September 23, 2020

1996-02-29 – The Guardian

1996 02 29 The_Guardian_Thu__Feb_29__1996_

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For years, Pete Townshend shunned-his legendary, rock Opera.
Now he has given his blessing to a new stage production. Why?

Roger Daltrey’s Tommy in the film

Adam Sweating

uoo-olocvoooooouco.unloollootuuotnoo

- ESPITE sniffy reviews

by classical critics when
_-.‘ it first appeared in 1969,
. and notwithstandingits
opaque storyline and
whimsica1 psychedelic trimmings,
something keeps dragging people
back to Pete Townshend’s rock
opera, Tommy. "I've lived with
Tommy all these years,” says Town-
shend, “and I always end up in con-
versations about whether it's any
good or not. Our original aim was to
tell a story using a bunch of pop
singles strung together. It worked
then and it works now."

Rock’n'roll archaeologists agree
that the very first “rock opera" was
S.F. Sorrow, released by the Pretty
Things in 1968. Chief Thing Phil May
needs no reminding that S.F. Sorrow
wasn’t a commercial success, but
says “it did break a few moulds, and
allowed things to come through and
be thought of in a different way. You
never know which rock statted the
avalanche, but a lot of walls came
down after that."

May is convinced that S.F. Sorrow
galvanised Townshend to write
Tommy, though Townshend isn’t
even surehe ever listened to it (he
was more concerned about Keith
West's Excerpt From A Teenage
Opera, which luckily turned out to
be, indeed, only an excerpt). In the
explosive creative pressure cooker of
the late sixties, many of rock's most
innovative practitioners were look-
ing for ways to outsmart the limita-
tions of the threeminute pop song.
The Beach Boys had delivered Pet
Sounds in 1966, an album of songs all
in some way addressing themes of
adolescence and maturity, while the
Beatles' Sergeant Pepper was a “con-
cept" album loosely pegged around
ideas about community, togetherness
or loneliness.

Soon, no album was complete with

out a sackt‘ul of lofty ambitions. The
Stones fared poorly with Their Sa-
tanic Majesties Request (1967), but
the Small Faces did better with
Ogden's Nut Gone Flake (1968). The
Kinks’ Arthur appeared a few
months after Tommy and was com-
pletely eclipsed by it. By the early
seventies, the idea of linking songs
into a conceptual whole had given
way to quasi-symphonic progressive
rock. Pink Floyd devoured the globe
with Dark Side Of The Moon, and
Yes's Tales From Topographic
Oceans is still celebrated today for its
excruciating tedium.

Townshend doesn’t want the blame
for bringing suffocating earnestness
to rock'n'roll. “I thought the idea of
calling it an Opera was a joke." he
says. Yet before he wrote Tommy,
the story about a mute boy with vi-
sions in his head and abusers in his
home, he used to pay frequent visits
to Covent Garden with the Who’s co-
manager Kit Lambert, which gave
him operatic ammunition for the
project. “We used to get drunk and
sit in Kit's box and raise
hell. We always used to go
and see opera, rarely ballet,
and I saw them all‘ and I’ve
slept through most of them
as well." The way the
Tommy score repeats and
develops themes, and ac-
knowledges formal conven-
tions like an overture and
descriptive instrumental
sections. suggests that
Townshend took the
“opera" concept seriously
and understood it pretty
well.

Lambert, who was both
Townshend’s soul-mate and
creative mentor, loved flam-
boyant concepts. And they
didn't come much grander

helpful and put the story on paper for
the first time, but Tommy was about
a spiritual pathway, a messianic des-
tiny, and Kit was very uncomfortable
with that."

Posterity swiftly decided that
Tommy was all the rock opera it
needed. If its metaphysical aspira-
tions were unclear to anyone but
Townshend, at least it contained good
tunes and a bona fide classic in Pin-
ball Wimrd. As early as 1902, Lou
Reizner recorded a vetsion- with the
London Symphony Orchestra, with
such guest stars as Rod Stewart and
Steve Winwood. Ken Russell’s 1975
film version was so lurid and over-
wrou ght that Tommy almost died of
shame. Chastened by Russell's maul-
ing of his brainchild, Townshend
wouldn't have anything to do with a
1979 theatre production in London al-
though a decade later, the stadium-
sized Who staged a pay-per-view

Tommy spectacular for American

cable TV.
The Who's last gasp in 1989 was not
a pretty sight, as "Townshend ac-

Does Tommy's return to the West End herald the
return of the rock opera? We anticipate the future
plans being laid by today '5 pop sensations.
OASIS Dummy — an uplifting story oi a work-shy oat who
gives up throwing bottles at Manchester United, becomes
a rock 'n' roll messiah and buys the Leeward Islands.
PULP Jimmy—an uplifting story of a sex—crazed thirtyso-
mething nerd who becomes a rock 'n' roll messiah and
opens a chain of lingerie stores.
GARTH BROOKS Tammy -—- a tear-jerking story 01 a

balding marketing graduate who has a sex change,
becomes a honky-tonk legend and marries George Jones.

