Cast Recordings & AlbumsTrack-by-Track Breakdown: Katori Hall Goes 'River Deep, Mountain High' on the Tina: The Tina Turner Musical Cast Recording
November 18, 2020
In this in-depth and reflective essay, the Tony-nominated book writer explores Tina Turner's life, Adrienne Warren's pipes, and more.
No one could have predicted this intermission. The COVID-19 pandemic ended a stellar season in the world of theatre too early, and my heart breaks when I think of the folks who might not be able to see the transcendent performance of Adrienne Warren in the titanic role of Tina Turner. Tina, the icon, the ultimate soul survivor, the rule breaker, has gone through what most folks experience in 10 lifetimes. Despite domestic abuse, sexism, racism, and ageism, she rose above and defeated dragon after dragon. Her story is one for the ages, and a story I think will resonate with audiences even more post-pandemic. We will need stories about defying impossible odds, understanding loss, and sitting with uncertainty. She did all of that and more than survived—she prospered, becoming a beacon of triumph. We will need her shining example when this intermission ends and the curtains rise again. And they will rise again; stories like hers demand it.
For right now, we are gifted with a Ghostlight Records original cast recording of the West End production, with Olivier- and Tony-nominated Adrienne Warren giving a roof-raising performance that has gone down in theatre history.
She got the range.
1. “Etherland / Sound of Mystic Law” During the development process, we experimented with what the framing device of the Tina theatrical experience would be. We tried to start post-divorce with Ike, but that immediately set up Ike as the villain of this story without any context. We tried to tell it moving back and forth via flashback as she relayed her story to her new manager Roger Davies, but that didn’t give her much agency in her own story and undermined the drama and conflict. We even thought about having multiple Tinas, but felt that this musical needed to be built around a singular performer, much like the real Tina. Having found Adrienne Warren early in the development process, we knew we had a performer whose unparalleled vocal virtuosity, dance skills, and acting chops more than met that tall order.
With that gift, we started the story where we wanted it to end: the iconic image of Tina, with her wild lioness mane, in leather and pumps standing upstage at the bottom of a set of steps, with 180,000 fans screaming her name at her Guinness World Record-breaking concert in Rio De Janeiro. Right before she ascends the stairs to step into that spotlight, she decides to center herself and the Buddhist chant of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” spills from her lips.
I think of theatre as a church, and this moment of prayer allows for a clearing of the room—for the proscenium to become a pulpit. Tina’s past rolls in: her father, a Baptist preacher, calling folks to come on down to the church to get a blessing, her grandmother mumbling a Cherokee chant. The three different prayers announce to an audience that they are about to embark on more than just a theatrical experience, but a spiritual journey. Tina’s future and past collide and we fall into the abyss of memory.
I coined the term ‘Etherland' to explain the space of time where the ancestors join the stage and hold space with Tina. Tina, herself, believes in past lives, and it was important for her ancestors to shore her up as she goes through her shero’s journey. Over Tina’s Buddhist chant, we hear her grandmother Gran Georgeanna hum a Native American chant and it blends with her father’s gospel wail as her Buddhist chant fades away. Tina leaves the stage and Anna Mae Bullock, the little girl who becomes Tina, takes over.
This structure of story telling is a very Africanistic. It’s about the circle, it’s about memory, it’s about community.
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2. “Nutbush City Limits” This is the only song Tina was credited with writing, and it was important to start the show with a song that is truly hers. Nutbush City is still a tiny farming community, 20 minutes away from my hometown of Memphis, and I wanted to plant the audience on that native soil that cured a voice steeped in the blues, gospel, and the wail of slave spirituals. Our music supervisor, Nick Skilbeck, created an arrangement that echoed that complicated musical heritage by embracing the gospel sound instead of its descendant rock-and-roll. Tina started singing in the church, and it was fitting to do an interpolation that reflected her mighty spiritual roots. Pastor Bullock preaches the song as much as he sings it. The upbeat stomp of gospel mutates into a haunting wail, and we flip through the years Tina spent dealing with being abandoned by both her mother and father. We start in the abyss before making our climb up.
