September 21, 2020

1993-04-14 – The News Leader

1993 04 14 The_News_Leader_Wed__Apr_14__1993_

Dally New‘s‘Leader, Wednesday, April 14, 1993


The who’s pinball wizard
takes aim at Broadwa


NEW YORK — What a differ-

ence a hundred miles and 24 years

That’s the distance in space and
time between the first American
performance of the Who’s rock op-
era “Tommy” on the grounds of a
soaking upstate New York dairy
farm and its current incarnation at
the St. James Theater in Manhattan.
And if its evolution from the center-
piece of the Who’s set at the 1969
“Woodstock” festival to Broadway
musical seems conveniently em-
blematic of a generational journey,
well, that’s entirely appropriate.
“Tommy” has grown up.

“Tommy,” the story of an abused
“deaf, dumb and blind” boy who be-
comes a pinball wizard and a messi-
ah, has been performed in a myriad
of forms over the years since the
Who first released it as a two-record
set in the spring of 1969. The Royal
Canadian Ballet mounted a dance
version; the London Symphony Or-
chestra gave it a rock orchestral in-
terpretation. Filmmaker Ken Rus-
sell made the notoriously surreal,
mostly awful movie version in 1975,
featuring cameo appearances by
Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, and
Oliver Reed, all of whom made the
dreadful mistake of attempting to
sing the rock score.

And over the years, it has been
trotted out for special occasions by
the Who, which gave what was
billed as its “final performance” at
the Metropolitan Opera House in
1970. As recently as 1989, the Who
did a limited tour celebrating the
20th anniversary of “Tommy” with
shows at New York’s Radio City
Music Hall and in Los Angeles,
where the cast included Billy Idol,
Phil Collins and other stars.

In fact, it is the central position
played by “Tommy” in the Who’s
repertory that made Pete Townsh-
end a little uneasy about allowing it
to be brought to the stage.

“What I was worried about was
whether or not by doing ‘Tommy’ as
a theatrical production, that I would
be rnisappropriating it, denying it as
a Who vehicle,” Townshend said in
a Manhattan hotel the afternoon af-
ter the first preview of the musical.

The show had gone well — so well
that Townshend celebrated with
cast and crew afterward and in-
dulged excessively in drink, he said,
for the first time in 11 years. Dressed
in a casual denim outfit, he at-
tempted to restore his equilibrium
with a beer; when that didn’t work,
he shifted to bottled water to fend
off the demons of dehydration.

But the morning-after blues (even
in the late afternoon) did not deter
the voluble Townshend, perhaps the
most articulate conceptual thinker

in rock history, from an enthusiasti-
cally digressive conversation about
“Tommy” and what it all means
now that it’s here on Broadway.

From the start, rock purists have
had their doubts about “Tommy,”
preferring the rebellious youth an-
thems of the early Who singles such
as “My Generation” (1965) and
“The Kids Are All Right” (1966) to
the thematic work that by virtue of
being called a “rock opera” implied
a certain un-rock bloatedness.

But Townshend has always had a
fondness for more elaborate musical
constructions. The 1967 album
“Happy Jack” (the Who’s first mod-
erate American success) included
what Townshend dubbed a “mini-
opera” called “A Quick One.” And
around 1970, Townshend attempted
a science-fiction music-theater piece
called “Life House.” The grandeur
of Townshend’s staging ambitions
got the best of “Life House.” But
the songs he wrote for it became
“Who’s Next” (1971), widely re-
garded as one of the 10 or 20 great-

est rock albums ever, with songs of
spiritual exploration (“Baba
O’Riley”) and political skepticism
(“Won’t Get Fooled Again”) so
perfectly written and passionately
performed that they remain staples
of today’s rock radio repertory.

Later, Townshend and the Who
would again conceive and execute a
song cycle with story called
“Quadrophenia,” an album (and
movie) that looked back at the Brit-
ish “mod” culture of the Who’s for-
mative years.

But neither Townshend nor the
Who ever quite nailed the theme al-
bum as directly as they did with
“Tommy.” It is about a child who,
bullied and abused by relatives and
acquaintances, becomes “deaf,
dumb and blind” after a childhood
trauma. Nonetheless, he becomes a
“Pinball Wizard” in the score’s most
famous song, and after literally com-
ing to his senses (in the pre-climac-
tic “I’m Free”) he becomes a messi-
anic figure, only to be eventually re-
jected by his followers.

When Townshend wrote
“Tommy,” in 1969, its abuse theme
was considered metaphorical. It was
interpreted as a parable about how
the emerging youth culture was
abused by “square” mainstream
adult culture, especially in light of its
release at a time when anti-war ac-
tivism and escalation of the Vietnam
War were at fever pitch.

“I think ‘Tomrny’ is one of the
most fascinating contemporary he-
roes in terms of characters, in that
he’s basically this empty vessel into
which we can pour ourselves,” said


“NEW DA DFD wnDM A'l‘”

Des McAnu , the director and, with
Townshend, co-author of the stage
show. McAnuff is artistic director of
the La Jolla Playhouse near San Di-
ego, where the current “Tommy”
was first performed.

In 1969, few asked whether
“Tommy” was a manifestation of its
creator’s personal pain. Ask Town-
shend that question now, and you
get two answers that are more com-
plementary than contradictory.

“I am surprised at the anger
‘Tommy’ carries,” Townshend said.
“In the prayer at the end (of the
show), the idea is that this anger,
this sense of injustice, is so enor-
mous that only God can solve the
problem, and only selflessness
through worship can refocus the hu-
man spirit. I think that’s something I
very much felt in the ’60, and it’s
ever more important today.”

Townshend volunteers that much
of the general anger in the music de-
rives from rage at war, and not just
the protesters-vs.—Pentagon variety
of the 1960s. The story, after all, be-
gins in Britain during World War II.
In the new stage version, Tommy’s
natural father is missing and pre-
sumed dead. There is a new man in
his mother’s life. When the war ends
and the father is liberated from a
prison camp, he returns home, a
scuffle ensues, and Tommy wit-
nesses his mother’s new beau being

shot dead by his father.

“The things Tommy was suffering
Were the result of his parents’ being
brutalized by the fact that they fell
in love during the war,” Townshend
said. “After the war they wanted to
rebuild their lives, and to have fun
and be free. And what they actually
got was complicated, much harder
work than they thought. The kids
who grow up in this atmosphere
tend to suffer not from specific
abuse but from a decaying neglect.
It’s not to say I wasn’t well cared for.
But you always felt you were in the
chorus, that you weren’t one of the
principal players in your family.
You weren’t one of the major pro-

It was a feeling echoed by films
such as “Rebel Without a Cause” in
the 19505, and it carried with it what
Townshend believes to be an essen-
tial subtext. T

“If that’s not what started rock
and roll,” he said, “I don’t really
know what did.”

There were many painful child-
hood memories that surfaced as a
result of Townshend’s hundreds of
hours of discussions with McAnuff
about how to adapt the “Tommy”
story to the stage.