1 A scene from “Tommy,” which opens today at the St. James Theatre.
A briq‘history of ‘Tommy’
I 1968: Pete Townshend di-
vulges plans to write a “rock
opera” in a Rolling Stone inter-
I 1969: The Who premieres
“Tommy" in London, releases the
now-classic double album and per-
forms portions at Woodstock.
I 1970: The Who performs
“Tommy” at the Metropolitan
Opera House in New York.
I 1971: The Royal Canadian Bal-
let presents “Tommy."
I 1972: A new recording of
“Tommy,” featuring the London
Symphony Orchestra and rock
stars Rod Stewart, Steve Win-
wood and Ringo Starr, is released.
I 1975: The movie “Tommy," di-
rected by Ken Russell opens. The
soundtrack features contributions
from Elton John, Eric Clapton,
Tina Turner and The Who.
I 1989: At Radio City Music Hall
in New York, The Who celebrates
the 20th anniversary of
“Tommy” with a full performance
of the rock opera and cameos by
Phil Collins, Billy Idol, others.
I 1992: “Tommy" opens at the
La Jolla Playhouse in California.
I 1993: “Tommy” comes to
Pete Townshend ’5 story of one boy ’5
spiritual resolution rocks Broadway
— and baby boomers love it.
By ROBERT SANTELLI
roadway might never be the same now that the
Pinball Wizard has arrived.
Tommy Walker, the fictional “deaf, dumb and
blind kid,” created by The Who's Pete Townshend nearly
25 years ago, has turned a usually staid Broadway theater
into a church of rock 'n’ roll.
During previews of this celebrated rock opera, audi-
ences have been cheering and screaming just like they
would at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Rock ’n’ rollers in
jeans and T-shirts sit next to gray-haired men in suits and
ties and women with furs.
As the audience becomes a collective witness to the
transformation of Tommy from a psychologically damaged
youth to a rock idol, this newest and best version of Pete
Towshend's opus proves
that rock 'n' roll and the-
ater can marry without ei—
ther sacrificing its dignity
”Tommy." in fact, has
people in both rock and
theater circles buzzing
with excitement. No previ-
ous version of the rock
opera — and there have
been a few, including a
1975 Ken Russell film and another featuring the Royal Ca-
nadian Ballet -— has captured the spirit or salvational
vigor of Tommy like this production. With its ofﬁcial open-
ing today, ”Tommy" might well usher in a new chapter in
the history of Broadway.
“It’s been more a case of us going back to the original
recording of ‘Tommy' and excavating what was on Pete
Townshend's mind at the time he wrote it than anything
else," said director Des McAnuff between rehearsals last
”There are some serious themes in the production, like
child abuse, drug abuse and alcoholism. But in the end,
Tommy and pinball in particular become a theatrical meta-
phor, if you will, for rock ‘n' roll."
McAnuft', a Tony Award-winning director, actually de-
buted this new version of “Tommy" last summer at the
La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California where he serves
as artistic director. From practically the start, McAnuff
and Townshend cultivated an understanding of what
needed to be done to make “Tommy" a success.
“It seemed clear to both of us that the idea of bringing
‘Tommy’ back to life was a good one," McAnuff said.
“Pete came out to La Jolla; I went to England. We talked a
lot. We both wanted to see the theater become a working
form for rock ‘n’ roll. Creating a new ‘Tommy' was a way
[0 do it."
Townshend wrote “Tommy" in 1968. He and The Who
premiered the work a year later live onstage and also with
a critically acclaimed double album that includes the clas-
sics “Pinball Wizard,” “Listening to You,” “We’re Not
Going to Take It," and “See Me, Feel Me."
Set in England between the end of World War II and the
late '608, ”Tommy" is the story of Tommy Walker, who
in his childhood, is traumatized when he watches his
“TOMMY" b The Who. opens today at the St. James
Theatre. 24 West 44th St. New York. Tickets, $20 to
$65. (212) 239-6200.
father kill his mother’s boyfriend. The incident causes him
to withdraw from the world and become “deaf, dumb and
As he grows up. Tommy is victimized by Uncle Ernie
and Cousin Kevin and society in general. Ultimately he
exits his shell and becomes a pinball champion.
When he finally rediscovers himself and is cured.
Tommy becomes a rock 'n' roll messiah and frenzied fans
look to him for spiritual salvation. But Tommy fails to de-
liver and those who idolized him eventually reject him and
view him as just another normal person, ironically, the
very judgment Tommy craved.
"For me. working on this
‘I think some people thought ‘Tommy' was prole“ Proves ”‘3‘ real 3“
going to be about hash pipes and tie-dye
Shins, things very ’Gos-ish. But we tried to got a great rock 'n' fol] score. I
transcend the pen'od.’
came out of the '60s” McAnuff
said. “It's a great story and it's
only hope we've done justice to
McAnuff believes the reason
it's taken this long for
“Tommy" to come to Broad-
way has less to do with the
work itself and more to do with the lack of technological
expertise to make the story a rousing one.
“Today we can present electric music in a more effec-
tive manner than we could when ‘Tommy' was first con-
ceived," McAnuff said. “Thanks to technological advance-
ments like wireless microphones and computerized
lighting and sound systems, we can create the story with
the speed we need."
Speed indeed. Watching the first act unfold is like
watching a world-class track event. Both actors and narra-
tive move with such velocity that the audience is left
dazed and exhausted at its conclusion.
Scenery is onstage one moment and off the next. Char-
acters dance across the stage to loud rock music. complete
with booming drums and wailing guitars, as the narrative
moves from World War II and into the Baby Boom years.
As Tommy undergoes his spiritual redemption and resolu-
tion, the singing is brisk and full of rock 'n' power. There's
not a wasted second in the entire production.
“We had a lot of material to get across," McAnuff said.
“I think some people thought ‘Tommy' was going to be
about hash pipes and tie-dye shirts, things very 'GOs-ish.
”But we tried to transcend the period. This production
is very contemporary, yet I think it meets Pete’s original
intentions. We use 54 projectors and something like 20
computers. There is no way we could have presented this
production, say, 10 years ago." .
Will “Tommy" give rock ’n' roll a greater voice in the
“We'd certainly like to see that take place,” McAnuff
said. “I think the time is right for it to finally happen." .
And as the Woodstock nation embraces the age of the
theatergoer, it’s not far-fetched to imagine it will. »
“This is one work that can do wonders for rock 'n' roll
and for the theater,” McAnuff said.
See him, feel him, touch him. Tommy lives — again.