3. “Don’t Turn Around” The challenging thing about bio-musicals is the question of how to use songs from a singer’s catalog in ways that tell the story and illuminate character development. Though the only song Tina wrote in her decades-long career is the aforementioned Nutbush, lucky for us, as a performer and interpreter she chose songs that truly reflected the trials and tribulations of her epic life. Once I laid out all of the musical possibilities, I was stunned to discover how many of the songs perfectly reflected the pivotal moments in her story, beyond providing just musical transitions and texture.
A decision was made early on to be anachronistic in ordering the songs throughout the show. It would have turned into a full-on concert if we had done them chronologically. We always wanted to layer in that concert feeling, but Tina’s powerful story needed to be the driving engine of the show.
If a song was right for a moment, it didn’t matter if it was cut in the '80s. We were free to use it in the '60s and vice versa.
Folks my age pro'lly know the Ace of Base cover best, but Tina originally recorded “Don’t Turn Around” for the 1986 album, Break Every Rule. I thought it was a perfect song for the moment when Tina’s beloved grandmother, Gran Georgeanna, forces her to move to St. Louis and use her gift of a voice that’s “like fire and heaven all at once.”
4. “Shake a Tail Feather” WhenAnna Mae arrives to St. Louis, she's re-united with her sister Alline and her estranged mother Zelma who abandoned her as a little girl. Alline is quick to introduce Anna Mae to the St. Louis nightlife, which includes learning how to “shake a tail feather.” Alline and her girlfriends give Anna Mae an insta-make-over. It’s a fun and raucous descent into the world of the underground hole-in-the-walls where Anna Mae, as the youngins now say, got iiiiiiiit!
5. “The Hunter” Ike Turner is considered the father of rock-and-roll and his song, “Rocket 88,” is regarded as the first rock-and-roll record. However, I really wanted to explore the crates and found this fantastic song called "The Hunter." It felt perfect for the first time we meet the Ike. His sexiness and charm on 10, but being blunt about his desires. The cut might have been too deep for the Broadway production and was actually replaced with “Rocket 88,” which we felt was more fitting. It was important for us to hear the birth of rock-and-roll and for 17 year-old Anna Mae to witness it with her very own eyes.
6. “Matchbox” This track is a more well-known number from the Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm catalog. The beautiful defiance of this song, the vocal reach, and that guitar riff is blues personified. The club goes crazy when they hear this song. It becomes an ad-hoc contest where Ike invites ladies to join him on stage. Anna Mae, fresh from Tennessee, is the only one who grabs the mic and dares to sing. It’s clear to everyone in the room—they are witnessing history in the making. Ike has found a queen, but Anna Mae’s mother Zelma may prove to be an obstacle.
7. “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” At home, Zelma chastises the sisters for staying out all night. Her riot act is interrupted by a pink Cadillac rolling up into the driveway. Ike Turner rolls on through the door and a kind of negotiation happens between Ike and Zelma. Zelma relents, even though it’s clear that there is a level of unease about what feels like an auction block moment. It’s an opportunity, but at what cost? But the ebullient “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” cuts through the air as Zelma reconciles any ill feelings and misgivings she may have about the transaction. She hands her daughter over to Ike. Those who know the story of Tina and Ike well feel the dramatic irony of this deep cut in a different way.
8. “A Fool In Love” This is a transformative moment in recording history. The true story about this song is that Ike had wanted the lead sung by a man named Arthur Leeds, who canceled on the day of the recording. Anna Mae, with her low and husky voice, stepped on in because she had a strong bottom range—ideal for the originally male part. For me, this became the Pygmalion moment in her journey. In the recording studio, we see Ike force her to push her voice past its range, changing it to the raspy Tina Turner sound we know so well today. In my interviews with her, she complained about how Ike would make her hit notes she couldn’t always hit. The birth of those screechy “Heeeeeyyyyyyyy!” moments that are so emblematic and enjoyable to a rock-and-roll lover’s ears were actually my way to mark the beginnings of the abuse. In addition, you see him take away her identity by flexing his control and forcing her to change her name to Tina. Ike & the Kings of Rhythm become the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and American music was changed forever.
