Singing was merely something Ruva Ngwenya considered to be her “party trick”. Instead, Ruva Ngwenya describes herself as being a sports fanatic during her early years at Kew High School.
“I did all the sports – volleyball, netball,” commented Nwenya. “And then the drama teacher found out I was actually the party trick singer and I was told that I must do the school musical.”
Kew High School was doing Leader of the Pack, an American jukebox musical based of the life and music of singer/songwriter Ellie Greenwich. Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry wrote ‘River Deep Mountain High’ for Tina Turner.
“And so I was bestowed with the opportunity to play Tina (Turner) and sing ‘River Deep Mountain High’ in this school musical. I’d never been in a school musical.” explained Nwenya.
Ruva Ngwenya admits she “blitzed” the role, with everyone amazed by her powerful performance.
“From that moment my drama teacher convinced my mum to audition me for the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School.”
Not surprisingly, Ruva Ngwenya was accepted into VCASS, a move that she considers changed the trajectory of her life. Her latest role is portraying Tina Turner, yet again, but this time in the Australian premiere of Tina – The Tina Turner Musical.
“I think Tina has guided me from the age of 15 to do this and to be here right now,” reflected Ngwenya, adding, “It feels like I’m in the right place.”
Part of her experience of being in her first ever high school musical included a school excursion to see WICKED at the Regent Theatre. Ruva Ngwenya was so impressed with the talent of the cast, she was convinced they were miming! At this point in her life musical theatre wasn’t something she considered as a career.
During her years at VCASS Ruva Ngwenya focused on jazz as her major area of study. After finishing at VCASS Ngweyna went on to study a Bachelor of Music Performance at Melbourne University’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).
“Music and singing is my absolute passion. I always knew I wanted to sing, but never thought musical theatre was something I could do – I think because I was never trained in dance. So I saw myself more as a recording artist or an R’n’B singer.”
However, at age 20, whilst still at university, she was scouted by a casting director to audition for The Lion King.
“I ended up booking the role and I think it was in The Lion King where the penny really dropped: Oh! I found my thing!”
Ruva Ngwenya realised that she loved the story telling of musical theatre.
“I love to sing, but I also love to tell stories and entertain – and I get to do it everyday!” exclaimed Ngwenya, literally squealing in delight. “I have the best job!”
After The Lion King, came more musicals, including Dusty, We Will Rock You, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Ragtime and Moulin Rouge The Musical.
In establishing her musical theatre career, Ruga Ngwenya has helped tell the stories of Dusty Springfield and Carole King.
“It’s been really special to assist in the story telling of these icons, but now I am Tina. I’m leading that story and it feels all of the hard work and all of the shows have lead me to this moment.”
Ruva Ngwenya was introduced to the music of Tina Turner from a young age by her mother and aunt. Ruva Ngwenya said her family really gravitated to Tina Turner: a powerful black female artist who was fierce and gorgeous.
“‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ was THE song in my family! Everyone just loved Tina,” recalled Ngwenya.
However, she admits when she was jiving out to the Nutbush in her primary school years she had no idea that it was Tina Turner!
“I think I made the connection only recently – that the song was about Nutbush Tennessee where Tina grew up and she wrote that song all by herself.”
Ruva Ngwenya says she was always a very animated kid and loved attention, and putting on little shows for her family, but when I asked where her musical talent came from, she said it was a good question.
“My family is a family of intellectuals to be honest. My cousins are lawyers and doctors … I’m the only performer in my family, so I don’t really know where it came from. Although, my mum says that her grandma was a great singer in the choir in Zimbabwe. But I will say this: I do believe that a lot of my talent is cultural, and it is heritage, because if you gather a group of Zimbabweans together to sing hymns or church music, people will break out into three part harmonies … It’s beautiful. I do give thanks to my heritage, my Zimbabwean roots, for my intuitive music capabilities, because it is a gift.”
That musical gift has landed Ruva Ngwenya the biggest role of her career: Tina Turner. Her parents are incredibly proud of their daughter, but have always believed her time was coming, and has now finally arrived. In taking on this incredible role, Ruva Ngwenya knows she needs to remain humble and remain focused. She also knows it’s going to be a lot of hard work.
“I’m thankful that it’s not my first show, so I do feel well equipped to take it on.”
Ruva Ngwenya had the opportunity to see the musical in London and work with the international team. It gave her a reference point to cultivate and create her own version of Tina Turner and ensure her portrayal is authentic.
While not giving away any details, she admits she cried as she watched the ending of the musical and thought, “Wow, I can’t believe this is going to be me!”
“I was also quite moved by the story, it’s such a good drama.”
While there are so many highlights in the show, Ruva Ngwenya said the moments she is most looking forward to performing on stage are Nutbush and in particular, River Deep Mountain High.
“Whenever I sing that song, I’m taken back to 15 year old me and I just feel so happy and free, and I just feel like I’m on clouds when I’m singing that song.”
Ruva Ngwenya still keeps in touch with Jenny Heathcote, the drama teacher who first cast her as Tina Tuner in the school musical at Kew High School.
“She’s a big supporter and she comes to all my shows!”
As for the target audience for Tina – The Tina Turner Musical, Ruva Ngwenya says the show will appeal to a wide audience.
“I would say this musical is for anyone who loves an inspiring story, and loves to hear stories we don’t normally hear – a black woman who’s a member of a minority group and her story, and it’s unique and it’s powerful. If you love music and you love high energy entertainment then you’re going to love it. It’s for everybody!”
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical opens in May at Theatre Royal Sydney.