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Thursday, March 9, 2006

Who are you, Tommy?

Pete Townshend's rock opera changes over the ages


Special to The Japan Times

" 'Tommy' didn't really answer anything, which was the beauty of it.''

News photo
Jon Conver stars in the touring production of "The Who's Tommy," now on stage at Kosei Nenkin Kaikan in Tokyo.

-- Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who

"It's just like an opera -- the story is incredibly difficult to follow.''

-- Kit Lambert, manager of The Who

Among the music nerds in my Long Island junior high school in the early 1970s, there was a brief debate over which was the better "rock opera": The Who's "Tommy," first recorded in 1969, or Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's "Jesus Christ Superstar," which came out in 1970. Besides being offensive to some of the more religious members of this clique, "Superstar" was considered too slick and, as my friend Glenn put it, "Broadway- sounding" to qualify as rock anything. But Glenn was prejudiced. He had been a Who fan since elementary school.

I preferred "Superstar." As a cycle of songs that told a story, it seemed more satisfying than "Tommy," which I didn't get. Glenn thought I was a total loser. He'd drag me down to his basement every chance he got and make me listen to it over and over, and while I liked some of the songs well enough, I found all that exposition boring. Glenn wouldn't even listen to "Superstar." Comparing the two albums was a sacrilege, and not because "Superstar" was about Our Lord. To him, Pete Townshend was Our Lord. The argument finally ended when "Who's Next" was released. Now there was an album we could agree on.

It wasn't until Ken Russell's movie version came out in 1975 that I understood the basic plot of "Tommy." The first part was OK in a Tennessee Williams sort of way: Capt. Walker goes off to fight the Germans while his wife back in England gives birth to their son, Tommy. Believing him killed in action, the wife takes a lover, but Capt. Walker shows up after the war, finds the couple in flagrante delicto and the lover kills him. Tommy witnesses this and instantly goes deaf, dumb and blind.

The rest of it meandered through an endless search for cures, Tommy's drippy inner monologues, and his ascendance as a prophet because of his pinball skills. Metaphorically, these elements had possibilities, but Russell vulgarized them to the point of camp. The sound didn't help, either. At the time The Who were the loudest rock band in the world, and both the original album and the movie soundtrack sounded thin and cautious. The songs only came alive when The Who played them in concert.

News photo
Dancers perform the classic "Pinball Wizard."

Glenn isn't around any more, but I always think of him when I hear The Who, and I'd love to know what he would think of the musical version of "Tommy," which premiered on Broadway in 1993. His inner 14-year-old would have been disappointed that his hero had come to this, but by 1993 the album had been around for almost 25 years, and Pete Townshend was no longer someone who would literally cut his hands to ribbons to get that huge guitar sound. On The Who's 1989 tour, he reportedly remained at the side of the stage so as not to aggravate his hearing problems.

Does a musical version of "Tommy" still have something to say to a rock audience? Daniel Sher, an executive producer with Big League, a touring theatrical company that's been performing "Tommy" for 10 years and which is currently in the middle of an 18-day run in Tokyo, seems to think so. " 'Tommy' is serious rock 'n' roll," he told me in a telephone interview from Kentucky where the cast was preparing for its Japan run. "It's not like, say, 'Footloose.' It's real.

"The deviation between popular music and musical theater really happened at rock 'n' roll," he continued. "Until the '50s, popular music was also the music of musical theater. Rock 'n' roll sparked a division, and the hope with the rebirth of 'Tommy' was that people would start to incorporate more contemporary pop music into musical theater."

Actually, the term "rock musical" was first used in 1967 for "Hair," so it's not clear what ground "The Who's Tommy" -- which is the official title of the show -- is breaking here. But then I saw the show and noticed one big difference from the usual musical. It's really loud.

In the Big League production, the musicians are not in a pit, but situated above the stage. This "orchestra," which included three guitarists the night I saw it in Tokyo, plays in a classic rock style (albeit sitting down), meaning Townshend's characteristic power chords ring out, the drumming is ostentatious and the arrangements aim for bombast. Even the big production numbers, though choreographed to the max, start full force and just roar away. There's nothing subtle about anything, and if one can sometimes barely make out the lyrics, well, I never thought of lines like "freedom tastes of reality" as being particularly pithy.

Jon Conver, the 26-year-old actor who plays both the narrator and older version of Tommy, told me he shapes his vocals for a rock crowd. "When I started doing the show I decided it was to the benefit of the audience members who were familiar with The Who's rendition to draw out some of the nuances of that," he said. "Maybe even to try to copy Roger Daltrey's vocal mannerisms."