9. “Let’s Stay Together” A little known fact about Tina is that Ike was not the only man in her life. The love of her life was actually a saxophonist named Raymond Hill, who fathered her first born son, Craig. On stage, she’s forced to keep her budding romance with him a secret from Ike. When she tries to break ties with Raymond, he confesses he loves her with the first lyric of the song, “But I’m so in love with you.” It’s a powerful articulation of Black love in the show and of the music—literally and figuratively—she could have made had she allowed herself to choose another path. This is another example of a song that was recorded in the '80s that we moved to help tell her story in the late '60s.
There had been discussions amongst us on the creative team to cut this song from the show, but I was adamant that this well-known song would resonate with audiences. Al Green, of course, made the song famous in 1972, but Tina added her own flair in 1983 when she covered it. You can always hear a gasp of excitement in the audience when the first familiar twinkly piano notes of this song are played.
10. “Better Be Good To Me” I wanted to show the cultural and political landscape of the American South in the '60s through one of my favorite scenes in the show called “Motel Mississippi.” We find the band on an Ike and Tina Turner Revue tour through the segregated American South. Unable to find a hotel that will take Black people, they are forced to spend the night in the car. Ike shares a poignant story from his childhood about having seen his father almost killed at the hands of an angry white mob. Tina is drawn into his painful confession. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability given to Ike, which helps to humanize him in ways other narratives have not. But abusers use vulnerability as a way to control and this confession ultimately allows Ike to manipulate Tina into marrying him. He freezes in time as she is forced to ponder what this offer truly means. “A prisoner of your love, entangled in your web” are dead-on lyrics to express the natural trepidation she would have towards this supposed “marriage.” In this moment of internal battle, she says all the things she didn’t have the strength yet to say to Ike. The reverie is shattered when police officers find the group and demandIke pay them money to prevent arrest (or worse), a common practice in the Deep South.Yet again, a song from a later period of Tina’s life is used to exacting effect to express the crossroads she was once presented with.
11. “Higher” Tina being caught in Ike’s web is an extreme low, sending shock waves through the band. When Ike hires Rhonda Graham to be the revue’s new manager after an interview mixing business with pleasure, Tina questions Ike’s commitment to a true marriage. Ike, not wanting to be challenged by the woman he feels he single-handedly made a star, beats not only her but also Raymond in an act of rage. To stop the beating, Tina confesses she’s pregnant...with Raymond’s child. Hurt but mostly embarrassed, Ike kicks Raymond out of the group and doubles down on Tina.
The song chronicles the next years of her life, as we see Tina cycle through 10 years of abuse. In the midst of the gyre, she’s introduced to Buddhism, a religion Tina has said time and time again saved her life. From the abyss, we see her rise like flotsam caught in the winds of a tornado, reaching the pinnacle of success despite the constant threat of Ike’s violence.
12. “River Deep - Mountain High” By this time in the show, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue were known worldwide. So much so, they caught the attention of infamous producer Phil Spector. In my interview with Tina, she talked about how Phil made her sing the beginning of the song almost 50 times. She got so sweaty from singing hard, she had to take off her shirt! She was just standing in her bra singing it over and over. In the show, it’s the moment she finally squirms away from under Ike’s thumb with the help of Spector, ironically an abuser himself. Ike was never featured on the record; Phil just wanted Tina’s voice surrounded by his famous Wall of Sound. Ike didn’t even get a chance to stand in the background. In the show, it’s the ultimate moment of freedom. Finally, Tina stands on her own. It’s a moment of self-actualization in which she realizes she’s all she needs to write her own name in the stars. It shows the makings of an instant classic and the beginnings of her tearing away Ike’s shackles.
13. “Be Tender With Me Baby” Having just heard Tina’s "River Deep - Mountain High," Ike faces the real possibility of losing her. It’s a case of a wife eclipsing her husband. We see him displace his anger, turning to violence to exert control over her and the situation. In the show, he beats Tina and her first born son, Craig, prompting Tina to finally try and leave. I decided to put this song about intense yearning into the mouth of Ike to show the audience the emotional manipulation Tina had endured. Abuse is cyclical—hits can swiftly turn into apologies and Ike uses the song as a ploy to coax her back into his arms. But the words of an abuser are always fantasy.
