deep breaths, anything to bring new energy into my body.”
Those onstage check-ins are crucial, as Obi-Melekwe is rarely off stage over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour musical. Her longest break comes at the top of the show, after the opening number, while the audience is introduced to a young Turner during her beginnings in Nutbush, Tennessee.
“That’s probably a three-to-five-minute chunk,” says Obi-Melekwe, a realization dawning on her. “It’s actually the only time I get to walk off stage. Every other time I’m running off the stage.”
Obi-Melekwe makes the most of that five-minute break, using it as a chance to hydrate with electrolytes and sing to keep her voice warm. However, it’s not just the onstage singing and dancing that require a high endurance. The quick changes are like their own obstacle courses, and each one has its own intricate map. For one particularly challenging quick change, five crew members make up the relay team to assist Obi-Melekwe: three dressers, a makeup team member, and a hairstylist.
“[After] the hotel scene with Erwin [Bach, Turner’s husband], I exit and run all the way from stage left to right, take off the dress, put on fishnets and black heels, put on the leather dress, put on the denim jacket, then the cheetah-print coat and hat. It’s about 30 to 45 seconds altogether.”
The post–curtain call “MegaMix” number serves as Obi-Melekwe’s finish line, which in turn marks the beginning of her necessary postshow rituals.
“At the theatre, I like to take a shower, where I stretch and vocally cool down. At home, I like to take a bath, then lie on the floor and get back into alignment. I do a lot of breathing exercises, listen to podcasts, and have a very literal midnight snack before I can take my bones to bed, because I have to do it again tomorrow.”
Staying in tune with her body for her full-time job can feel like a full-time job in itself. Obi-Melekwe’s weekly fitness routine includes Pilates, physical therapy, plus myofascial and alignment work.
“I sprained my ankle early on when I took over in November, so just on a preventative note, I want to make sure everything else stays in alignment, because one wrong move, one moment of hesitation, and you can get hurt.”
Obi-Melekwe is grateful for the lessons she’s learned while walking—or, rather, dancing—in Turner’s legendary heels night after night.
“There’s no way that this show was put into my life for me to care about what people think of me,” says Obi-Melekwe. “Tina is so not that person. She is open, and brave, and I have to walk through this life like that.”
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