'Tommy' becomes a pinball wizard on Broadway

April 22, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

New York -- From those first thunderous chords, the Who' "Tommy" has an exhilarating familiarity. Guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, signature French horn: "You know you're in 'Tommy'-land," says Joseph Church, music director of the rock opera that opens on Broadway tonight.

"The music is extremely carefully structured to be a really amazing journey, to take the listener on a trip," Mr. Church explains.

"Tommy's" amazing journey to Broadway began in 1969 when British rocker Pete Townshend's band, the Who, released his tour de force, a double-album about boy struck deaf, mute and blind, who becomes a pinball wizard ("sure plays a mean pinball") and messiah ("see me, feel me, touch me, heal me").

Performed by the group at Woodstock in 1969 and at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1970, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972, filmed by Ken Russell in an overwrought 1975 version, "Tommy" was last presented onstage for its 20th anniversary by a reunited Who in 1989.

This new blow-out Broadway version has been reworked by Mr. Townshend in collaboration with Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse, where it debuted in July and ran for 110 sold-out shows.

For the year and a half they labored on this "Tommy," Mr. Townshend, 47, and Mr. McAnuff, 40, kept in mind the strong associations many hold for the work.

"We're competing with performances people saw while on the perfect hallucinogenic drug, or while they were madly in love," says Mr. McAnuff.

"This is not a resurrection. There's never been a finished stage project that's had Townshend's involvement, let alone blessing," says Mr. McAnuff, who is directing "Tommy's" 30-member cast.

The original "Tommy," created when Mr. Townshend was 22, never had a libretto or score. Mr. Townshend and Mr. McAnuff worked together on the book and updated the plot from the World War I era to the London of the 1940s in which Mr. Townshend grew up.

Over time, the cerebral Mr. Townshend has also come to recognize the link between Tommy's messianic pinball wizardry and his own amazing journey: a poor boy who grows up to become a legendary rock star.

"It's probably more my story than almost anything I've ever done," he told a San Diego writer before the La Jolla opening. "It's about my life. It's about my childhood. It's about the way I see it."

Mr. Townshend fended off earlier efforts to mount a full-blown production. But on Friday, Sept. 13, 1991, he fell off a rented bicycle and broke his wrist in about 20 places. He realized that he might never again be the guitarist he once was.

"I really felt my life as a musician was over," he has recalled. "And I started to think seriously about how I was going to spend the rest of my life."

Now Mr. Townshend says that he wants to create other works for the theater: "I've waited a long time, sitting on various rights like a mother hen, for some sign that the public is ready to fill theaters to see my shows rather than [concert halls] to see the Who."

His collaboration with Mr. McAnuff began in November 1991.

"Hundreds and hundreds" of hours of conversation ensued during the following months, says Mr. McAnuff, who won a 1985 Tony Award for directing the musical "Big River." The two exchanged ideas about the show, and Mr. Townshend began mining childhood memories. There were trips back and forth between London and La Jolla, trans-Atlantic faxes. They would spend intense four- and five-day periods together, during which time, Mr. McAnuff says, "We would tend to shut everything else out."

"The story of the original 'Tommy' album was deliberately shaded," Mr. Townshend has explained. "Once I was prepared to tell the truth to Des, he was able to help me unveil the drama beneath the surface. I think I have been as surprised as everyone else at the emotive strength of the story."

Tommy Walker, at age 4, witnesses his father kill his mother's lover, and is warned by his parents: "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life!" He recedes then into his own world of deafness, muteness and blindness. ("Tommy, can you hear me?" one song implores.)

The character of Tommy is an "empty vessel," says Mr. McAnuff. "We can all pour ourselves into the vessel," he adds, calling it "a brilliant dramatic device."

Michael Cerveris, who plays Tommy as a young man, originated the role in La Jolla. Getting to work with the legendary Mr. Townshend was "definitely intimidating," says the 32-year-old actor.

The music is similar to that of the original "Tommy" album, enhanced by synthesizers and additional orchestration. "Harmonically and melodically it's simple, but it's not at all simplistic," says music director Church of Mr. Townshend's 25-year-old creation.

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