Ruva Ngwenya Chats

Tina Turner's Legacy and the Endurance of Taking to the Stage Night After Night

Orlaith Costello
August 21, 2023

If you're a fan, Turner said it herself: it's simply the best.

TINA – The Tina Turner Musical has been an incredible success here in Australia since it first opened its curtains to Theatre Royal Sydney audiences in May 2023. This musical tells the raw, honest story of the Queen of Rock n’ Roll and features electrifying performances of more than 20 of her most iconic hits, including ‘Simply the Best’, ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘River Deep – Mountain High’.

The star of the show, Ruva Ngwenya, has been an absolute knockout, passionately embodying the iconic persona of Tina Turner and providing audiences with an honest performance that spans the lifetime of the famed singer. Tina Turner didn’t just break the rules, she rewrote them and forged her own path. And by so doing created a new path for all our favourite female artists of colour who came after her.

Ngwenya is no stranger to the stage. She made her professional musical theatre debut in 2013 as Shenzi in The Lion King, followed by performances in We Will Rock You, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Ragtime and Moulin Rouge! The Musical. This is her first performance in a lead role and she is absolutely smashing it.

Tickets for this must-see musical performance are on sale now through December. Ngwenya took some time out from her very busy schedule to chat with us about her journey to being cast in this role and what it’s like to don the costumes and become Tina Turner every night.

Congratulations on scoring such an incredible role — well deserved of course. So three months into this role of a lifetime. How has it been as an experience for you?

It’s been absolutely amazing and so much fun. It’s been a lot of work, but I’m really proud of myself for getting in there, you know, and going to and nailing it and surviving because it’s a really tough show and it requires a lot of stamina. So I’m really proud of myself, but we’ve still got ways to go!

So this is your first lead role. And what an amazing role to get for your first lead!

I know, it’s honestly incredible. But it also is a part of me that feels like it makes sense because I’ve been doing musicals for 10 years and I’ve been in some massive shows like The Lion King, Moulin Rouge!, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and We Will Rock You. Like just some really big blockbuster shows in supporting roles or an ensemble. [I was] watching a lot of incredible people lead those shows and being pushed and challenged myself in my own way, dancing and it definitely prepared me for this. There’s no other way I would have wanted it to have gone in that getting this role came at this point in my career rather than at the beginning.

Tell me about the process of landing this role. Were there many rounds of auditions?

I did about 12 audition rounds including some dance workshops. And the rounds kept going and going. They were quite gruelling — especially those dance auditions. Like, my gosh, there were times when I wanted to vomit. I remember this time I was with another girl — she’s on the show with me now — and we were doing a dance routine. I was bent over and I really wanted to sit down. She comes over and she’s like, “Don’t sit down, don’t sit down, stay standing otherwise, you won’t be able to get back up”. It was a really, it was like one of the hardest auditions I’ve ever had to do. But on the final audition, when I walked out of that room on Wednesday morning, I felt elated. I just felt so proud of all of the work that I had done in that room to the point where, however it went and whatever the outcome, I felt satisfied because I knew I had given everything I had. So then to be offered the role was just next level and I was just crying.

Was musical performance always on the cards for you? It is true that one of your first on-stage performances was really Tina Turner?

Yes! When I was in high school, in year ten, I participated in the high school musical — which I was forced to, I might add. And so the drama teacher assigned me to be Tina Turner. I got up there and sang ‘River Deep – Mountain High’ in my mum’s leather skirt and I had the best time. It was the first time I’d been in a musical on stage and had my whole school watching me perform.

It went around the school: “You have to see the high school musical because Ruva is in it and she does a really good song”. It was just a huge moment of just self-discovery. After that performance, I was encouraged to audition for the Victorian College of the Arts, which I did and ended up getting accepted. It was this huge turning point in my life at 15 and then to be here at 30 singing it again is crazy.

So one of the editors was wondering if you had a favourite Tina Turner song that you like to sing to yourself? And whether you have a different favourite song for performing?

Okay, well, I love performing ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’. The demure blue lighting and it’s like a power ballad. I just love that. But when I’m singing ‘River Deep – Mountain High’, I feel like I’m singing it to myself. It’s just very personal.

How did it feel to take on the role of a real human being? It’s very different, I would imagine, from a fictional role.

Yeah, it’s pretty intense, very, it’s a bit daunting. You got a lot of eyes on you and a lot of people knew her and there’s an expectation.

She was alive at the time when we were rehearsing and learning the show so you want to make sure you’re making her proud and make sure you’re sharing her story with the utmost integrity and honesty.

And has that intensified or changed since she passed?

