Adrienne Warren won’t take no for an answer. She once had childhood dreams of becoming a professional basketball player that not even her full-grown, 5-foot-4 frame diminished. And as far as musical theater goes, “No one could tell me that I wasn’t a Jellicle cat,” she remembers, citing the well-worn “Cats” VHS she’d watch on loop.
Considering her already formidable Broadway résumé, it’s clear “no” has never been an option when faced with onstage challenges, either. From learning to flip and stand atop her co-star’s hands for cheerleading stunts in “Bring It On: The Musical” to executing Savion Glover’s dazzlingly complex choreography in “Shuffle Along” (a performance that notched her first Tony nomination), for Warren, it has never been a matter of “if” but “how?”
“Every role I’ve gotten, I’ve been scared to death before getting into the rehearsal process, and because of that, I had no choice but to approach it athletically,” she says. “There’s not a single role in theater that I don’t approach from an athlete’s point of view. That’s pertaining to my training for the role and the amount of practice I put in and the amount of work I put in and how I condition my body with nutrition. Every role I’ve had, I’ve been asked to do something I’ve never done before in my life.”
So when Tina Turner knocked, Warren, naturally, couldn’t say no. Bucking the recent biomusical trend in which the subject is played by multiple actors at different points in their life, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” employed Warren to portray the ponying icon at every milestone and moment throughout her decades-long career.
Although the show was forced to suspend performances on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and this year’s Tony Awards have been postponed indefinitely, it can now be acknowledged with bird’s-eye clarity: Warren gave the performance of the 2019–20 Broadway season—and unequivocally ranks among the best of all previous seasons, too.
“Every role I’ve gotten, I’ve been scared to death before getting into the rehearsal process and because of that, I had no choice but to approach it athletically.”
“I’m her fan and I didn’t want to see anybody imitating her onstage,” Warren says of creating a character who also happens to be one of the most famous people in the world. “I’m not here for that. Also, impossible. I felt like if I was really going to do this and make it somewhat successful and not a gimmick, I needed to find her voice within my own voice, to find her moves within my body and not try to be a carbon copy of her. It was studying the way in which she attacks her consonants, the way in which she forms her vowels, specifically when she sings. All of those things became very informative for me, and I started there.”
In truth, she actually started several years earlier, though it was unbeknown to her at the time. “My manager called and said, ‘There’s a table read of this new show. Will you go get the script?’ ” she recalls. “She didn’t tell me anything else. So, I went to go get the script and I opened it and I saw what it was. And then I looked at them and I said, ‘Well, what role do you want me to read for?’ ”
As anyone who had the chance to see her in the title role—either in London, where she originated the part in 2018 and was subsequently nominated for an Olivier Award, or on Broadway, where she opened the show last November—can attest, there are reasons beyond sheer talent that Warren was suited to step into Turner’s strappy shoes. In addition to looking, singing, and dancing—oh, the dancing—the part, Warren has that “thing” that can’t be achieved through any amount of training, an intangible it factor that has always separated the great from the legendary.
The thought of coasting on charm, however, is anathema to someone like Warren, who, even over Zoom, is glowing like a candle on this late June morning. “We often are afraid to dive deep into our weaknesses,” she says. “But we are doing ourselves a disservice by not leaning into our weaknesses, not taking the time to go to class anymore, not taking the time to say, ‘I haven’t been working very much on monologues,’ or ‘I haven’t been working on my singing.’ Go to class, nurture yourself, learn, build yourself up.
“No one wants to hear, ‘You’ve got work to do,’ because as soon as you do,” she adds, “that means you’ve actually got to go put in the work.”
Even before she began seriously pursuing acting, Warren was a categorical workhorse—sometimes to a fault. When she was growing up in Virginia, her parents were coaches and educators, and they instilled the perseverance she swears by today. “My dad has always said, ‘Everyone’s talented, but never let them outwork you,’ ” she says. “And that’s been to my detriment, too. I work so hard sometimes, I kind of forget about everything else.”
Though up until that point, theater had been the back-seat hobby to her consuming focus on sports, she auditioned for and was accepted to the prestigious Governor’s School for the Arts—“like a ‘Fame’ school,” she says. From there, it was game over. “I ended up just falling in love with theater, and I decided, ‘I’m going to do this as a career.’ ”
The school had a rigorous training program, concentrating largely on singing and dancing. During assessment periods, Warren remembers, “I had to kick my face in 3-inch heels, I had to do a triple pirouette, I had to belt a high C.” By the time she graduated, she felt ready for Broadway. In reality, that was when the most seminal work of her career began. Attending Marymount Manhattan College, 25 blocks north of Broadway’s bright lights, Warren would spend the next four years honing the acting part of her performer’s toolkit.
“Going to Marymount was very exciting, because I was spending a lot of time on my acting. I would take dance classes every morning in Midtown and then I would go to school and be in class all night,” she says. “I would do whatever I could to kind of surround myself with things I felt like I needed to work on. Marymount was pivotal in my career, because it was a time when I got to actually work on something that I needed to strengthen, and that was my acting.”
Going to school in New York City gave Warren a head start in getting the lay of the frequently treacherous land of Broadway. (She used her meager allowance to see Broadway shows for inspiration, including Chita Rivera’s final performance in “The Dancer’s Life.”) When she eventually graduated in 2009, she was hoping to go out for third-girl-from-the-left ensemble roles. But something else happened.
“Wait, why am I being pushed closer and closer to the center?” she asked herself. “Oh, because I spent four years on my acting when I already had my vocal training and my dancing. Oh, that’s why.”
She was prepared. She was so prepared, in fact, that when it came to auditioning, she had to consciously loosen her grasp on some of the training she’d received in order to parse material with openness and discover the places where it could be imbued with specificity.
“The best thing to do is find yourself within that material, because that’s what an audition really is,” she says. “On the other side of the table, they want to get a sense of who you are, not you sounding like Idina Menzel singing ‘Wicked,’ not you sounding like Ben Platt singing ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ not you sounding like LaChanze singing ‘Once on This Island.’ Find the balance of knowing preparation is key so that when you walk into a room, you’re giving them every reason to say ‘yes,’ because you did the work already. You’re not waiting to get into the rehearsal room to start doing the work.”
Though she prides herself on her preparedness and work ethic, Warren isn’t immune to the pressures of auditioning or of the business in general. And while her footing grows surer every day, she wishes someone had told her early on that as a woman—particularly as a Black woman—you don’t have to conform or sound like anybody else to be accepted.
“I’m really focusing on the after [of] this moment, because there’s only before this moment and after this moment. And I’m not going back to that.”
“We are often taught in school, if you are a woman of color, to sing harder, to sing higher, to be the highlight of the song, to do the riffs at the end of the song,” she says. “You don’t have to do a million riffs if you’re a Black girl to be acknowledged as an incredible singer. Sing with the gift the universe gave you and be honest and genuine about that.”
A desire to lift up her Black peers led Warren, along with some of her “Shuffle Along” castmates, to found the Broadway Advocacy Coalition in 2016. The group held a Broadway for Black Lives Matter event that same year, responding in part to the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of police. Unfortunately, BAC’s work has only become more crucial, and during the swell of protests against police brutality of Black people this spring, they hosted a three-day intensive for the entire theater community: Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again.
“The systemic racism within our industry is in direct correlation to the systemic racism in our country,” she says. “I am excited about the willingness we’re seeing right now to have tough conversations and the willingness to dive into investigating solutions for these issues. But I also don’t expect these solutions to happen in my lifetime, because they go much deeper than we all even realize. I’m really focusing on after this moment, because there’s only before this moment and after this moment. And I’m not going back to that.”
That this year’s Tony Awards could have been a watershed moment for representation means the fact that they are not happening is a particular blow for Warren, who had been the front-runner for the leading actress in a musical category since the minute last year’s ceremony ended.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment since I was 6, watching the Tonys, because I remember watching Audra McDonald, Heather Headley, these women who looked like me, who were on my TV, and they were singing onstage and they were telling stories I cared about,” she says. “I’ve been working on ‘Tina’ for going on five years now, and that was just to get it here. I was just about to cross the finish line, and the track disappeared under my feet. That was rough.”
However, as much as this moment has taken away from Warren—a celebrated leading role on Broadway and likely her first Tony Award—it has given her just as much. It just required some work for her to see it.
“It’s given me a perspective shift. For years, I have been putting everything I had into my body, my voice, my performance, and maybe I didn’t put a lot of time into my family, my personal life, my mental health,” she says. “So, am I sad the Tonys didn’t happen? Yeah, sure. But I also know at this point I don’t feel like I necessarily need a Tony to know this show succeeded. This show is around the world. There are now jobs for Black women, women who look like me, all over the world. If you are lucky enough to do work that you care about—and you should try to do work that you care about—then your focus on the work is what’s important. Not the accolades that may come from it.”
This story originally appeared in the July 23 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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Photographed by Stephanie Diani on June 26th in NYC