Debut of the Month: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL's Nkeki Obi-Melekwe!
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe makes her Broadway debut, alternating in the role of Tina Turner in TINA - THE Tina Turner MUSICAL, after stepping into the lead role in the West End production. The new stage musical follows the untold story of rock icon Tina Turner, from her humble beginnings in Tennessee, to her transformation into the global Queen of Rock 'n' Roll. Today, the talented actress speaks to BroadwayWorld about making her Broadway debut in the role of a true legend whose life and music transcend time.
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Jennifer Broski captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Ms. Obi-Melekwe throughout the feature!]
How familiar were you with Tina Turner's music prior to your casting?
Well everybody knows Tina's music, everyone knows the popular tunes like, "What's Love Got To Do With It?" But it wasn't until I started the audition process that I was like, "Oh, this is a Tina song? That is a Tina song? I had no idea - I love these songs!" So I feel that her music was definitely playing in the ether of my childhood, but I really didn't grow up with her on the radio or anything like that. So it really wasn't until my audition process that I started listening to her music a lot. And as I listened I thought, "Wow actually I kind of love this!" You know after an audition you often want to forget it ever happened until you hear back about it. But with this one, I found myself listening to her music everywhere I went; on the train, in the gym, just all of the time. It just seemed to really resonate with me and I needed to hear it. And I remember when my agent called me and told me that I got the role, it was so unexpected. I mean I was in the audition room with so many beautiful African American women that I have looked up to for so many years, so I would have never thought that I would get the role. In my mind I was like, "I'm just having fun and getting to sing some really cool songs and wear cute little outfits." So when my agent told me the news I was like, "Is this real? Is this actually happening?" And she said, "This is happening. It's real. So get ready!"
I understand you had the opportunity to meet Tina in person. What was that experience like and did it alter the way you approached your portrayal of her?
Well I met Tina toward the end of my rehearsal process when I was in London and I feel like my rehearsal process was such a whirlwind up to that point. I had just flown to London and I had maybe two weeks to learn the whole show. So by the time I met Tina, I knew all the lines, I knew all the songs, I knew where to go and where to stand, but I didn't necessarily know what to do with all that information. I couldn't quite weave it all together to make a person who I could access. And then when I got to meet her, it all just fell in line. Just being in her home and being in her space and being welcomed into her environment and meeting her really opened my eyes to who she is and who she was. And I realized that my Tina had to emerge through a spiritual lens. What I perceived from Tina, what I got from meeting her is that she is such a spiritual person. And that shows in the way that she walks, and in the way that she puts things in her home, it's just all around her. So I realized that that was going to be my way into this person. This whole show for me now is all a conjuring through that spiritual lens.
What do you think it is about her music that not only endures over time but also reaches across generations?
Well I think that her music has such heart. And I think her music is so relatable because she's a relatable person. I personally had never had to go through the kind of hardships that she had to go through, and no person should have to go through anything like that, but unfortunately people have and people do. And her music reflects all of her struggles and all of her success and all of the joy that comes out of the darkness of her life. And I think that that transcends time. To have a real-life icon to draw from and look to who shows you both the darkness and the light, who shows you how to turn poison into medicine and yet is also fun and sexy and makes you feel those emotions in your entire body. To me, that is just timeless.
And because she is such a beloved figure, does that put extra pressure on you to uphold her fan's expectations when they come to the show?
I would say yes. But to that I would say that I think people may see the marquee and hear about the show and think that it's just going to be a concert of Tina's music. Or maybe they're expecting the show to be just a light dusting over generalities of what they think her life was or the story that we all believed her life was. But I think what our show does so well is, it doesn't shy away from the truth. This show was made in conjunction with Tina and she was very forthright and willing and brave to share her whole truth and not leave anything out. And so I think our show actually does a really great job of showing all the different aspects of who she truly is. There's no sugar-coating in this. And I think that people who come expecting to hear Tina songs will certainly get that. But in addition, they'll also get a story that they thought they knew, but in actuality, didn't really know at all.