It’s definitely shifted the meaning. For me, it’s always been special. But I think maybe for the general public and for everybody else, it’s, served as an opportunity for people to celebrate her life and remember Tina, which is really special and it’s a huge responsibility for us.

How did you go about modifying your voice or acting to represent the different stages of Tina’s life?

That was a very technical thing, learning how to shift your voice and your body can be quite hard when you’re telling a story that spans three or four decades. You don’t approach something like this as an entire show or you’d just get overwhelmed. It’s more scene by scene, writing notes about where you are and what you’re doing, and then repeating it over and over again until it’s just in your body naturally. So now when I get on stage, it’s not something I’m even thinking about anymore.

It does pop in sometimes, a reminder to, you know, maybe drop the voice, speak a little bit slower and take more time. Tina has more control over her time. Now she’s not rushing. She’s in a different stage of her life, you know, whatever it is.

Was there an era in Tina Turner’s life that you were particularly drawn to?

I honestly would say her earlier era just reminds me so much of me and where I’m at in my life and being young and fearless and saying, why not?

I really resonate with that part of the story. You know, when you can sing but not premeditate being a superstar. And she never thought that she would be, she wasn’t like seeking out to be a star. She just had this gift and it took her where it did.

The costumes and hairstyles for this musical are iconic and emblematic of Tina Turner’s style. What is it like to don those iconic pieces?

It’s very cool to be wearing a recreation of something so iconic like her red leather dress or the ‘Proud Mary’ gold dress — that’s so shimmery, that’s definitely my favourite costume.

Does it help you embody the role when you wear those types?

One hundred percent. That’s the last piece of the puzzle when you’re putting down Ruva and picking up Tina. You do all that line work and then you get the last piece, the costume, and you’re completely transformed. It just gives you an extra piece of confidence. I feel so sexy and cool. Like a rock star.

Well, you are essentially a rock star, which is pretty great.

I am!

The role of Tina Turner is more than a musical part, more than a dance part, more than an acting role. How do you mentally and physically prepare for embodying Tina Turner and keep up with all those dance moves and songs for three hours every night?

I definitely need to get myself into a positive mindset. Tina Turner is known for her strong mind. I do my stretches and my vocal warmups — it’s so important — and have my cup of tea. It’s mainly, getting my head in the game when you’re doing a show that has so many themes and some of them can be quite difficult. Well, at the start, we did a boot camp, which was really about getting the stamina. But now that I do it every night, there’s an element of fitness there. That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard.

Do you think this is you now for, like, do you think you’ll keep that level of fitness up after the end of the musical run? Do you think you’d be able to manage it for life?

Ahh, I don’t know, maybe. You know what? It’s so funny because after the show I’m still so wrecked but I actually doubt it!

How do you come down from the adrenaline rush of being Tina every night?

I get home and I’ll have something to eat and then I’ll usually watch something on TV, something light to kind of get my mind out of that big show and the adrenaline is just pumping. But by the time I fall asleep, it’s probably about 2am. My morning starts at midday and I’ve decided that it’s important for me to listen to my body and allow it to sleep.

What does Tina Turner, the Queen of Rock n’ Roll mean to you?

She means so many things like so many things, but the main things that pop into my head are inspiration and opportunity for someone like me. She’s a teacher and asks me what else can I do. She means limitlessness and opportunity and potential.

Imagine you meet somebody who has never heard of Tina Turner if that’s even possible! How would you describe this musical to them?

I would describe the musical as a powerhouse, joyful, gritty, rock and roll blues story. An incredible story of empowerment, climbing a mountain and dealing with the real challenges of life that we all go through and doing it with extraordinary outcomes.

The show is so uplifting and powerful. What message or feeling do you hope people take away from the performance?

Yeah, I love that question. I hope that people take away a sense of empowerment and inspiration. I think this has already started happening. Because when I come out to the stage door, I’m greeted by a lot of women, some of them, you know, have tears in their eyes. There were points where it stopped being “Tina” on stage and became just a woman going through some very, very difficult times and a lot of women resonate with that. It kind of showed that we’re doing what we sought out to do, which is not only entertain but to inspire and shine a light on something that, you know, sometimes gets shoved into the darkness.

I also want people to come and feel empowered and positive that there is always an option for you. There’s always a solution to your problem. You can be knocked down. It’s about how much you really need to fight.

Tina’s story is one of her against the world. You know, she’s a 40-year-old, washed-up figure — who thought she would become a rock star? Like that was just unheard of. So I hope that people will take away: “Oh, I’m gonna deal with my issue, my life and be strong. I can do it. Tina could and she did it with sass!”


If you want to see Ruva Ngwenya in action as the iconic Tina Turner in TINA – The Tina Turner Musical, book your tickets on the website now. Tickets are on sale now through to December.

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