September 21, 2020

1987-03-25 – Indiana Gazette

1987 03 25 Indiana_Gazette_Wed__Mar_25__1987_

’Tommy’ scores
by relying on
original music

By PERRY STEWART
Fort Worth Stor-Telegrorn

DALLAS — That new show, "Tom-
my," has launched its national tour
in Dallas.

No. you haven’t uantum-leaped
back to 1969, when t e British rock
group The Who recorded a rock
opera about a deaf, mute and blind
pinball champion — or to 1975, when
director Ken Russell's hallucinogen-
ic vision of “Tommy" splattered the
movne screens.

The production playin the Music
Hall in Fair Park Is a hy rid. a new
strain, but one not devoid of genetic
Throwbacks. In that respect, it
claims more kinship to 1969 than to
1975. The show‘s official billing ——
“The Who’s Tommy" — is your first
clue. Its director and coadaptor,
Des McAnuff. happily reinforces the
back-to—the-roots theory.

“The film wasn’t a real influence
at all." McAnuff said in a recent
telephone interview. “I saw it when
it came out, but all I remember are
images of it. If on asked me to
storyboard that ilm, I would fail
miserably. No, we went back to the
original recording."

The “we" is McAnul‘f and Pete
Townshend, The Who guitarist who
wrote most of the music for the
ori inal “Tommy” album - which
inc uded such breakout hits as “Pin-
ball Wizard.“ "I‘m Free" and “See
Me, Touch Me." Townshend hus-
banded the roperty for more than a
decade whi e waiting. in his words,
“for some sign that the public is
ready to come to the theater to see
my shows rather than sports arenas
to see The Who.”

The time seems to have arrived.
When “The Who‘s Tommy" arrived
in New York last spring, it had the
best secondsday ticket sales in
Broadway history.

Why now?

“I think to some extent theater
technology and crafts and aesthetics
have just now caught up to electric
music." McAnuft‘ said. “The the-
ater, particularly the commercial
theater. tends to be slow to change

and cautious. It has its own pace of
evolving.

“When electric music came along
in the ‘505 and '605, the popular
theater had a fairly difficult time
absorbing it. And for a whole host of
reasons -— one of which has to do
simply with technology- Ten years
ago, we couldn‘t have done this
‘Tommy."'

For a hint at the extent to which
“Tommy" and technology are
linked, glance at the rock opera’s
honors list: Tonys for scenic and
lighting design. Drama Desk
Awards for sets, lighting and sound.

McAnuiT was born 41 years ago in
Illinois to Canadian arents. He left
this country as a abe in arms.
under tragic and poignant circum-
stances.

“My father was killed in a car
crash in the small town of Princeton,
111-, six months before I was born."
he said. “My mother went home and
buried him in Canada, but came
back to Princeton to give birth to
me. She figured the closest relation-
ship 1 would have with my father
would be if the same doctor that
tried to save him delivered me. Six
weeks later we moved back to
Canada.

“I finally went to visit that town
when I did a national tour with ‘Big
River‘ in ‘85. And 1 got to meet the
doctor.“

McAnuff won his first Tony for
directing “Big River“ on Broadway.
He won the second one for the
“Tommy“ production still running
at the St. J ames Theatre. He is most
identified in theater circles with
California‘s La Jolla Playhouse.
where he has been artistic director
for a decade. Not accidentally, “The
Who’s Tommy“ was developed at La
Jolla — like “Big River" before it.

McAnui‘f and Townshend met in
London's Portobello Hotel in No-
vember 1991. at a meeting arranged
by various producer types. The two
men teamed they shared a bit of
family heritage. Both of their l'a-
thers had served in the Royal Air
Force (as did the father of Tommy,
the title character).