Thirty years ago, when the Who’s 1969 concept album “Tommy” was made into a rock opera for Broadway, it was hailed as a triumph of the form—a production that finally authentically weds stage and rock and roll.
Propelled by the spiritual exploration of 23-year-old Pete Townsend, guitarist and songwriter for who he is, the original production of “Tommy” drew a crowd of baby boomers filled with teen nostalgia for the story of a boy who discovers an uncanny pinball ability despite not being able to see or hearing or speech.
The Broadway show set record ticket sales the day after its opening day, ran for nearly 900 performances and won five Tony Awards, including one for its director, Des McAnuff.
Through its depiction of rebellion against authority and similarities to spiritual enlightenment, the show was firmly rooted in the youth culture of the 1960s. So why would McAnuff, whose career-defining “Tommy” hit, risk re-imagining the work for today’s audience?
“Sometimes you just don’t get things out of your system,” McAnuff said in an interview shortly after opening his new production of “The Who’s Tommy” last month. at the Goodman Theatre in chicago. “I felt it was time to make it contemporary.”
In reviving Tommy, McCanuff and Townshend, who wrote the book together, sought to prove that the work was not merely epochal, but held the promise of immortality.
In 2023, McAnuff argues, Tommy’s transformation from deadpan schoolboy to sort of charismatic cult leader resonates most strongly when considering the modern day culture of celebrity worship. And the show’s exploration of trauma—including PTSD, sexual assault and bullying—is something the public now has a much deeper understanding of.
The re-imagining of “Tommy” isn’t so much in story but in style, with McAnuff opting for futuristic austerity over ’60s nostalgia. Tommy displays his skill not on a comic pinball machine but on a set piece (designed by David Korins) where the outline of the machine is represented by narrow panels of light. The cult of personality surrounding Tommy feels far more sinister than it did in the original production.
The production, which runs through August 6, has received rave reviews in Chicago, with critic Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called “Amazing ready in prime time”. Goodman says the show is on track to be its highest-grossing production ever, a boon for the organization during a time of intense anxiety about regional theater’s post-pandemic resurgence. The show’s commercial producer, Steven Gabriel, said several options for the production’s future are being evaluated, including a Broadway route.
The story at the heart of this production is very similar to the one he told when he played his new album at Woodstock in 1969.
4-year-old Tommy watches as his father—a British Army captain believed to have died while serving—appears at the family home, eventually killing the mother’s new lover during the ensuing fight. Tommy then loses his senses, becoming the victim of sexual abuse by his uncle, relentless bullying by his cousin and medical exploitation by an army of invading doctors. After his amazing pinball talent is discovered by the world, he becomes a Christ-like figure with a loyal group of followers.
Whether “Tommy” can become a national phenomenon again, rather than just a nostalgic homage, depends in part on its ability to attract a new audience.
McAnuff sees 23-year-old Ali Louis Bourezzi as “the gateway to Generation Z” — though he didn’t stay away from college and is largely unknown, he’s seen by the director as a natural star who will appeal to the Generation Z audience. New potential fan of “Tommy”.
For Bourzgui, Tommy’s meteoric rise parallels the frenzy around some social media influencer, artist, or tech guru.
“It is filled by his followers,” said Bourezzi. “He feeds on it, getting more and more gluttonous with force, until he realizes that they are following him because they want to get over his trauma.”
Bourezzy was born 30 years after the release of the “Tommy” album, but he has his own memories of his first listening—actually to vinyl—at a friend’s apartment his freshman year. He remembers his feeling for the music, if not a little confused by the plot. (McAnuff likes to describe the story as a “fairy tale,” referring to the suspension of disbelief required to accept Tommy’s arc from mute kid to pinball wizard to cult leader.)
In preparation for the role, Bourezzi pored over the Who’s performance videos on YouTube, finding himself in awe of the band’s charisma. Wary of falling into imitations, he did not watch videos of the previous productions.
“We’re not in the business of presenting museum pieces,” said Roch Schulver, the Goodman executive director, who was approached about staging “Tommy” before the pandemic turned the theater world upside down.
Schulfer was persuaded by McAnuff and Townshend’s ideas for an update as well as their study of how certain themes and language translate on stage today.
The question theater-makers across the country are grappling with: Should revived works be altered to align with the worldviews and sensibilities of audiences of the day?
On “Tommy,” McAnuff and Townshend’s answer is, by and large, no.
For example, the lyrics “deaf, dumb and blind” are central to some of the album’s songs, including the most famous: “Pinball wizard.” When Townshend originally wrote “Tommy” in the 1960s, “dumb” was commonly used to refer to a non-verbal person, but now it is It is considered To be an offensive and outdated term. McAnuff said that he and Townshend did not seriously consider changing that language, viewing it as a lyrical departure on foundational songs such as “Amazing trip.”
“Sensually weak—I don’t think it’s going to work,” McAnuff said. “I think it’s a song that has a certain amount of pedigree and dignity to it.”
The story behind the concept, Townshend he told an interviewer The 1970s came from his devotion in his early twenties to the writings of Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba—also the inspiration for one of the Who’s biggest successes, “Baba O’Riley”—who taught, as he put it, that as human beings, “there are whole parts of life, including the whole concept of reality that escapes us.”
Over the years, Townsend has described Tommy’s character as autistic, explaining that his condition was a metaphor for humanity’s limited view of reality.
Revival over the years, incl One from McAnuff A decade ago in Ontario, Canada, I gave writers the opportunity to re-examine the program’s handling of sensitive issues. About that time, Townsend admitted in an interview That rock opera does not allow explanation or discussion about serious issues such as sexual assault, but that the audience can consider these topics for themselves in a modern context.
“We have to live with the rock opera version we did 20 years ago,” Townsend said at the time. “We also have to live with the fact that ‘Tommy’ started as a rock opera in 1968,” 69. Times have changed, however. Attitudes have changed.”
In the 1990s, McAnuff, who first developed the show at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, staged the sexual assault scene in a way that didn’t need to make major changes today. The spinning bed refers to the violation without any major physical touch – an approach the director sees as key to protecting the child actors involved in the show.
After the Broadway debut, there were some complaints that the scene was less gritty than the one shown in Ken Russell’s provocative 1975 film, to which McNuff replied, “That’s a real little kid over there. Does anyone really need me to abuse that kid?” To communicate the idea?
The most significant change to the Chicago production on the subject of abuse is the deletion of a short song, “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” McAnuff said this brings back the uncle who sexually abused him in a way that is no longer necessary. There’s also some watered-down theatrics in “The Acid Queen,” a wailing Barnburner – performed by Tina Turner in movie version — in which Tommy’s father takes him to a prostitute and con man who promises to cure his condition with drugs.
McAnuff hopes the audience will see what the point of the work is from the start, without getting too heavy-handed with any moral messages.
“At the end of the day, we’re filming what happens to him not to condone it but to condemn it,” McAnuff said. “And I think that’s the point of the whole piece.”