The role itself must be so demanding. How do you prepare for it both physically and mentally?
It's an all-consuming beast! Some people have actually told me that this is the hardest role that musical theater has ever seen, and I wouldn't doubt that honestly. It takes such a physical toll. And you know when Tina danced, it was just all encompassing, where every limb, every part of her is moving at all times. And this show also requires Tina's incredible vocal energy, that is really expected as well. So how I like to deal with it is that I try to make sure that I stretch a lot, I go on a lot of walks. You know the show itself is its own workout so really it's more about making sure that your body is able to recover, it's all about recovery, to be able to do it again and again. And more than anything, it's a mental thing. When I started TINA, people were like, "Oh you need to meditate, you need to meditate," and I was like, "Yeah whatever, I'll try to do it." And it really didn't resonate with me until I came to New York. I don't know, maybe there's something about New York that requires more alone time, but it was being here that I realized how helpful it was to center and ground myself for this journey. We live in such a busy city, in such a busy time and there's so much anxiety around every aspect of life these days. So to come into the theater and do a show that requires so much of your focus and attention, you can't have all the voices in your head going at the same time. You need to have something that focuses you and centers you. For me I found that if there was a time where I wasn't entirely focused, the show could just go by very quickly and I might miss something. You just don't want anything to take you out of focusing one hundred percent on telling the truth in the moment. So I found that meditation really was extremely helpful in learning how to do that.
Another interesting aspect of the role is that you portray Tina from her teenage years all the way through to age 40. I imagine that must create some unique challenges.
Yes, and it's funny. I'm 23 years old and in my auditions, I think that because the creative team knew how old I was they focused more on the older Tina scenes, when she was a little bit older, later on in her career. But in the rehearsal process, I found what was actually more challenging for me was to portray that younger Tina - that 16, 17-year old with all that bubbly energy. I think for me personally, I've always been a mature person. I don't want to say an "old soul", because that's kind of an annoying phrase, but I've just always been mature for my age. And so to tap into that younger innocence and exhilaration and excitement was something that I constantly needed to remind myself. I'd be like, "Ok pull back. Remember she's young, not so much angst, not so much rock and roll. Keep it simple, make it innocent." I think that in doing this show, the tendency is to want to go full out, one hundred percent, absolutely rock and roll the whole time. But you do need to create a journey. Tina didn't always sing with so much rasp, with so much voice, that wasn't her entire instrument. She has so many more colors to her voice that she was more likely to display during her earlier years.
And finally, what was it like to make your Broadway debut in TINA - THE Tina Turner MUSICAL?
Oh my God - it was exhilarating! It was so much better than I thought it was going to be. I told myself that at the very least, I would probably fall down the stairs. [laughing] I really told myself, "You're probably going to fall down the stairs, but it's going to be fine!" And I thought, well that's going to be the least of my worries compared to how the night is going to be. But... that didn't happen! It went so much better than I thought it would. I had so many friends and family and loved ones in the audience and that meant so much to me. It was a moment I'll never forget. You know people keep asking me, "Do you remember the night? Is it all a blur?" And I tell them, "Yes, I remember every single bit of it, I remember every single moment and I will never forget it." It was one of the most incredible moments of my life and I was just so grateful. And at the end of the show there's a little bit of a concert that we do, so I had the chance to get on the mic and let the audience know that this was my Broadway debut and that they made it so special for me. And that's not something that everyone making their Broadway debut gets to do. So getting the chance to have that experience was just incredible. I've never experienced anything quite like it. And by the way, I'm still on Cloud 9, I'm still riding high inside and I'm probably going to be riding it for the rest of my life!
BroadwayWorld congratulates Nkeki Obi-Melekwe on her Broadway debut in TINA - THE Tina Turner MUSICAL. The actress starred as Tina Turner in the West End production of the show. She recently appeared in MCC's ALICE BY HEART and HALF TIME at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Her TV credits include CBS's "Bull" and the Showtime series "Smilf."
Photo Credit: Jennifer Broski