Daniel J. Watts is especially grateful for the applause he gets from audiences these days, because he knows playing Ike Turner — one of the most loathed figures in rock music — comes with baggage.
It also comes with nuance, thanks to his smart, almost sympathetic portrayal of the coked-up, wife-beating musical legend in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which opened this month at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Helmed by “Mamma Mia” director Phyllida Lloyd, the jukebox musical pairs Watts with Adrienne Warren, an electric, indefatigable shimmy machine with a soaring, soulful voice, and a worthy stand-in for the real Turner herself. The jukebox musical recounts Ike and Tina’s rise as a recording duo in the ‘60s and ‘70s, their volatile marriage, divorce, and the desperate years that followed as Tina fought to reinvent herself, eventually achieving worldwide stardom. (Revelations of his spousal abuse destroyed Ike’s career, and he died in 2007 at age 76 of a cocaine overdose.)
Like Ike, Watts, 37, hails from the rural South. Growing up in Indian Trail, North Carolina, he juggled wrestling and soccer practice with theater and dance classes. He recently spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
So what’s it like to play the villain in this piece?
Ike Turner isn’t a villain you secretly like. He’s not the villain you love to hate. You come in, your arms folded. You know he’s physically hurt someone who most hold relatively dear. For any fan of Tina Turner, you don’t like this guy, and you don’t want to like this guy. And that’s fair. So I came into this with the most trepidation I’ve ever had.
His backstory is pretty rough.
Yeah. I went down to Memphis to see where he recorded “Rocket 88” (the tune many credit as the first true rock ‘n’ roll song). Then took a trip with my mom to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he was from, straight down Highway 61. Nothing but cotton fields all the way. His childhood home is still there. I didn’t knock on the door — there was a “beware of dog” sign. Left that alone. (He chuckles.) Clarksdale is one of those towns it seems America forgot. Ike Turner grew up there in the Confederate South. His father was killed by a white mob because he was talking to a white woman. He had a wife who was taken from him by her parents and put in an asylum. He was allegedly molested by a woman on his way to school every day. And all this happened before he even met Anna Mae Bullock…
And christened her Tina Turner.
Right. So I felt, okay, there’s pain and trauma there. Now I understand why he’s inflicting pain and trauma himself.
Sadly, there are many other musicians who’ve abused the women in their life — James Brown, Miles Davis, Sid Vicious, Ozzy Osbourne. Some say we shouldn’t listen to artists who cross the line like that. What do you think?
I think Ike Turner has done his time at this point. His career didn’t go anywhere after Tina. If we stop listening to Ike Turner, we kind of have to stop listening to a lot of people — like all the people he influenced, if you’re going to take it that far. What about Elvis [who started dating his wife, Priscilla, when she was 14]? And there’s R. Kelly. I get it. But where do we draw the line? I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan, but right now that’s insensitive. I’m not quick to turn on Michael Jackson in a group of people. It’s too soon. Michael hasn’t done his time. A lot of our artists, a lot of our heroes, were human, and a lot of their music was them trying to figure their way out. Sometimes the music wasn’t enough.
I noticed during your curtain call, Adrienne turns around and hugs you.
Yeah. That’s every night. We’re close friends. That’s to remind people this is who we really are. (He laughs.) When I come out for the bow, I think people are a little conflicted. Like, oh, do I clap for this guy? What am I applauding, exactly? (Our embrace) gives the audience permission to relax a little more.
How does Adrienne Warren sing full out, and dance like crazy, show after show? That’s got to be hard on the vocal cords.
Sheeee’s amazing. She’s an athlete first. She ran track. She played basketball, too. And she’s been singing rock music for a long time. She’s a rock chick. Which is why it seems so effortless. But this isn’t a walk in the park for her — she’s working. To watch it, in rehearsals, or from offstage, is incredible. She motivates and pushes everybody else because she’s giving so much.