Phyllida Lloyd and Katori Hall

The Women Behind TINA – The Tina Turner Musical

It takes a powerful team to tell the story of Tina Turner. That team is the two women behind TINA – The Tina Turner Musical: book writer, Katori Hall and director, Phyllida Lloyd. Both nominated for Tony Awards for their roles, the duo is preparing to reopen a show that has brought the life and music of the iconic rock and roll superstar to the Great Bright Way. Tina’s story is full of loss and heartbreak, but both Hall and Lloyd made sure to amplify the woman who inspired a generation, battled through her traumas, and sang music that transcends time. “I think oftentimes particularly for bio-musicals, it just feels like they’re just lining up the hits and they just want us to hear all the great music that this amazing singer left us with. But for me, it was really about the story first,” Hall said about creating the Tina Turner Musical. We spoke to Hall and Lloyd about building Tina’s story, female teams on Broadway, and the moment they knew Adrienne Warren was the right one for the role.

It’s not until recently, that we’ve begun to see women in both writing and directorial positions on a Broadway show. Was this important to you both, and how did this help with the storytelling of Tina Turner’s life?

Katori Hall: We have so many strong female creative voices in the room from Tali Pelman, one of our lead producers, our director Phyllida, and Adrienne, our star. We have a particular shared lived experience as women, and there was a deep desire to tell the brutal and honest truth about what it means to be a woman in this world. And particularly, for me and Adrienne, what it means to be a Black woman in a world that hasn’t changed very much. There have been some changes, but as we know, what has been revealed in the past 19 months is that there’s still a ton of work to do when it comes to this collision of race and gender. I was just really happy that Tina, who has been very emblematic of speaking the truth to power and just brutal honesty, has been a beacon and our lighthouse. I feel as though I have a sisterhood that allowed me to be more fearless on the page.

Phyllida Lloyd: It has always been important to me to be part of a female team. I come from the UK, and the picture there is very similar. For many years, women have not been entrusted with theatre shows that have big budgets. And I think when I directed Mamma Mia! over 20 years ago, I was among the first women to be given a big-budget commercial musical in London’s West End. I was not the first, but there were very few. Women have always flourished in the not-for-profit world, and I think it’s the same on Broadway, and the same in Hollywood. So it’s very exciting to be part of a changing culture, and I’m very lucky to have been given these breaks that I’ve had—all by female producers. It’s the female producer that has shown the female director that has shown the female writer. It was the same with Mamma Mia! All three of us were women.

Katori, you’re also a phenomenal playwright, and also wrote a hit TV series, P-Valley. But was writing for musical theatre and different, do you feel like all verticals are synonymous?

KH: They are very different, but storytelling is storytelling. You want to move an audience, and you want to entertain them. You want to make them laugh. You want to make them cry. I actually think musical theatre can do that a little bit more effectively than other storytelling mediums, just because music is such a universal language. You can just hear a piece of music and it’ll make you turn up, or you can hear a sad song and it reminds you of that man who left you. It’s just so evocative of emotion. I was really grateful that we were able to use her amazing music, which has been so emotional. When Tina sings, you can hear the ancestors in her voice. To be able to tell a story with the help of music, was a new experience for me, but I grew up with musicality in my writing. One of my first plays was about a blues singer in the 1930s. So it did not feel necessarily foreign to me, even though I actually did have to learn format, and I had to learn the structure of a musical theatre piece. I was coming to the project from a place of impulse and instinct. I actually didn’t know the rules. And I think that’s why I was able to craft a musical theatre piece that was so focused on story and character. It felt like a perfect fusion of a music and a play versus just all songs, songs, songs.

Phyllida, what has it been like directing this cast?

PL: It’s been the most incredible privilege to be part of this project. Let’s start with Tina Turner herself, and our early days of workshopping with her some years ago. Although she has had very little experience with theatre itself, she had such a distinctive sense of what a theatre show could be and couldn’t be. She was such a great collaborator. In addition, the opportunity to work with Katori was one of the things also that drew me to the project, because I knew what a powerful, serious writer she was, and I knew that she would treat Tina’s story with real depth, and an understanding.

And how did you become part of this show, Phyllida?

PL: After I had done Mamma Mia! on stage, and the movie, I wasn’t really working in the musical theatre world. I was directing movies and doing straight plays, and I wasn’t looking to do another musical. I’d had so much luck with Mamma Mia! I didn’t really think I could have that luck twice. So I was very hesitant when I was first asked to do this, and also very hesitant about the story, and thinking, “Am I really the right person to do this?” And I still have misgivings about being a white person leading this story. I think people of my generation are now understanding how important it is to make space at the table and to step aside and empower our younger colleagues. We tried to surround ourselves with a very diverse crew, and we’re now seeing them flourish. My associate, Zhailon [Levingston], is about to be one of the youngest Black directors on Broadway with Chicken & Biscuits. The fact that I found him to be my associate on Broadway, and now he’s thriving, is the most wonderful. But the experience of working with Adrienne in London, and then being able to be part of her flight crew, and bringing her back to New York was humbling and has been an incredible ride.

Take me back to the moment where you first saw Adrienne Warren and knew she was the right person to play Tina.

