BWW Interview: Ashley Zhangazha Talks TINA - THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL
TINA - The Tina Turner Musical recently celebrated one year on the West End. Telling the stories behind the much loved and iconic songs, the jukebox musical brings Tina's life centre stage.
One part to feature is the singer's relationship with her husband Ike, a role which Ashley Zhangazha took over just last week. Bringing these iconic numbers to audiences, Ashley shares how he approached playing a real-life figure, and his status as a newly "confirmed big-time Tina fan!"
What's an early memory of theatre?
I went to a local youth theatre when I was about seven. My Mum and Dad were keen for me to meet other young people, because I was quite shy (I was only really interested in playing football!)
So I went and joined the youth theatre and it had an agency, and I ended up auditioning for this production of Oliver! that Sam Mendes did in the late 90s.
That was one of my earliest experiences: playing one of Fagin's gang. I remember seeing the show before I joined and being really transfixed by seeing all these young people in it.
From that early experience, did you always know you wanted to be a part of that world?
I think so...although when I finished school, I actually did a degree in Economics and Politics at the University of Manchester.
I was fairly academic at school and I was quite interested in learning and trying to enrich and empower myself. So I was keen to go and study something else, which was sort of a three year detour!
But I always knew I wanted to pursue this career, so after that I trained at Guildhall. But there's always that thing when you're younger of worrying if you'll get work. Is there a place for me in this industry?
And now you're showing people that there is a place, with your mentoring through NYT and Guildhall.
Yes. It's really important to me to let young people know that there are avenues into this industry.
I believe so passionately that young people need to have access into the industry and know that there are people that have gone on the same journey as them and then are doing it out there right now.
And to see those people out there and doing so well. Congratulations on your 2018 UK Theatre Award for Best Performance in a Musical!
Thank you! Guys and Dolls was such a special production for me.
It was a part that I have always wanted to play, Skye Masterson. I never knew whether I might get the opportunity to do it. And then that production came along and we did it with an all-black cast and played around with the music, jazzing it up and putting some different inflections and sounds.
So just being in the production was special enough, but I was so overwhelmed and grateful to get that recognition.
And from classics of stage with Oliver! and Guys and Dolls, now you're taking on some new writing: Tina: The Musical. How familiar were you with Tina Turner's music?
If I'm honest, I knew the hits: "Simply the Best", "What's Love Got to Do With It?" and "Private Dancer". But what's been really exciting about doing this musical version of it is delving into her back catalogue and all the music that Tina and Ike did together.
It's amazing to realise what a legacy she has left in the music world. So it's been kind of an education for me, doing this musical and learning more about Tina's life. Now I'm confirmed as a big-time Tina fan!
How much did you know about Ike Turner in particular?
This is the first time I've played a real-life figure and what's been really exciting for me is to be able to explore him and do the research. He's got an autobiography called Takin' Back My Name, which is kind of a wild ride into his mind. He's a very complex man.
And there's an amazing amount of material on YouTube: interviews with him, performances that he and Tina did. So it's been really great to have that knowledge there to call upon in order to create the character.
But the interesting thing is that there's all that research but then also, I have to bring my interpretation as well. There has to be a midpoint where the research and me meet, to create what I put on stage.
How have you found developing your relationship with your Tina?
It's been fantastic. Nkeki Obi-Melekwe has just come over from the States and she's just a ray of light. She's got incredible strength, a great voice and is delivering an extraordinary performance.
And you know, with the nature of what we have to do onstage in certain scenes with the intensity and emotions, it's important that we have a good relationship offstage. Because our show sometimes goes to a dark place and can be challenging, it's great that since day one we've really got on well.
And congratulations on your first week in!
What's it like to join a production already up and running?
This is the first time I've done a takeover. And it's been a lovely rehearsal process, but we've had a lot to do.
The cast have been lovely and warm and caring with us. Also, Dave Holmes, one of of our brilliant guitarists in the TINA band, has been helping me relearn to play the guitar.
So not only have I been learning to sing these iconic songs, but now I can play them on the guitar too!
And the show is a real rollercoaster, it's been interesting doing this first week and finding what energy I need to do the show. And realising that it needs a lot, because it is such a whirlwind!
And the crowds react with that same energy too, don't they?
It's a really love thing to have that energy in the crowd. And at the end, that there's this glorious mega-mix and they get up on their feet. It's so wonderful to have that force staring back at you and giving you that energy and power to do your performance.
The audiences can be quite vocal and there's another interesting reaction at the curtain call. I sometimes get a bit of a boo (which is totally understandable).
Do you have a favourite moment from the show, from getting it before audiences this week?
There's a song called "Higher" in Act One and it's a big tune - a banger!
It's kind of an amalgamation of many years of Tina and Ike's life in one number. So you see Ike in the midst of drug addiction and Tina having to deal with that while they're on the road performing.
The beat and the music are just infectious. Plus, I have to do some quite elaborate gyrations in it, which is quite interesting!
Photo credit: Craig Sugden