We transform this tragic domestic scene into a pure concert moment where Tina is performing once again after having suffered horrible abuse. She takes over the number at the soaring bridge wailing, “Why does my heart keep on hurting?” The music and lyrics communicate the abyss she’s fallen into. This is where she has reached her limit. She stops the song to swallow 50 sleeping pills and collapses on the stage. See the inspiration for this show moment here:
14. “Proud Mary” A Creedence Clearwater Revival cover, this is perhaps the most famous Ike and Tina Turner Revue song. YouTube is littered with numerous renditions of the duo's performances of it. In our show, after Tina’s suicide attempt, her mother, Zelma, is the one who forces her back onstage to perform with Ike. In real life, Tina would begin the song with a kind of monologue of sorts:
“YOU KNOW, EVERY NOW AND THEN
I THINK YOU MIGHT LIKE TO HEAR SOMETHING FROM US
NICE AND EASY
BUT THERE'S JUST ONE THING
YOU SEE, WE NEVER EVER DO NOTHING
NICE AND EASY
WE ALWAYS DO IT NICE AND ROUGH
SO WE'RE GONNA TAKE THE BEGINNING OF THIS SONG
AND DO IT EASY
THEN WE'RE GONNA DO THE FINISH ROUGH
THIS IS THE WAY WE DO 'PROUD MARY'“
Those words land on the audience like a weight. Tina’s life ain’t never been nice and easy; rough was all she was ever given. From her parents, from a racist, sexist world, from Ike. It’s a moment where you realize the pain and the trauma—generational, interpersonal and societal—Tina has had to carry. It’s hard for the audience to enjoy one of their favorite songs knowing what’s she’s gone through to perform it. But having stared down death, this is the moment she takes charge of her life. She stops mid-song, running out on the Revue’s biggest number. She and Ike have their final physical showdown. Slaying her biggest dragon, she escapes only with her life.
Watch one of my favorite performances of this iconic number below:
15. “I Don’t Wanna Fight” Stripped bare of all her worldly possessions, Tina figuratively and literally lets go of the past. It’s the end of a first act filled with abandonment and pain. But this song, written for the 1993 biopicWhat’s Love Got To Do With It, was a perfect way to show Tina moving on into her own next act—one of reinvention. Ending the musical’s first act with this song was a no-brainer. The ancestors of Etherland join her, singing the chorus as they surround her. It’sTina at the bottom of the well, looking up at the stars.
16. “Private Dancer” This song opens the second act. In the aftermath of her divorce from Ike, Tina is forced to toil as a performer in Las Vegas, known in the late '70s and early '80s as the Singer’s Graveyard. I thought it necessary to mark the hole that Tina herself felt like she had fallen into. Having just divorced Ike and millions of dollars in debt due to a slew of lawsuits stemming from canceled Ike and Tina Turner Revue concerts, playing Vegas became necessary to keep her life and career afloat. In real life, everything she was making felt like it was going to pay off those promoters. Though the song is about a woman in a brothel, one can imagine how Tina felt, being forced to perform to pay back Ike. There was definitely a feeling of being “pimped out.” The dire economical straits she faced on top of being a struggling single mother made the lyrics “dancer for money, any old music will do” resonate in a profound way. Banned from singing Ike and Tina Turner Revue songs, she began to perform covers, desperate to rebrand herself. Her performance style and killer dance moves were always the draw even during the Revue days. Night after night in Vegas she put those pipes and moves on display. But it wasn’t until a meeting with Roger Davies, a young and hungry Australian kid with a killer instinct, that her luck changed forever.
17. “Disco Inferno” This number, performed on stage at Tina’s Vegas show, is uplifting, pulsing, and crowd-pleasing. With Tina serving bawdy and face at the center of sparkling choreography, we see how performing kept her afloat through these trying times. What Tina doesn’t know is that Roger Davies is in the crowd that night, prepared to make her the offer of a lifetime.