KH: I’m so glad you asked that question. I love this story. I had seen her in Shuffle Along, and I knew that she had crazy talent. When we had our first-round table of the book, and we were just playing with music placement, we were like Adrienne should come in and do the reading. It was supposed to be just to see how the book read, but, I would say every time there’s a round table, it is an audition for not only the writer, but for people who are reading the part. So Miss Adrienne came in at 10 a.m., child, and I remember she sang “Private Dancer” like she had been singing it her whole life. It just burst out of her… She came with the 10 a.m. throat, that sounded like it was 8 p.m. and after an hour of warmup. She was so ready to step into that role. It was like, we don’t even really need to have auditions, there she is. There was no one else to see after she did that round table for us.

PL: Nick Skilbeck, our musical supervisor was there listening to the reading. Adrienne was reading Tina, and he said to her, “Is there one song that you know and like, that you just want to sing? Let’s just put it into the reading.” I mean, it was quite an eccentric suggestion, because I don’t even think Adrienne stood up. She was sitting next to me at the table, and we were just literally reading from the pages. And then we got to the scene in which she sings “Private Dancer,” and she started to sing, and there was just this shiver through the room. And when she made the key change in that song, I don’t know whether I gripped the chair or what, but I could feel this absolute wave of energy in the room, and you just felt like, “I am in the presence.”

What’s the one moment that makes you proud to be the director every time?

PL: It used to be the moment when Tina finally explodes onto the stage at the end of the show, in her red leather dress. And when you finally see the musicians, who’ve been imprisoned upstage for the whole evening, and you see them tumbling down towards the audience. It’s just such a joyous, ecstatic moment. And I look around at the audience’s faces, and they’re all smiles. I also feel relief for Adrienne that she’s on the home stretch at that point. Even though I’ve got to remind myself she’s still got three more numbers to get through. But there is another moment, which we created for Broadway, when she leaves London, and she’s been rejected by the record company, and described as too old and unmarketable. And she says to her manager, “Let’s go back. Let’s go back to New York. Let’s go home and get back on the stage, do the thing that we do.” And she meditates, and she gets down on the ground, and she’s surrounded by her ancestors. It’s part of her Buddhist practice, her meditation, that draws her ancestors to her, and her grandmother, and her younger self come forward. It’s as if she’s kneeling in a circle of her ancestors, and you’re not quite sure what’s going on. And her younger self, the incredible Skye Dakota Turner, is assisting in this ritual, and it’s a mixture of a wonderful synthesis of songs that’s happening, and mystical sounds and voices. And suddenly Tina erupts, like a phoenix, from this kneeling position, and there’s a very old-fashioned, classic, theatre transformation. She’s gone from one costume, and she appears suddenly there as Tina Turner in her wig, her denim, her leather, singing “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” It’s just a very simple, tender, theatrical moment of transformation, music, and light, where all of the crafts and arts come together in one small, simple moment. And just a testimony to Adrienne’s astonishing technique.

Katori, with Nkeki Obi-Melekwe preparing to take over full-time, does that change the storytelling in any way? She will obviously have her own style.

KH: I think that the story is strong enough to be told by hundreds of Tinas. They are very different actresses and different people. But I feel as though both of them have her fire and her essence. And so will they be different? Absolutely. But I do think that the story doesn’t suffer nor does the theatrical experience suffer because they both have pipes of steel. They’re both so honest on stage that I truly think that we won’t skip a beat.

Phyllida, are there things that you’ve learned during the shutdown that you are taking with you to the rehearsal room and in bringing back this show?

PL: I think that the death of George Floyd, and the subsequent events during the pandemic, have changed everything. And the question is, how much can any of us as an individual change, and how much can we learn? With a theatre production, whenever you come back to it after a few months, six months, a year, whatever, the world changes, you change, and you can expect it to have to grow and change. So that would be normal, but the fact we’ve been through so much loss through the pandemic, and so much social unrest and upheaval, of course, changes a story, which is a story of abuse, of appropriation of Black culture by white people — in the case of Tina, the robbing of Ike’s career by white record producers, etc. There’s a lot of resonance between the story and the world we’re in, so therefore, the resonance of it is going to be huge. Those of us involved in this show want to battle for greater equality, greater representation, and so we’re talking a lot about how to make change, and we’re working with Broadway Advocacy Coalition, who we became involved with at least a year ago, and all of it is humbling and exciting. We want to be going forth together, but the roots of the production, the passion of the company, and our friendship is intense. So I think there’s a very strong sense that we can make an even better production than we had before, in this new world.

Broadway is pulling the curtain back in more ways than one. There are show re-openings and conversations around diversity and inclusion are being put into action. What is your hope that audiences receive from this show once it returns and for the future of theatre in general?

KH: We were so blessed that the center of our show was this Black woman who did more than survive. She conquered. And we all have to take that same energy and move with that same energy and conquer. Conquer this Goliath of racism. Conquer this Goliath of repression and not being inclusive. Broadway can do better, theatre can do better, but Broadway, especially can, because they have the money to do so. So that whole thing of we can’t find somebody, there isn’t this person, there isn’t enough of blah, blah, blah. We cannot take those excuses anymore. We all have to put our money where our mouths are and figure out how to make a paradigm shift in how we come together and create. And so that idea of inclusivity has to extend beyond the stage. It has to go into the offices. Artistic directors who have been artistic directors for 20 and 30 years need to pass the baton, they need to mentor people, they need to prepare, and they need to step aside. This is the time to do it. Because there are so many voices that have been left out of the conversation because there’s only been one type of voice that’s been leading the conversation.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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