"We Can Hear You" - Show Music Magazine Fall 1993

The Who's Tommy
we can hear you!

Show Music Magazine; Fall 1993
by Rebecca Morris

On the first day of the cast recording session of The Who's Tommy, Pete Townshend was literally dancing a private jig, for no particular audience.

If he couldn't play along with the orchestra, and he was confined to the other side of the studio wall (isolated, as the young Tommy is, except for his reflection in the mirror), he could still throw himself into his music with all his heart: seeing, feeling, touching, healing.

He was feeling, he explained later, not quite happiness; ectasy would be a more accurate description. The entire experience of bringing Tommy to the stage was--according to Townshend, lapsing into '60's vernacular--"a real trip."

Despite the 24 years it took for Tommy, his rock opera, to travel from concept album and concert piece to the stage and another recording, it feels more like a beginning than ending, according to Townshend. Director Des McAnuff wrote the book for the Broadway musical production, which opened April 22, the former winning a Tony for "Musical Score" (in a tie with John Kander and Fred Ebb's Kiss of the Spiderwoman), the latter taking an award for his direction.

A CD single from the score was released in June. Though the cast album was not scheduled to be released by RCA Victor until July, a manager of a branch of Tower Records in New York City said demand for the recording was "phenomenal", and that, thanks to Broadway's Tommy, sales of the original recording on MCA had increased 10 times.

Some have argued that Tommy is not The Who's Tommy at all, but a Broadway sanitization of the music that was a symbol of the late 1960s. While Frank Rich , in the New York Times, called Tommy "the authentic rock musical that has eluded Broadway for two generations," John Lahr, in The New Yorker, wrote that Tommy on Broadway is "the polyester version--shiny, easy to handle, and thin." The headline on Newsday's review read "The Who Sell Out." And John Pareles, pop music critic for The New York Times, wrote that the show "subdues" most of the music and that Townshend and McAnuff turned "a blast of spiritual yearning, confusion and rebellion into a pat on the head of nesters and couch potatoes."

McAnuff admitted there are purists who will be resistant to the music and story changes.

"There are rock and rollers who have very conservative tastes," he said. "That is particularly true for Tommy. It is a time capsule for their youth. If it's Peter Pan for you, you don't want people fussing with it. But it is preposterous to deny (Townshend) the right to take it where he wants to take it. We would deny few artists that right."

The cast recording McAnuff explained is "what's happening on 44th Street at the St. James Theatre. "Pete has finished Tommy as a dramatic piece. He went back and finished the score. It completes one thing that Tommy promised to be--a complete narrative with a thematic device. My guess is the (recording) will exist on its own as well, that an awful lot of people will spend time with this."

Townshend said they were trying to produce the definitive cast album. "The cast album is faithful to the show. I think it's for people who have seen the show and want to relive the experience."

For Broadway Tommy (the musical gots its tryouts at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where McAnuff is artistic director), Townshend and McAnuff updated the story from World War I to World War II Britain. In the first incarnation of Tommy, which The Who began performing in 1969, a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard becomes a star, regains his senses, establishes a cult, is spurned by his followers, and falls back into isolation. The '90s Tommy (sung by Michael Cerveris in his Broadway debut) is about reconciliation: he rejects stardom and makes peace with the family that abused him. There is one new song ("I Believe My Own Eyes" sung by Tommy's parents) and "Welcome" has been restored (it was frequently dropped in concerts). And while Townshend and McAnuff have added some dialogue and underscoring, Tommy onstage relies on stagecraft to tell its story.

In the original recording, The Who performed the music. For the cast album, recorded May 9 and 10 at New York's Hit Factory, the 14-piece Tommy orchestra, led by musical director Joseph Church, was augmented by several additional musicians, including an expanded percussion section (for steeper peaks and deeper valleys." according to McAnuff), more keyboards, more French horns, and a string quartetl.

George Martin, who produced every recording of The Beatles from 1962 until they disbanded in 1970, produced the Tommy cast recording. Martin, McAnuff said brings a "certain amount of weight because of his relationship with the body of work with the Beatles. He brings a certain amount of mystique."

McAnuff said Martin mixed the drums and guitar hotter than the original recording. "In the original, the vocals were hot. George did the opposite (for the cast album). He made the rhythm quite hot. It gives more drive. You might kind of expect opposite on an album of a theatrical (show). The rhythm tracks are higher than when you hear it in the theatre."

At the same time, "you will hear the voices of the characters," according to McAnuff. "It almost mixed from the point of view of the kid, studying a child going through the series of abuses and treatments. The musical is a spiritual journey. George brought that out and made it more vivid."

At one point during the recording session, McAnuff, almost complaining, questioned Church about the lack of speaker noise in the studio. "It sounds very clear," he said, comparing the studio sound to the sound in the theatre. "I think we crank it up so much in the show we get some speaker noise."

McAnuff gave little direction to the singers. "Remember, we want neo-fascist enthusiasm," he jokingly urged the chorus on one number.

The two day recording session was "meaningful and exciting," said McAnuff, especially the chance to be "cheek to jowl with George Martin in the control room."

And indeed, the room seemed filled with rock music history. Townshend, 47, was dancing to "Pinball Wizard." Martin, 67 whose collar length hair is now the color of a platinum record, folds his arms and concentrates by gazing at the floor stoically as he listens to the songs played back, eventually moving one leg slightly to the music. McAnuff, at 40 the youngster on the creative team, is more animated, clapping his hands in time to the music and rocking sideways.

It was, like the nightly exhibition on West 44th Street, a fusion of rock music and Broadway, one that might not end with Tommy. Townshend believes that Tommy should encourage other rock and roll musicians to look to Broadway.

"There are people who prior to this felt Broadway was not a place to be," he said. "But they should look at the craft of the musical again. Broadway is changing. There are a lot of people Des and I hope will look at musicals without fear they're looking at pretentiousness. It opened a door for me, and for others like me.

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