He’s a (Long-Lived) Sensation
Program notes by James Magruder
“Opera” is, traditionally, as risky a moniker for a Broadway venture as “satire.” Music historians still argue about whether, to take two examples, Porgy and Bess(1935) and Sweeney Todd(1979) are operas or musicals. In the case of the former, perhaps fearing the associative pall that the label “opera” could cast upon audience expectations and ticket sales, original creators George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward hedged their bets by calling it an “American folk opera.” (Every Broadway revival since has called it “a musical drama” and monkeyed with the recitative passages.) No matter how many opera houses it now plays, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s retelling of the demon barber of Fleet Street and his exploits was and remains “a musical thriller.”
More nomenclature: “rock and roll,” which had originated in America in the late forties and early fifties largely via country music and black rhythm and blues, had morphed by the late sixties into “rock” in the U.S.and Great Britain. Twenty years into its continual evolution, rock music had multiple branches – folk rock, blues rock, psychedelic rock, to name a few – and was drawing upon more and more global influences. So elastic and captivating was the form, it seemed that the combined forces of an electric guitar, a bass guitar, a drum set and a vocalist (generally male) could express anything and find an international audience. Enduring art and amazing business.
Eventually, a songwriting genius with ambitions beyond three-minute expressions of autobiographical angst and rebellion would envision something even grander than a concept album like the Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He could, along with his band mates, create a two-record album that traced the journey, in twenty-four unified songs, of a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” in post-war Britain from a childhood marked by trauma and cruelty through his transformation into a sensational pinball wizard and potential messiah. That genius would be Pete Townshend, his band The Who, and the record Tommy, the first self-described“rock opera,” which since its initial release in 1969 has sold over twenty million copies.
Townshend’s Tommy Walker was instantly as popular a hero as Verdi’s Rigoletto. In its initial release, Tommy was – almost typically –both hailed as a masterpiece and banned by the BBC. It put The Who on the map in the United States. The band performed it as a concert for a couple of years, with Roger Daltrey as Tommy, at venues as dissimilar as the legendary Fillmore East and the Metropolitan Opera. Its success spurred the Kinks, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Queensrÿche and Green Day, among many others, to create their own rock operas. Bad-boy director Ken Russell filmed Tommy in 1975, with Daltrey again as Tommy and the rest of the cast drawn from rock royalty. (Like Sally Simpson at the end of Tommy, I defied parental edict and snuck off to the movie, then wore out Elton John’s “Pinball Wizard” and Tina Turner’s “Acid Queen” on my record player.)
By the early eighties, The Who had formally disbanded, its members pursuing solo careers. Its place in the rock pantheon assured, Tommy still took another ten years to reach the stage in a non-concert version, a somewhat surprising delay given that there was now a proven global theatre audience (hundreds of thousands of performances) for the through-sung and bombastic musical dramas of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. (Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon studiously avoid the term “opera.”)
In the summer of 1991, Dodger Productions and Pace Theatrical Group approached stage director Des McAnuff, who had been a songwriter and rock musician in his youth, about a stage Tommy. McAnuff hoped that Townshend would give more than his blessing and would come aboard as a composer-lyricist to re-conceive portions of the story along less ambiguous lines. McAnuff made a crucial first decision: unlike Russell’s trippy movie, The Who’s Tommy (as it came to be titled) would retain its original period sound. As for Townshend, the songwriter was now in his late forties and had this to say about how the passage of time had changed his tune:
What you don’t do in a rock song is you don’t draw a conclusion. You offer an idea, you offer a pathway, you offer to share a frustration or an aspiration . . . in my first meeting with Des, I said, “. . . I know how the story ends, and I know why the story is, and I know the degree to which the story is autobiographical and the degree to which it isn’t autobiographical.”
Perhaps their most striking solution was the creation of three different Tommys – at age four, age ten, and the adult, verbal Tommy. In Act I, the oldest Tommy appears and interacts with his silent younger selves, comforting them with his lyrical presence that there is a way out of the pain. In Act II, the “final” Tommy, who has largely rejected his family to embrace fame, needs to work through past trauma and face his responsibility to his public and himself.
At the end of the original album, Tommy, in keeping with the mindset of the twenty-four-year-old Townshend on his own spiritual quest, tells his fans to become deaf, dumb and blind in order to find a heightened state of enlightenment. The crowd rejects this and turns on him. In the conclusion to the Townshend-McAnuff version, Tommy does an about-face with his advice: “I can’t be who you want me to be.” In other words, don’t emulate me; look inside yourselves for the answers and live out your own lives. The crowd still rejects him. Following his own counsel, Tommy embraces his family in an act of forgiveness – perhaps the most difficult human action – and then, in a final moment, breathtaking in its simplicity, is able to re-integrate with his younger selves. Healing finds a pathway and leads to the next stage of growth.
Whether opera or musical drama, The Who’s Tommy opened on Broadway in April 1993, and that pinball wizard, a sensation once more, dazzled a next generation of fans. It ran for 900 performances and won five Tony Awards, including one for McAnuff’s direction and another for Townshend’s score. Its success was reproduced first in London’s West End and then at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Like all genuine works of art, the original album was both of its time and prescient about the future. What it revealed then, and what the stage show reveals now, about British culture, childhood trauma, family cruelty, fame, conformity, solitude – expressed through the passionate, rebellious clash of youthful sixties rock – is evergreen.
James Magruder is a novelist, translator, theatre scholar, professor and dramaturge.
The rock opera Tommy, which was first performed by The Who in 1969, was originally conceived by Peter Townshend and Kit Lambert with contributions to the development by John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey.