In the opening moments of HBO’s recent documentary “Tina,” we hear the archival voice of a celebrity interviewer asking whether Tina Turner can imagine making a feature film based on her life. Yes, she replies, but she has no interest in playing the part herself.
“Who else could play the part of Tina Turner?” the interviewer wonders.
As it happens, several strong women have risen to the occasion, beginning with Angela Bassett. Her portrayal in the 1993 biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It” helped memorialize Turner’s larger-than-life story, from her quiet suffering at the hands of her abusive husband and mentor, Ike Turner, to the triumphant comeback of her 1980s solo superstardom.
Now two women are coming to Boston to fill Tina’s stiletto heels and lion’s-mane wigs onstage. In an unusual arrangement, Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva will share the duties of playing the title role in “Tina,” the touring production of the jukebox musical that was nominated for a dozen Tony Awards in 2020. Presented by Broadway in Boston, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” opens Tuesday and runs through Oct. 2 at Citizens Bank Opera House.
Rodgers and Villanueva will perform four shows apiece each week during the run. On a Zoom call from Providence, where the national tour kicked off earlier this month, they both welcomed the challenge of pushing each other to new heights.
“I like competition. I think it’s fun,” says the soft-spoken Villanueva, who previously held down roles in “Shuffle Along” and “The Book of Mormon.”
Rodgers, coming off the North American tour of “Frozen,” jokes that she expects the two actresses to engage in some one-upmanship.
“What you gonna do this time?” she says with a laugh. “I’m ready for those moments. It’ll be friendly competition, for sure.”
Actually, these two appear to be forming a bond of solidarity as they approach the role. Villanueva points out that the theater world has begun to address the ongoing issue of overtaxing its actors.
On Broadway, she notes, it was Adrienne Warren who won the Tony for best actress in a musical for playing Turner, though her understudy, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, spelled her for two or three performances each week.
“This is a turning point for Broadway in terms of listening to the actresses,” she says.
Rodgers saw Obi-Melekwe in the role of Tina while on tour. She knew then that she could handle the part.
“I said, ‘That’s what I was meant to do. As challenging as it looks, it was meant for you. Let’s do this!’”
Even Tina Turner herself is in awe of the women who have accepted the challenge.
“My goodness!” she writes, responding to a few questions by e-mail. “Incredible women — to play me, sing 23 songs, barely leave the stage and take that lifetime journey every evening is so demanding vocally, mentally and physically . . . I don’t know how they do it!”
But of course that’s what everyone said about Turner herself, from her prodigious stage presence fronting the Ike and Tina Turner Revue to her epic comeback, when she toured the world for two decades.
Retired from the stage since her 50th anniversary tour in 2008, she now lives on a Lake Zurich estate in Switzerland with her husband, Erwin Bach. In her recent book, “Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good,” she explained how her “Buddhist/Baptist” beliefs led her to forgiveness.
“I truly believe that it is possible to turn poison into medicine,” she writes in her e-mail.
As part of her preparation for the role, Rodgers listened to the audiobook version of “Happiness Becomes You.” She sometimes walked down the street with it playing on a portable speaker. “I am a woman of faith,” she says. “I believe in the power of manifestation.
“Tina is always talking about how every single moment of her life, she had to look at it as a stage,” Rodgers says. “She stopped everything in her way, and not in a mean way. She just said, ‘I’m not letting y’all control me anymore.’ Her belief in who she was is the most powerful thing to me.”
Beyond the relative newcomers sharing the lead role, the musical has pedigree. The book was written by Katori Hall, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2020 comedy-drama “The Hot Wing King.” And the touring production is directed by Tony nominee Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”), who also directed the show on Broadway.
The producers are billing the two Tinas as “megawatt superstars!” Informed of that, Villanueva demurs.
“I was not aware of that!” she says with a bashful smile. “I’m in a tunnel when I’m doing a role. I’m focusing on the work until I hit some kind of plateau.”
One episode in particular from Tina’s life has haunted Villanueva: “When I read that she sang with a broken jaw. I thought, ‘Oh, this is a different kind of woman.’ She’s in a league all her own. This is a kind of determination that’s spiritual. It has to come from somewhere else.”
When the musical first opened in London in 2018, Turner took in a preview performance incognito.
“I sat on an aisle, watching the show, and no one ever knew I was there,” she recalls. Back in her hotel room, she told producer Tali Pelman “they found the love. That I wished my mother and Ike would have been able to see the show. I remember she teared up.”
The show brings up painful memories, she admits. But it “also helped me gain acceptance and harmony of the highs and the lows.”
She hasn’t been in the public eye since she attended the Broadway premiere three years ago. For the young actresses playing the part of Tina Turner, she’s more than welcome to sneak in.
“Maybe on opening night they’ll surprise us,” Villanueva muses.
“She can call us on Zoom or Facetime,” Rodgers adds. “I don’t need any gifts. I need Tina!”
TINA: THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Sept. 20-Oct. 2. Tickets from $49.50. www.BroadwayInBoston.com
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.