Ground Zero for the Anti-Hero 

Director’s notes by Des McAnuff

 

Coming back to our beloved Tommy twenty years after the Broadway production has been exhilarating and, at times, challenging, but it’s been – as it was the first time – an amazing journey indeed. We have assembled some key members from the original team: choreographer Wayne Cilento, scenic designer John Arnone and costume designer David C. Woolard, as well as our associates Lisa Portes and Tracey Langran Corea. They have been joined by some artists new to the project: my collaborators in lights and projections, Howell Binkley and Sean Nieuwenhuis respectively, and Andrew Keister, who is designing sound. Rick Fox, my music partner here at Stratford, takes the baton as he did for our Toronto production in the mid-nineties.


As a group, we decided from the beginning to do our best to preserve the strongest elements from the original production, and yet at the same time we wanted to embrace contemporary technology. Working on a show like Tommy is a revelation of just how far we have come in such a short time in this digital age. We are able to do things visually and in sound that we could never have dreamed of before. The danger lurking behind that freedom was that we would end up changing things for the sake of it. We have done our very best to rethink the visual storytelling while at the same time being careful to maintain the integrity of the story we all believe in so passionately.


Tommy is, for my generation, one of the most powerful, iconic characters and he has had a profound influence on pop culture. The audacious notion of putting a deaf, dumb and blind traumatized child at the centre of a contemporary fable was a courageous bit of inspiration by its principal creator, Pete Townshend. It is astonishing to think that he was only twenty-three at the time the original record of Tommy was released. I was seventeen, playing in a Scarborough high school rock band called Issac, when we first listened to this wondrous song cycle in our roadie’s living room after band practice. Some twenty odd years later, I was in England sitting in the Portobello Hotel with Pete Townshend, dreaming up how we would develop what he had somewhat facetiously called a rock opera into a full musical with a detailed story. The distance from the original creation turned out to be a great advantage for us. We were able to see the connection between the Second World War and rock and roll. The pinball machine from the story, after all, is really just the electric guitar, so in fact, the largest themes of the story have to do with the relationship between war and peace.


As our dramaturge, Chad Sylvain, pointed out, “the character of Tommy became a kind of mascot for the youth of the sixties and seventies. If Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, with his rejection of adult society, was the anti-hero of the fifties, Tommy was his worthy heir.” He is the anti-hero ground zero, for Tommy in fact rejects human existence as we know it. After Tommy, in terms of anti-heroes, there was nowhere to go. He became a blank canvas for everyone who wanted to pay attention. After his awakening in the story, he becomes a spiritual guide and apolitical force. In the play Tommy steps away from his position of power, and his followers turn against him. Ultimately, Tommy parallels so many of the important characters of the sixties. He is Pete Townshend smashing the electric guitar. He is John Lennon stepping into early retirement and rejecting rock stardom. He is Bob Dylan refusing to be pigeonholed as the leader of the protest movement.


The story today not only resonates but also is amplified by the maelstrom of violence in these turbulent times. Tommy’s refusal to play the role of false messiah and the responsibility he puts on his followers is perhaps a much more pertinent idea than it was at the time the young Pete Townshend first wrote the words,


“Listening to you, I get the music;

Gazing at you, I get the heat.

Following you, I climb the mountain.

I get excitement at your feet.”

 

 

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