TheaterWeek -"A Pinball Wizard on Broadway?"/ Interviews & discussion

The Who's Tommy
A Pinball Wizard on Broadway?
There has to be a twist

By Michael Goldstein
TheatreWeek April 26-May 2, 1993

After a lavishly praised production in La Jolla, Tommy the 25-year old rock opera by The Who, is packing 'em in during its previews at Broadway's St. James Theater. The musical opens on April 22 and the word on the 'Way is the show is hot.

Why Now?
"The most pressing reason is my personal drive to move into music theater," says rock legend Pete Townshend, Tommy's composer, lyricist, and co-author. "I've waited a long time, sitting on various rights like a mother hen, for some sign that the public is ready to fill the theaters to see my shows rather than sheds to see "The Who."

The director, Des McAnuff, emphasizes that only now has the technology caught up with the music.

"It's partially because of Shakespeare In the Park and wireless mikes, partly because of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, and partly because of the computers," explains McAnuff. "The theater can now take electric music and present it dramatically. Years ago, with microphone cables, Tommy would be inherently more presentational. Now we're liberated. There can be a genuine emotional journey. Pete (Townshend) felt it was extremely important--and I agree-- to act Tommy, not sing it.

Tommy's rhythm, according to Townshend, is another reason for its Broadway production. "There is a real desire, even among theatregoers delighting in shows like Phantom, Cats and Les Miz to be exposed to musicals based on the basic percussion rhythms of this age," he says. "We drive to drums, make love to drums, and cook and eat to drums. They are simply everywhere. Everywhere except great music theater."

Oh, one more motivating force, perhaps artistic but no less compellling to this latest incarnation of Tommy--Townshend's 1991 biking accident. He shattered his wrist.

"I really felt like my life as a musician was over," Pete Townshend, "and I started to think seriously about how I was going to spend the rest of my life. Certainly, the prospect of future Who reunion albums and tours receded, as did the big buck associated with them." Townshend will earn royalties in the neighborhood of $25,000 a week during Tommy's run at the St. James, and even more during its national tour--certainly nothing to be sneezed at, even by a member of one of the most celebrated and successful bands in history.

The Collaboration
PACE, the national consortium of theatrical presenters, acquired the Tommy rights with a road version in mind. McAnuff flew to London along with the producers, and while everyone was talking business, "Pete and I had a ten minute conversation," recalls the director. "I asked him about the ending of the album--what was it?--and Pete laughed. "A slow fade, " he told me."

McAnuff spent an intense 36 hours thinking about the ten minute meeting. "I'd been playing the album over and over in my car. Pete had said that the song order wasn't sacred, and I was delighted to hear that. I jotted down a few ideas and we met again. I remember at one point he actually stood up and did a windmill (Townshends trademark guitar stylistic) for me and I thought, "This has to be one of life's finest moments." "They're worked closely developing Tommy ever since."

Tommy and Sally SimpsonMcAnuff is one of the most prominent American directors interested in rock music, working with Ray Davies of the Kinks and on several other rock-musical projects. For auditions he shunned the usual show-tunes, asking performers to sing Elvis Costello songs instead. He did have to tread warily however, if only because Tommy is partially Townshend's autobiography. In fact, one of the elements added to the original song cycle is a scene where a fan, Sally Simpson is bludgeoned by security guards--a memory of the tragic Who concert in Cincinnati, where a number of fans were trampled to death during a crush at the gate.

The Challenges: Choreography
Initially, there were some battle between director and composer--over dancing, for example. "In terms of '60s music, you danced to rhythm and blues or pop or whatever; with rock music you stuck your head insidea Marshall speaker cabinet and screamed louder!" explains McAnuff. "What I saw were period steps --jitterbugging to rock and roll. Pete was real skeptical, not at all sure how well it would work. I really held Wayne (Cilento, the choreographer) back in La Jolla. But Pete's gone full circle on that."

The Time Element
"In La Jolla," McAnuff says, "I was very skeptical about:Was this a one-act? Will there be time to do the release from trauma, to do the rise and fall? I remember being troubled by the film. In La Jolla, I wanted and persuaded a dubious Pete--to keep Tommy as an innocent. We did try it. And it really didn't work."

The Broadway musical doesn't follow the same timeline as the album. It's set from World War II through the early '60s, whereas the original song cycle stretches over much of the 20th Century. "That was one of early decisions," recalls McAnuff. "For a musical, you need a narration line. When you tell the story about someone getting famous, you've got to hold back the famous part, because the journey --the central relationship here is Tommy versus Tommy, and once that's resolved, then what?"

Staging Abuse
"Like Pete, I'm the father of a small child, and this experience has been like going to father school. Because we have children on stage. I'm concerned about how this piece is going to affect them. Talking about Uncle Ernie (who molests Tommy), I wanted very strongly to get he idea across without the child actor being at all uncomfortable. So we've used strong imagery and scenic work to convey abuse."