TAKETHAT Donny— “popumentary” about the Mormon
pop sensation who dazzled the world's teenyboppers with

knowledges. “The Who’s decline was
public and fatal, and the 1989 reunion
particularly knocked a huge amount
of my personal credibility into a
cocked hat." Subsequently. as Town-
shend settled into a new niche as
Faber & Faber editor and solo artist,
it seemed that both the Who and
Tommy were, perhaps mercifully, de-
funct.

Then in 1992, a new theatrical ver-
sion slipped quietly into production
in La Jolla, California, reshaped for
the stage by writer/director Des
McAnufi‘ with Townshend's full coop
eration. After a triumphant stint on
Broadway, it’s this blind. deaf, but not
so dumb production that has landed
at London's Shaftesbury Theatre.
McAnufl‘, who has directed every-
thing from Shakespeare and Chekhov
to the musical Chess, had seen some-
thing in Tommy that maybe even
Townshend had missed.

“I think part of our mission was to
explore Tommy as a dramatic piece,
as opposed to exploring it just as fan-
tasy." enthuses McAnuff, a gregari-
ous Canadian-American.
“Although the characters
are icons, we wanted to ex-
plore them as real people
with contradictions and to
get a narrative structure
that was as strong as the
score. I like to think Tommy
now holds its place in his-
tory as a major musical. the
way it has as an album.”
MacAnuff has made it func-
tion as a piece of drama, an-
choring the story solidly in
three dimensions.

The new-look Tommy
opened on Broadway in
April 1993, enioyed a rip-
roaring three~year resi-
dency, and collected 24
major theatrical awards. in-

than rock opera. “Kit topped
and tailed the whole thing
with the Overture and then
the ending," Townshend
recalls. “He was greatly

his nauseating songs and enormous teeth.

BLUE Davey — metaphysical parable about a mime artist
who starts ott imitating Anthony Newley and ends up
impersonating the leader 0! New Labour.

eluding five Tonys. Brett
Easton Ellis castigated its
new “Nancy Reagan end-
ing", but the show did melt
the heart of the famoust

Paul Keating's new stage Tommy

merciless New York Times theatre
critic, Frank Rich, whose opening
night review reckoned that “Tommy
is at long last the authentic rock
musical that has eluded Broadway for .
two generations."

Perhaps Tommy needed to make .-
this extra evolutionary leap to cut it
loose from its past. Music-theatre, the
domain of Miss Saigon and Phantom
Of The Opera, doesn’t recognise the
oppressive weight of 30 years of rock
history, and isn’t terminally in thrall
to the sixties. In this world, Pete
Townshend is a composer and lyricist
rather than a "spokesman for a gen- .

.eration" 01' a man who used to smash '

guitars. _
Post-Who, Townshend teok'himseif ‘
to see some hi-tech Lloyd Webber -
blockbusters. and was shocked to find
himself enjoying them. “I wanted to
walk away sneering and I didn't. I
found that something about watching
a play allowed the music to get to me.
You have to be quite brave to sit with
a crowd of intelligent people and say
you loved the music, because the
received idea is that everything Lloyd
Webber writes is a crock of shit. The
fact is the music honours the dra-
matic vehicle, and that's something
I’m going to have great difi‘iculty
with. I have to learn to accept that the
dramatic vehicle comes first." .
Townshend seems starry-eyed
about his new theatrical domain, a
place where Lionel Bart rings‘up for,
tickets to Tommy's opening night;
He's already thinking about future
stage projects -— maybe The Iron
Man. his musical version of Ted
Hughes’s children's story, or possibly
even Quadrophenia. But what about
that first question; why do people
keep returning to Tommy? “When
you ask ‘why is Tommy still here
today?‘. I tend to grape around for
answers,"and I think the obvious
answer is ‘because it’s fucking bril-
liant’. Am I allowed to say that?"

Tommy opens at the Shaftesbury-
Theatre on March 5.