Home Rock Music A Revival of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ Seeks a New Era of Followers

A Revival of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ Seeks a New Era of Followers

A Revival of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ Seeks a New Era of Followers


Thirty years in the past, when the Who’s 1969 idea album “Tommy” was remodeled right into a rock opera for Broadway, it was hailed as a triumph of the shape — a manufacturing that had lastly managed to authentically marry theater and rock ’n’ roll.

Fueled by the non secular exploration of a 23-year-old Pete Townshend, the Who guitarist and songwriter, the unique manufacturing of “Tommy” drew crowds of child boomers primed with adolescent nostalgia for the story of a boy who discovers a superhuman aptitude for pinball regardless of not having the ability to see, hear or converse.

The Broadway present raked in a report variety of ticket gross sales the day after opening night time, ran for practically 900 performances and gained 5 Tony Awards, together with one for its director, Des McAnuff.

With its depictions of revolt towards authority and analogies to non secular enlightenment, the present was firmly rooted within the youth tradition of the Sixties. So why would McAnuff, for whom “Tommy” was a career-defining success, take the chance of reimagining the work for right now’s audiences?

“Typically you simply don’t get issues out of your system,” McAnuff mentioned in an interview shortly after his new manufacturing of “The Who’s Tommy” opened final month on the Goodman Theater in Chicago. “I felt prefer it was time to make it up to date.”

In resurrecting “Tommy,” McAnuff and Townshend, who wrote the ebook collectively, sought to show that the work was not merely of an period, however carried the promise of timelessness.

In 2023, McAnuff argues, Tommy’s transformation from catatonic schoolboy to a type of charismatic cult chief resonates much more strongly when contemplating the modern-day tradition of superstar worship. And the present’s exploration of trauma — together with post-traumatic stress dysfunction, sexual abuse and bullying — is one thing that audiences now have a a lot deeper understanding of.

The reimagining of “Tommy” isn’t a lot in story however in type, with McAnuff choosing futuristic austerity over Sixties nostalgia. Tommy shows his ability not on a kitschy pinball machine however a spare set piece (designed by David Korins) through which the define of a machine is represented by slender panels of sunshine. The character cult that encircles Tommy feels extra sinister than within the authentic manufacturing.

The manufacturing, which runs by Aug. 6, has acquired rave evaluations in Chicago, with the critic Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune calling it a “ready-for-prime-time stunner.” The Goodman says the present is on observe to be its highest-grossing manufacturing ever, a boon for the group throughout a time of excessive nervousness round regional theater’s post-pandemic return. The present’s industrial producer, Stephen Gabriel, mentioned a number of choices for the manufacturing’s future are being weighed, together with a Broadway run.

The story on the heart of this manufacturing is way the identical because the one the Who instructed when it performed its new album at Woodstock in 1969.

A 4-year-old Tommy watches as his father — a British Military captain believed to have died whereas on obligation — exhibits up on the household’s dwelling, in the end killing the mom’s new lover through the ensuing struggle. Tommy then loses his senses, changing into the sufferer of sexual abuse by his uncle, relentless bullying by his cousin and medical exploitation by a military of invasive docs. After the world discovers his beautiful expertise for pinball, he turns into a messiah-like determine with a band of devoted followers.

Whether or not “Tommy” can change into a nationwide phenomenon once more, and never only a nostalgic tribute, relies upon, partly, on its capability to seize a brand new viewers.

McAnuff sees Ali Louis Bourzgui, the 23-year-old lead, because the present’s “doorway to Gen Z” — although not lengthy out of faculty and largely unknown, he’s considered by the director as a pure star who shall be interesting to a brand new technology of potential “Tommy” followers.

To Bourzgui, Tommy’s meteoric rise has parallels to the frenzy over sure social media influencers, artists or tech gurus.

“He will get crammed up by his followers,” Bourzgui mentioned. “He retains feeding off that, getting extra gluttonous with energy, till he realizes they’re following him as a result of they need to feed off his trauma.”