A Pinball Wizard?
Pinball as a metaphor for rock and roll? "At first, I didn't know what to make of it. Pinball was not part of the original, it was one of the last steps. I was worrying about the basic veracity of the pinball hero, so we limited it at first. When (Who, frontman) Roger Daltrey saw it in La Jolla, he asked why doesn't Tommy play pinball in the second act?

"And then I really embraced the image. Pinball was another thing that kids did to express frustation, rage, sexuality. You couldn't make him a rock hero--it's so cliched. And as much as I was skeptical, now I'm excited. It's perfect. It embaces the pop star/athlete/hula hoop thing in one package.

The Musical vs the Movie
"The Ken Russell film version of Tommy (1974) had nothing to do with our whole enterprise, "says McAnuff. "I saw the movie when it first came out and I happened to catch a bit of it on HBO a while back. But for the stage musical, we went right back to the album. Ken Russell worked in fantasy; ours is dramatic. In a sense, I completed it--Pete got involved and we created a book and restructured the songs, finishing the process, taking it from a song cycle into a fully realized musical."

Still it's impossible to resist comparison. While the Broadway version is not Tommy-lite-many in the audience squirm at the visual suggestion of Uncle Ernie molesting Tommy--clearly McAnuff/Townshend duo made many choices to limit the onstage violence which songs suggest.

Technical Wizardry
Tommy is one of the most sophisticated productions Broadway has ever seen. There are five layers of lights alone: In addition to the usual instruments and follow spots, there are robotic instruments, breathtaking projections, and dozens of video screens. Then there's the human puppetry by Foy which whisks Tommy (Michael Cerveris) around like a marionette. As the Los Angeles times wrote of last years production at La Jolla Playhouse:"The designers are as much teh stars of the production as the music, actors, or director."

Still, director, Des McAnuff doesn't want you to notice --at least not too much. "Its complicated, " he says with laugh. "But I hope it's kind of an uncluttered, efficient production. When you watch the piece, I hope you're not conscious of the elements, not thinking, "Oh wow, another projector is firing off."

McAnuff, who directed Big River and A Walk in the Woods on Broadway, declared that while the wizardry is not showy, it is essential to Tommy. "Part of it is the nature of storytelling in this piece. In my first meetings with Pete, we didn't want to clutter up Tommy with a lot of dialogue. We wanted to be respectful of the original. So we tell the story visually. Look at the overture. The Walkers (Tommy's parents) meet, we tell of their courtship, we see the crash, the capture. So much is revealed--without words."

Even with the bigger Broadway budget, the La Jolla Playhouse production is essentially intact. "A dollar buys much more in La Jolla than on Broadway," observes McAnuff with a grin, who is on sabbatical as the artistic director there. "Several times more. And Tommy is not an extravagant $10million production. The Dodgers (the producers, who also mounted Jerry Zaks's Guys and Dolls) always have this strong Scottish tradition of guarding the dollar."

The Beginnings of Broadway's Rock Era?
Certainly baby boomers help make Tommy viable as a Broadway musical. The MTV generation will buy tickets, too, especially with its demand for visual spectacle. Townshend has also indicated his long term interest in music theatre--he also composed Quadrophenia, another rock opera recorded by The Who. So can we expect more rock musicals?

McAnuff would like to think so. "Theater is an ongoing evolution. This happened in the '50s and '60s, when there was no amplification. You had to use mostly strings to allow voices to get over the pit. Then they had amplification, and you could use more brass.

"The theatre is often reactionary. Look at its history. First it was "We don't want lights, we want candles."

"The tradition of Sondheim and Loesser will continue, but I want to demystify the theatre and welcome in other composers who've been on the charts. I heard Elton John is doing a Disney film now--his music would be perfect for a musical, and so would Robbie Robertson or Elvis Costello."

Still, musical theatre expert Ken Mandelbaum explains the reasons that Broadway hasn't housed many rock musicals: "Tommy is pre-sold to some extent. People will know the music so it will work," he says. " But rock writers and musicians are usually not equipped to write theatre, to write dramatically--nor do they care. Why should they? It's risky. A musical can close in two weeks. Why not just put out another album?

"Rock music is rhythmic," Mandelbaum adds. "It's so pounding and insistent and repititious and loud that it's not well suited to drama. And most Broadway composers have little interest in rock music."

Whether or not Tommy sets a long term trend, it appears to be well on its way for a strong opening. It also has the potential to cross over to the more mainstream-read: over 50--Broadway crowd if it hooks a Tony or two. Given the weak showing for musicals thus far in the season, that would be no surprise. The character Tommy sings, "See me feel me ..." and it looks like his wish will be granted.

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