The song was an opportunity to show how Tina reinvented herself over and over, surviving the ebbs and flows of an ever-changing record industry. Inspired by her 1979 performance from the Wild Lady of Rock tour, it was imperative to show that despite swimming in a gulf of financial debt and emotional challenges, her performances continued to spew forth the fire that moved her from a 40-something, soul-singing has-been to a rock-and-roll goddess.
Watch the blueprint for the moment in Tina’s 1979 performance of "Disco Inferno" below:
18. “Open Arms” While we originally metRhonda Graham as the road manager for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, she became a sister to Tina over the years. She even took over managing Tina’s career post Ike, during the Vegas years. She had such an impact on Tina’s life—supporting her when times got tough—that I knew I needed to find a musical moment to pay homage to this complicated sisterhood that has stood the test of time until this very day. There was a moment when Rhonda had to pass the baton to Tina’s next manager, Roger Davies. I wanted to show the internal conflict that might have arisen in Rhonda when that transition occurred. Sang as a duet between the two best friends, the number provides a window to the fact that true friendship sometimes requires sacrifice and letting go.
19. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” Tina’s transformational time in London is one of the least chronicled years of her life. To fill in this gap, we dedicated the bulk of the second act to that seminal era of her life. Her new manager, Roger Davies, had procured studio time with Heaven 17— Martyn Ware and Terry Britten. Those who know the story well, know that it ends with a bevy of Grammys shared between the artists; but it was important to live in this liminal moment in Tina’s life to show how artists deal with self-doubt and uncertainty, despite having all of the talent in the world.
Originally an Ann Peebles song, Tina covered “I Can’t Stand the Rain” for her seminal Private Dancer album, which was produced and recorded in London. It was fitting to use this song as both an homage to the infamous boggy London weather and an expression of the artistic and personal struggle Tina was still processing.
As an artist, you try to pull from your own lived experience to make the story you’re telling feel authentic and emotionally resonant. London has also played a pivotal role in my life— having a hit play in the West End changed the trajectory of my professional career.
When I interviewed Tina, she told me about the times she and Roger spent dashing in and out of cabs trying to avoid the rain drops as they went from studio to studio to meet with producers in search of that one “hit.” I was instantly taken back to the time I spent in London working on The Mountaintop. I remembered walking the streets of London umbrella-less, doing rewrites of the play in my head as the rain and fog chilled my bones. Homesickness, while displaced in a foreign land, was a killer.
Furthermore, I was inspired by one of the concerts that I dug up on YouTube. In this 1985 performance of that iconic song, Tina and her beloved keyboardist Kenny Moore go back and forth in an intense vocal joust. When I saw this, I knew I could show that Tina was still haunted by Ike. Thousands of miles away, she could still hear his voice. Adding this extra layer of dramatic conflict provided the song with a tension that made it feel like an exploration of her interior—an exorcism and forwarding of plot all at once.
Take a look at Tina and Kenny taking folks to church.
20. “Tonight” Near the end of her journey in London, the moment before Tina takes complete ownership of her choices as an artist (costumes and choreography included) is marked by another moment of intense self-doubt. About to step out onstage to perform songs from her London-produced album for record execs, Tina relies on her spirituality to calm and center her. Launching into the Buddhist chant her tongue knows well, her child self emerges from the shadows to give her strength. This connects back to the foundational core of the show, the idea of Etherland. Her grandmother, Georgeanna, also joins in and we see little Anna Mae Bullock and this ancestor give her the strength that allows her to walk forward on a winding and challenging road.