Daltrey, however, was basically an R&B singer, and a limited one at that. One of the weaknesses of the original album was the fact that he was forced to cover almost all the parts. In subsequent versions of "Tommy," Townshend and whomever he was working with spread the parts around.

The musical spreads the parts around even more, giving the drunken pederast Uncle Ernie and the bully Cousin Kevin more to do and, thus, more to sing. Meanwhile, the Pinball Wizard is now a bunch of "pinball lads" and the groupie Sally Simpson is more than just a late second act after-thought. Also, Capt. Walker kills the lover rather than vice versa. The open stage design, which emphasizes symbolic props (a giant mirror, Tommy's bed, lots of pinball machines) rather than sets, allows the action to flow freely from song to song. However, bits of exposition have been added to fill in the blind spots that made the album so confusing. They've even added a courtroom scene to explain how Capt. Walker got away with murder. And some songs have been reconfigured -- "Eyesight to the Blind" and "Acid Queen" are practically a medley now.

These changes give the story more shape and direction. Tommy himself is more grounded, as well. "The original Broadway show has this very supernatural Tommy who flies around and does somersaults," Conver explained. "We don't do that. He's a real person in our production, because we based him entirely on Pete Townshend."

This seems inevitable given the status of "Tommy" as a classic rock artifact and Townshend's evolution from art student to punk to new age egghead to elder-artist-without- portfolio. Reportedly, "Tommy" was born because Townshend was tired of what he called "contract writing," meaning the composition of hit pop tunes under a deadline. He consciously wanted to be the first rock musician to create a large work with a cohesive plot. And since he was also the kind of rock star who read his reviews, he did so with critics in mind. They responded in kind -- Newsweek compared Townshend to Purcell -- and he never looked back. He was an artist of big ideas.

But he was also a member of a working band. The compromises he made with drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, arguably the best battery English rock has ever produced, made the music more exciting but the narrative less smooth. With each new version of "Tommy" The Who became less involved; first with the three-disc London Symphony recording and then with the movie. By the time he revived it again with director Des McAnuff for the musical, the band's only connection was the awkward title. Entwistle, in fact, dismissed one of the new songs Townshend wrote for the play "I Believe My Own Eyes" as sounding "like Broadway, not The Who."

The Big League production takes this evolution to its natural conclusion, by connecting the story directly to Townshend's life. In the "Christmas" scene, 12-year-old Tommy receives a guitar, and throughout the play both the narrator and the older Tommy often "play" the guitar during the instrumental segues.

The musical also plays up the child abuse subtext. Townshend has implied that he was sexually molested as a child, and the stage version is more straightforward about Uncle Ernie's attentions toward his helpless nephew. In both the album and the movie, "Fiddle About" (which was written by Entwistle but suggested by Townshend) had comic overtones, a decision that prompted one 1969 critic to call the rock opera "sick," but the musical slows the song down, making it sad and scary.

Of course, the whole pinball wizard image was a metaphor for rock stardom, an obvious concern of Townshend's after he became devoted to Sufi mystic Meher Baba, whose teachings warned against following messiahs. In this regard, the musical does something unexpected. The ending was always the story's least coherent part, but my understanding was that Tommy, whose pinball skills and miraculous recovery have engendered a cult of personality, demands unswerving loyalty from the cult, thus causing a revolt ("We're Not Going to Take It") that forces him back into his sense-deprived shell.

The musical, however, goes in the opposite direction. Tommy is dismayed when he realizes his followers want to achieve his previous deaf-dumb-blind state in order to reach some sort of cosmic understanding. He recoils in horror, saying they have the wrong idea.

Townshend seems to be saying that being normal is where it's at, a reckoning that would have dismayed Glenn, who even in eighth grade looked up to Townshend as the champion of the bullied brainy minority. After all, he's the man who wrote "My Generation," "Substitute" and "Baba O'Riley," songs that pondered the otherness of youth to the point of obsession.

The revisionism carries over to the finale, in which the whole cast, dressed in white, sings "Listening to You" while Tommy plays his guitar. Thematic dissonance aside, this gospel-like rendition works theatrically, and the entire audience rose as if on cue to clap along with the familiar strains. There was even an encore.

I'm still not sure if I get "Tommy" at this late date. I'm not even sure if it's worth getting. But I think it's better than "Jesus Christ Superstar," at least as a stage production, and I can't help wondering what Glenn would make of it.

Remaining performances of "Tommy" are March 15, 16 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; March 10, 17 at 7 p.m.; March 11, 12, 18 at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.; March 19 at 1 p.m. All shows at Tokyo Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, near Shinjuku Gyoenmae Station. Tickets are 6,000-10,000 yen. For more information, see www.kyodotokyo.com or call (03) 3498-6666.


Related story:
A thumbnail history of the rock musical



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