Bourzgui was born 30 years after the discharge of “Tommy” the album, however he has his personal reminiscence of his first hear — to the vinyl, the truth is — in a pal’s condominium his freshman yr. He remembers feeling moved by the music, if not a little bit bit befuddled by the plot. (McAnuff likes to name the story a “fable,” gesturing on the suspension of disbelief required to simply accept Tommy’s arc from silent baby to pinball wizard to cult chief.)

In preparation for the function, Bourzgui pored over efficiency movies of the Who on YouTube, discovering himself in awe of the band’s magnetism. Cautious of falling into mimicry, he hasn’t watched movies of the sooner manufacturing.

“We’re not within the enterprise of presenting museum items,” mentioned Roche Schulfer, the Goodman’s government director, who was approached about staging “Tommy” earlier than the pandemic upended the theater world.

Schulfer was persuaded by McAnuff and Townshend’s concepts for an replace in addition to their consideration of how sure themes and language may translate onstage right now.

The query is one which theater makers throughout the nation are grappling with: Ought to revived works be altered to align with the worldviews and sensitivities of present-day audiences?

In “Tommy,” McAnuff and Townshend’s reply was, largely, no.

For instance, the lyrics “deaf, dumb and blind” are central to among the album’s hits, together with its most well-known: “Pinball Wizard.” When Townshend initially wrote “Tommy” within the Sixties, the phrase “dumb” was generally used to confer with somebody who was nonverbal, however it’s now thought-about to be an offensive and archaic time period. McAnuff mentioned that he and Townshend didn’t significantly contemplate altering that language, viewing it as an excessive amount of of a lyrical departure in foundational songs corresponding to “Wonderful Journey.”

“‘Sensory impaired’ — I don’t assume it might work,” McAnuff mentioned. “I believe it’s a tune that has a specific amount of pedigree and dignity.”

The story behind the idea, Townshend instructed an interviewer within the Seventies, got here from his devotion in his early 20s to the writings of the Indian non secular chief Meher Baba — additionally an inspiration for one of many Who’s greatest hits, “Baba O’Riley” — who taught, as he put it, that as people, “there are entire chunks of life, together with the entire idea of actuality, which escapes us.”

Over time, Townshend has described the character of Tommy as autistic, explaining that his situation was a metaphor for humanity’s restricted view of actuality.

Revivals over time, together with one by McAnuff a decade in the past in Ontario, Canada, have given the ebook writers the chance to re-examine the present’s dealing with of delicate points. Round that point, Townshend acknowledged in an interview that the rock opera doesn’t permit for clarification or dialogue round severe points corresponding to sexual abuse, however that audiences can contemplate these subjects themselves in a contemporary context.

“We now have to reside with the rock opera model that we did 20 years in the past,” Townshend mentioned on the time. “We additionally must reside with the truth that ‘Tommy’ began as a rock opera in 1968, ’69. And but instances have modified. Attitudes have modified.”

Within the Nineties, McAnuff, who first developed the present at La Jolla Playhouse in California, staged the sexual abuse scene in such a method that had no need for alterations right now. A revolving mattress suggests the violation with none vital bodily contact — an method the director views as key to defending the kid actors concerned within the present.

After the Broadway debut, there have been some complaints that the scene was much less daring than the one in Ken Russell’s provocative 1975 movie, to which McAnuff responded, “That’s an actual little boy up there. Does anybody really need me to abuse that baby to get the concept throughout?”

Essentially the most vital change within the Chicago manufacturing on the problem of abuse is the elimination of a brief tune, “Tommy’s Vacation Camp,” that brings again the sexually abusive uncle in a method that now not appeared mandatory, McAnuff mentioned. There may be additionally some toned-down staging in “The Acid Queen,” the wailing barnburner — carried out by Tina Turner within the movie model — through which Tommy’s father takes him to a prostitute and con artist who guarantees to treatment his situation with medicine.

With out being too heavy handed in any moralistic messaging, McAnuff hopes the viewers sees what the intent of the work has been because the starting.

“On the finish of the day, we painting what occurs to him to not condone it however to sentence it,” McAnuff mentioned. “And I believe that’s the perspective of the entire piece.”



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