Yet, despite Tina’s talent and courage, we see another dragon she can’t defeat. When one of the execs admits they were never gonna give this “nigger broad a deal,” it’s clear what she’s up against. The intersection of race and gender become clear, in this moment. Invisible but oh-so real—just like in real life, these execs never told this to her face. Despite this defeat, her manager Roger Davies stands by her side and together they finish the song, reassuring each other in a way that blends into a rousing harmony. Through music, we show that these two will be partners until the end. This sweet moment is inspired by the rendition of “Tonight” featuring Tina and David Bowie here:
21. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” Tina originally hated this song! She always felt it wasn’t real rock-and-roll, but this song was the hit that turned everything around. In many ways, it mirrored where Tina was in her life at that moment. Love is a struggle for women who have suffered abuse. Trusting that someone can take care of a heart that’s been broken by former lovers, parents, and the larger world can seem like an impossible task. But sometimes we have to take a risk and open ourselves back up again to embracing love’s possibilities. Over the course of the second act, we see Tina become romantically involved with a German marketing executive Erwin Bach. When he professes his love to her, she uses the lyrics to build a moat around her aching heart. The song helps to show that Tina is still healing wounds and allows the audience to understand the fear she has about starting a new relationship. But as we all know, great art is born out of great struggle. This song, a flippant "F-you" to love, resonated with audiences worldwide and became her first U.S. Number One record. But even when she won her Grammy for it, she said she didn’t like it (lol). See her Grammy speech for Record of the Year around 1:14, where she all but shades the original version of the song before it was tailored to her magnificent voice.
22. “We Don’t Need Another Hero” Seeing Tina toil through despair and failure—both personal and professional—before arriving at her own personal mountaintop of triumph is hopefully a thrilling and inspiring journey for the audience. But I wanted to make clear that even though trophies crowd someone’s mantle, success can never erase their deepest vulnerabilities. That’s just part of the human condition. One of the most touching moments I had during my time with Tina was when she told me about her mother, Zelma. Despite all the Grammys and all the love from her fans, her mother’s love seemed non-existent all the way up to her death.
Tina’s story will forever stay with me. She had invited her mother to see the new house she’d bought in the South of France. Walking around the stunning home, Tina told her mother that she had picked out and designed everything. Her mother replied, “Naw, I don’t buy that. Somebody else did this.” Even with all her hard-earned success and money, Zelma couldn’t give her even the smallest credit. In the story of Tina’s life, Ike wasn’t the only dragon that needed to be slain. A mother who could not profess her love to her own daughter—or rather the feelings of insecurity that lack of love creates—was another foe that needed to be defeated. We see Tina confront Zelma about Ike and the many ways she mistreated Tina before she ultimately passes on. For real-life Tina, this scene was a gift, as she never had that conversation with her mother—but the imaginary Tina could.
This is perhaps my favorite moment of the show—when we see Tina throw the ashes of her mother into the river (based on true events), we too, let go. Within Tina the self-doubt is replaced with self-love. The hero she’s been searching for her entire life is the shero inside herself. This song has my favorite lyrics:
"SO WHAT DO WE DO WITH OUR LIVES?
WE LEAVE ONLY A MARK.
WILL OUR STORY SHINE LIKE A LIGHT
OR END IT IN THE DARK
GIVE IT ALL OR NOTHING."
To me, this is the climax of the show and its mission statement. Tina’s story will shine, inspiring audiences for years to come.
23. “(Simply) The Best” We end where we begin: right before she’s set to step out onstage in front of 180,000 people. What a journey. What a ride! We see the fruits of Tina’s labor and we understand how her resilience, her reliance on faith, and her connection to her history and heritage helped her become that iconic rock-and-roll goddess with hair like a lioness and the pipes of a warrior. But what about love? Isn’t that the ultimate trophy? When Erwin Bach arrives backstage right before she steps up into the sky, we know she’s won a prize better than a Grammy: priceless, on-time love. Decades later, Erwin Bach remains the love her life. And this song that closes the show is a testament to the power of love.
24. Finale: “Nutbush City Limits”/“Proud Mary” The concert couldn’t end quite yet—we had to give the audience what they had been waiting for! Our brilliant director Phyllida Lloyd and I thought hard about what songs to put in the finale. Because our first rendition of Nutbush was more of a gospel interpolation and Proud Mary gets cut off mid-way, we wanted to satisfy the audience’s inevitable desire to hear these two crown jewels of the Tina Turner catalogue. We knew we wanted to give the audience a joyous release and allow them to celebrate Tina’s triumph by dancing in the aisles. It feels like a real Tina Turner concert.
I remember a time on the West End when I visited Adrienne back stage and a woman was waiting on “Tina”. When she met Adrienne she was like, “but you’re not Tina.” She thought Adrienne was the real thing!!! That’s how transportive and transformative Adrienne’s performance is. You think you’re watching the Queen.