1986 was a year or two before my music journalist career really started taking off. I was relentless as a newspaper stringer (in essence a freelancer who gets paid $25 for a story if they are lucky). At any rate, I would also use phony credentials to get invited to events. You could do that pretty easily before 9-11. I was thrown out a lot, but usually I was able to shake hands with people and maybe get some pictures before they found me out! At any rate, I shook Tina Turner’s hand at the MTV Awards that year. I think it’s on video somewhere. So, when “Un-Block The Music” was granted this interview with Nicholas Skilbeck, the musical director for Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, to say I was thrilled is an understatement.
Tina Turner, of course, has been an amazing performer since the 1960s. Her story has been told, retold and retold again. So, how could a Broadway show be interesting? Well…first off Katori Hall wrote the book. Amazing. However, “Un-Block The Music” scrutinizes the music; how was Tina’s story ever going to work on stage? You have to hire Nicholas Skilbeck. I will just let him describe this journey.
“I spent time with Tina, and explored how the music could live within her story. I had to abandon the idea that this was going to feel like her studio work and had to realize that her legacy is in her amazing live performances. I thought it was boring to tell the story through a typical rock voice. It’s been done. That’s very much like theater. Once I thought this was the way to go, the story began to open up. Technology wasn’t so ever present in the 80s and 90s. As a result, with this show, we were able to have a throwback to when concerts were about a few crude synthesizers and live musicians! That element of the show was important to me. I think musicians should be seen…even if it is about opening a pit a bit wider so you know there are live musicians in there. That is precious to me. It was among the resources I needed to make the show feel real.”
The brilliant, Tony-nominated actress, Adrienne Warren portrays Tina. Nick says, “It was never our goal to imitate Tina. In early discussions with Adrienne, I would ask.. if Tina was an animal how would she move? It’s important to understand how the animal moves; their rhythms and timing. Unlike contemporary singers, Tina’s timing is incredibly precise. She sings straight through the center of the beat.” In this way, they hoped to get inside of Tina’s skin, to make decisions in the way she would make them. “You don’t imitate her…you HONOR her spirit! Producer Tali Pelman said Tina is vibrant and spiritual. This is not just a life story, but a point of view. We understood that.”
“Un-Block The Music” has spoken to actors in the past who have talked about their spirit animal, I wondered if Nick sees himself as an actor. He said, “no. I am a storyteller. One of the things I wanted to get across is how Tina’s voice belongs to the earth. If you navigate her story, Tina has been in many countries, she switched religions, she is a traveler. While she carries her roots with her, she searches.” Nick says he was inspired for Tina’s multi-layered story by realizing New York’s multi-layers. Unlike in England, you can be in mid-town craziness one minute, but with an hour drive you be can in be in the countryside.
Tina’s Broadway journey most definitely has resonated with audiences. It has been a smashing success receiving 12 Tony nominations. (Un-Block The Music has also had the pleasure of interviewing Macy Schmidt who was mentored by Nick early on in her career and is music assistant on Tina. (https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/05/28/women-wednesdays-what-do-tina-turner-chelsea-clinton-angela-sclafani-have-in-common-macy-schmidt/)
Of course, Tina is not Nick’s first show! He worked on Charlie and The Chocolate Factory on Broadway as well as on the West End. His other credits on the West End include: Mamma Mia! Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sister Act, Hairspray and Billy Elliott.
“I come from a musical family,” Nick says. Early on, his grandmother realized how he would pick up songs on the radio, and he became a pianist early on. Eventually, Nick went to the Royal Academy of Music. He wanted more than to be a pianist; he wanted to work with music, he said. While the Royal Academy was not necessarily broad-minded in their view of what kind of music to study, “I was wheeled out for special events.” He joked that they tried to prove they were broad minded even though they really weren’t then. Times have changed and their training is much more inclusive now, he says. “I am, however, grateful for the two strands of my training.”
In terms of mentors, it was an English teacher, not a music teacher, that gave Nick an “ah ha” moment. “I wasn’t a great reader…didn’t have the patience.” He told his teacher that he would only read on the train. Other than that, he was not interested. The teacher then “took a pound out of his pocket, told me I had permission to catch a train and come back in 45 minutes. However, I had to read while I was on the train. And, I did it. It was a powerful moment.”
Another aside about Nick. A while back he wrote a book called “The Singing and Acting Handbook”. “I’ve always loved teaching and mentoring. I realized that there were a ton of drama books, but few booksabout what people do in musical theater; singing and acting at the same time. The books that were there, were quite dense.” Inspired by the book “Complicated Games: Inside The Songs of XTC”, Nick created a “games” book. Amazon’s description of the book is as follows: “Using games, exercises and discussion, The Singing and Acting Handbook takes a stimulating approach to the demands made upon today’s performers, and will equip both the experienced professional and the student to take full advantage of rehearsal and performance. With advice on approaches to learning music, interpreting scores, and building characters, it provides a long-awaited innovative resource for performers, directors, workshop leaders and teachers.”
Is he creating games during quarantine? Nick laughed. “I spent a few years making games books and have since left that behind!” He did, however, hint at some of the work keeping him busy during quarantine, but no specifics yet…Stay tuned because “Un-Block The Music” plans to stay in touch!!!
If you can’t tell, I was fascinated by how Nick describes his work approach. He said, he always tries to understand society’s preoccupation at the time. When he began the journey for Tina, he thought about the sense of community. Little did he know then, we would be hit with a pandemic that would isolate us all beyond what we may have been feeling earlier. “For the two or three hours we are in the theater, we are able to create a live community.” In the last nine months, ZOOM has been the only thing allowing us to have a sense of community, but Nick says, “when we are all back in the room together again…it will be so powerful!”