October 19, 2020

1994-04-15 – Austin American Statesman

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‘Tommy’ tunes ‘ '

Friday. April'15.'1994

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[a techie’s dream

Staging The Who’s musical a logistical nightmare

he Who’s Tommy may be the most

complicated musical ever to hit
the road.

When it arrives at Bass Concert

Hall next week, only a year after
its triumphant Broadway debut, Randy

Whitescarver will be at its helm.
Whitescarver is not the project‘s creator

(Who does not know Pete Townshend’s 1969

., song cycle?), nor is he the show’s director
(that was La Jolla Playhouse’s Des

Whitescarver is the production stage man-


“I am responsible for maintaining the
show as the director left it," said an incredi-
bly busy Whitescarver from a backstage
Pittsburgh phone. “I replace actors, train
them, oversee each department head —
electrics, props, sound,
costumes, carpentry,
orchestra. Between
myself, the conductor,
the dance captain and
all my assistants, we
keep the show up to

What a task! Like the
arena rock concert it
resembles, The Who ’3
Tommy is a juggernaut
of lighting instruments,

video monitors, mikes and speakers, tumta-

bles and dollies, pulleys and wagons,
hydraulic lifts and robotic set pieces, all nm
by banks of computers and manned by an
army of “techies," the theatrical equivalent
of “readies.”

The touring version of Tommy carries 22
techies on the road, but requires 34 more
(locally hired) to assemble and run all the
scenery. It takes 24 hours to put up, 12
hours to take down. In Austin, the usual

‘_ Tuesday and Wednesday performances were
canceled so the crew could load in and the
cast could rehearse quickly before Thurs—
day‘s opening.

Whitescarver explained the technical
process, in between directives to unseen
helpers about software and downloading,
cables and replacement bulbs.

“They have their jobs and I let them go to
it. We usually make adjustments when we
load into a new theater. If it’s a smaller

. house, we can’t hang all the (lighting) instru-

ments. For the record, our minimum stage
size is 40 feet wide by 30 feet deep and 26
feet high,” he said calmly.

Whitescarver emphasized that his assis-
tants drive the show: “Each person pushes a
button. I’m usually calling cues and saying
‘go.’ But most everything is routed through
computers anyway."

During the Pittsburgh work session,
Whitesmrver’s crew performed main-
tainence tasks, “doing surgery on cables,
rewelding casters on a dolly, fixing the elec-
tronics in the pinball machine. Video experts

J -

While The Who's Tommy maintains the storyline of Tommy going deaf, dumb and blind when his

i3 ‘

parents implore him to forget that he witnessed a murder (lower right), Townshend has made
changes, such as having Tommy try to convince the fawning masses not to ldolize him (above).

flew in from New York to fix all the monitors

and the televisions themselves,” he said.

Some trade insiders predicted that Broad-
way designers J ohn Amone, Wendall K
Harrington and Chris Parry would be forced
to scale down Tommy for the road. Early

reports suggested that the constantly kinetic
musical was going through shrinking pains
on tour, but other reviewers preferred the
slightly altered Tommy seen outside New

“It’s a huge show no matter how you slice

it,” Whitescarver stated. “Some things were

scaled down, others up. On Broadway, for
the plane crash, they use a simple trap door
in the floor for the parachutist to jump
through. We’ve an entire replicated Welling-
ton bomber, complete with landing gear and
propellers, five times the size of the Broad-
way prop plane.”

The numerous slide and video projections
are somewhat smaller in this version. “We
use a little bit of everything — front and
rear projections, live and laser disk video,
computerized sound, scenery on winch
tracks, moving lights, stationary lights, just
a little less than on Broadway,” Whitescarv-
er said.

Thirteen computers are used directly to
run the show, while the crew shares another
17 PowerBooks among themselves East
Coast Theatre Supply designed and manu-
factured the cutting—edge equipment that
moves the scenery. A sound system, made in
England, automatically adjusts the volume.

“It gets rid of X amount of mikes and
brings up Y amount with the touch of a
button,” said Whitescarver proudly,
adding that it takes two computers to

If you go
The Who’s Tommy


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power the light board alone.

“There are computers inside the scenery:
in two doors, and in the floor tracking. They
tell the set pieces when to move. One door
— you’ve seen it in the ads — is a unique
piece of scenery. It rotates to 15 different
positions and moves constantly, run by its
own computer,” he said.

“The weird thing about Tommy is the
pace. It moves so fast you don’t have time to
applaud. And once you start this thing,
there’s no stopping it. The kids (Tommy’s
chorus) are changing clothes every 2% min-
utes in the first act.”

Another Whitmrver task is to make
sure the original direction sticks.

“The actors really mm about this show.
But every night, there are differences of
opinion. Some say, ‘This is what we did origi-
nally.’ Others well, when you tour, per-
forming eights times a week for a year, peo-
ple want to change, invent. They get tired of
the old way.

The Who's Tommy (above) assaults the senses
with dance, song, drama, n‘deo, slides, lights,
rotating sets — all aided by oompmets and guid-
ed by RandyWhitescarver’s crewof56techies.

“But what makes this experience differ-
ent from any other musical I’ve worked on
is the commitment. We understand that
to the stage the way it was supposed to be.
There were other ‘rock’ musicals, but done
by theater people. This is a rock ’n’ roller
doing a musical That’s the difference,” he
said, relating that Pete Townshend, who
collaborated closely with McAnufl' in the
staging, has visited the touring version in
several cities.

“He lends a tremendous energy to all of
rehearsals.” ,

With all his responsibilities, to McAnufi‘
and Townshend, to the cast and crew,
Whitescarver is humble about the monster
that is Tommy.

“Something goes wrong every night.
Luckily, with so many things going on
around the stage, the audience umally can’t
tell. But we know.”