Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1992
That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure does hang around. It’s almost twenty-five years since “Tommy” hit the scene, in that ground-breaking rock opera performed by The Who. “Tommy” became their anthem, and a major symbol of pop culture, with its eerily unforgettable musical themes and broad range of contradictory subjects: spirituality and alienation, unity and rebellion, abused children and religious gurus.
Now “Tommy’s” come to San Diego , in a brand new theatrical version adapted for the stage by its original writer, Peter Townshend, and La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff. Townshend, 47, who was guitarist/synthesist, composer-in-residence and chief ideologist for The Who from 1960 to 1984, has been hailed as a genius, and dubbed (by the Wall Street Journal) “the auteur of rock.”
McAnuff was 16 when “Tommy” was released. He was playing and writing rock music at the time. “I loved rock ‘n’ roll before I loved theater,” he says. “‘Tommy’ had a great influence on me… I have always been puzzled by the fact that Pete Townshend never authorized or got involved in a stage version of it.”
“Tommy” was written as a live performance piece, unlike other concept albums such as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper,” which could never have been performed outside the studio. “Tommy” was transmuted into a ballet, a symphonic work, a score for college brass bands, and a star-studded film (directed by Ken Russell, 1975), as well as a variety of stage presentations with which Townshend had no association. However, he has confessed that “Tommy” has been “a central component in my life since I wrote it. So I am passionate about seeing (it) grow. I am curious to see how it translates to the stage when I am involved in its adaptation.”
Townshend and McAnuff met in November 1991. Most of their collaboration has been transatlantic, since Townshend still lives in his hometown, London , where he’s become an author, editor and creator of a bookstore and publishing firm. “We’re editing, reorganizing, filling in blanks in the story,” McAnuff explains. “But we’re not violating the original material. There’s some new music and lyrics, but still very little dialogue.”
“Tommy,” you may recall, is the complex, multi-layered story of a child who is an abused witness to a dreadful event. He is so traumatized that he retreats completely into himself, becoming “deaf, dumb and blind,” impervious to his external environment. His parents take him to all kinds of specialists — from clergy to doctors to a drugged-out “Acid Queen” — seeking any kind of cure. Meanwhile, Tommy becomes a “Pinball Wizard,” playing only by sensation. His obsession with his own image in a mirror is shattered when the mirror is broken; he then regains his sensory abilities and is heralded as a messiah. But Tommy becomes a despot whose disciples ultimately rebel.
In a 1968 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Townshend expanded on his vision of Tommy: “Because the boy is deaf, dumb and blind, he sees things as vibrations, which we translate as music. That’s really what we want to do — create this feeling that when you listen to music you can actually become… aware of what he is all about… To us, it’s nothing to be able to see and hear and speak, but to him it’s absolutely overwhelming.”
Townshend used to be known for smashing guitars during Who concerts. But McAnuff describes him a “an erudite, witty, warm human being, an extremely good collaborator who’s genuinely interested in theater.” Although he has not spent much time in La Jolla , Townshend will be present for the opening, as will the other surviving members of The Who — Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle (Keith Moon died in 1978 from an overdose of a drug prescribed to combat alcoholism).
Lest one think that this is all retro, nostalgia stuff, all tie-dye and flower children, McAnuff is quick to assure that “Tommy” is a period piece. It ranges roughly from 1940 to 1963 and concerns a boy who was ten years old during World War II. The music and story will not be updated. “What makes it universal is some sense of truthfulness,” says McAnuff. “Why bother to update a wonderful piece of music? And the issues of child abuse, violent acts, falling into oneself and finding spiritual meaning in life — these are even more relevant today. I don’t think it’s a generational thing. ‘Tommy’ played a huge role in popular culture, but I do think it’s a work of art and deserves to be treated with respect and staged fairly seriously. I don’t think of it as a fantastical, psychedelic thing. This production is not exactly austere, but it’s grounded in reality.”
One of the 23 cast members, Tom Flynn, appears in several roles in “Tommy”, including the Minister. “I’m the first one who tries to reach Tommy,” the dark-haired, dark-eyed bass-baritone says with a winning smile. “I’m the symbol of the church as the first place parents would turn for help.” Flynn has also performed in “Elmer Gantry” at the Playhouse, and in the national touring company of “Chess”, both directed by McAnuff. Now 33, Flynn was only a kid when the “Tommy” album was released. But he was blown away by the movie, although he admits that he “didn’t really understand it; it was so non-linear.” This production is “much more linear. It tells a story, but still goes into the recesses of the mind… You can’t help but be moved by the music. The first time you hear “See me, feel me,” it’s chilling. I think it’s one of the great 8-note melodies ever written.
“This has the potential of being a huge publicity event,” Flynn continues. “You’re talking about one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of the sixties and seventies. The media world is ecstatic. I don’t even think “I” realize the full scope of who Pete Townshend is.”
The significance is not lost on McAnuff. There are no definitive plans for the future, but he says, with understatement, “If this goes well, we’re not gonna need to shop or peddle this piece.”
The La Jolla Playhouse production of “Tommy” runs from July 9-August 9 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.