A FEW YEARS AGO I was sitting in the dimness of the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street watching a rehearsal of the soon-to-open musical Shuffle Along when Adrienne Warren, a slight young woman with delicate features, walked onstage and, accompanied on the piano, performed Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s sprightly 1919 number “I’m Simply Full of Jazz” with such madcap joy and effortless charisma that before the song was over, I knew that I was witnessing the birth of a star. Warren’s eventual performance in the show earned her a Tony nomination and put her on the theater world’s radar, though it didn’t quite vault her into the stratosphere. That’s about to change, though, as Warren gets ready to bring her electrifying, leave-it-all-on-the-field performance as the titular diva in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical to Broadway this month after a hit run in London.
“When I found out that I’d gotten the job, I thought, I’m so grateful and I’m so honored—but I’m scared out of my mind,” Warren recalls. “You see the strength that Tina has, and you think, How can I possibly portray that onstage and empower people the way that she makes me feel empowered? How can I fully embody that?”
Warren doesn’t have Turner’s Beyond Thunderdome physique, though when she turns up to meet me for coffee near Lincoln Center in black workout clothes, fresh from a boxing class, she looks as fit as a Navy SEAL. She attributes this to her trainer, former middleweight champion Michael Olajide Jr., who, in the course of four months, helped her gain back the muscle she lost to play a 1920s showgirl in Shuffle Along, giving her not just an approximation of Turner’s build but the stamina to get through a physically and emotionally punishing two-and-a-half-hour musical during which she almost never leaves the stage.
“This role is King Lear times five,” says Phyllida Lloyd, the show’s director. “After doing two shows in a day in London, she had to be virtually carried to her dressing room and put into an ice bath, like a footballer. She’s one of those performers who’s prepared to go down with the ship.”
Now back in New York after her year in London, Warren lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And though she’s transparent and wildly enthusiastic when talking about playing Turner, she prefers to not discuss her romantic life. “Right now, I’m married to this show and this character,” she says.
Warren’s connection to the icon goes back to her childhood. “Tina and I come from similar backgrounds,” she tells me. “We were both raised in the South—her dad was a preacher, my dad is a preacher. And we were both tomboys, running through fields and climbing trees barefoot. When we’re around each other, I sometimes feel like she’s my auntie. We have a rapport that feels very easy and comfortable and familiar.”
Warren was born in 1987, in Hampton Roads, Virginia, where she grew up singing in the choir at her father’s church. But her first love was sports, and she had dreams of playing professional basketball until an anticipated growth spurt never materialized (she topped out at 5 feet 4 inches, the same height as Turner). In high school she discovered a passion for music by way of the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith—and Turner, a favorite of her parents. “I used to walk around the house in my mom’s stiletto heels and pretend that I was Tina,” Warren recalls. “I was just so in love with how powerful she was. I had never seen a woman—especially a black woman—really owning her space like that and singing like that and moving like that. I just knew: That’s what I want to do.”
A production of The Who’s Tommy at the Governor’s School for the Arts, where Warren went to high school (and which her mother now runs), ignited a passion for musical theater, and within weeks of graduating from Marymount Manhattan College in 2009, she landed a spot in the chorus of the New York City Center Encores! revival of The Wiz, where she also served as understudy to the show’s star, Ashanti. She went on to tour in Dreamgirls and Bring It On before her 2016 breakthrough in Shuffle Along—though when she was called in to do a workshop reading of Tina, her initial thought was: Excuse me? The creative team had looked at other actresses, but as soon as Warren came in they knew that they’d found their leading lady. “What she has is just the most spellbinding combination of passion for performing and awesome technique,” Lloyd says. “You have the uncanny experience of feeling like you’re watching Tina Turner, but it’s also completely Adrienne. It’s a kind of magic act.” The show’s book writer, Katori Hall (last on Broadway with her magical-realist take on Martin Luther King’s final night, The Mountaintop), adds, “She has an ability to be girlish and vulnerable—but she also has an ability to sing your ass under the table. The fierceness and the rawness in her belly is just tremendous. When she gets up there and sings, you’re not watching a Broadway performer—you’re watching a rock star. She has the essence of Tina in her.”
As the director of Mamma Mia! on both the stage and screen, Lloyd knows her way around a jukebox musical. She’s also shown an affinity for bringing to life African American superstars (Josephine Baker, in Cush Jumbo’s one-woman show Josephine and I) and, more broadly, for capturing the complexity of the female experience, from her all-woman Shakespeare trilogy to the Meryl Streep–-starring Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady.
Here, she’s taking on the life of the legendary, now 79-year-old singer, whose story of triumph over poverty, domestic violence, and the music industry trinity of racism, sexism, and ageism has become almost mythic thanks to Turner’s 1986 autobiography I, Tina and the 1993 film What’s Love Got to Do With It, which made Angela Bassett—and her buff arms—a star.
Looking for a way to translate that story to the theater, Hall hit on the ingenious conceit of bookending the show with Turner chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” as she gets ready to go onstage in front of 180,000 people at a stadium in Brazil—and, at the end, stepping out and giving the performance of her career. The rest of the show—tracing the arc of her life from singing in church in Nutbush, Tennessee, through her stardom with Ike Turner, her escape from his abuse, her years wandering in the show business desert, and her triumphal comeback—takes place as a memory during the minute before she faces the crowd, letting the theater audience experience the past that she’s bringing onstage with her.
“You see her go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” Warren says. “You see her as a queen and then, the next second, you see her punched in the face and knocked to the ground. And then, like the survivor, the warrior she is, you see her get right back up.”
Though the rough-and-tumble of Turner’s life feels freshly relevant in this #MeToo era, the heart of Tina, of course, is the extraordinary catalog of songs that she made famous starting in the early 1960s, from “Proud Mary” and “River Deep—Mountain High” to, decades later, “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” But Lloyd and Hall didn’t want to trot out the songs as a series of greatest hits to be applauded; instead they use them to advance the story and amplify its emotions. (Turner herself told them, “Don’t hold back—this will only speak if it’s truthful.”) Fortunately, the material seemed to dovetail with her life. “For me, those songs are the guideposts for the emotional journey she goes on,” Warren says. “They allow me to tap into her energy and her spirit.”
Warren also draws, she says, from the energy of the audience, whose visceral response to her powerhouse performance carries her through the show. For Lloyd, that ability to connect is what makes Warren so crucial—and what will make her a star. “Fiona Shaw once said that you have to be willing to die when you go onstage,” Lloyd says, “and there’s a large element of that with Adrienne—as there was with Tina. Audiences want that; they need it. It’s that kind of courage and risk-taking that they are paying to see. It’s a rare thing to find, but it’s the essence of the kind of theater I want to create—one with the feeling that you’re seeing something not just dazzling and dangerous, but unrepeatable.”