HomeMusicA Revival of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ Seeks a New Generation of Followers

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


Thirty years ago, when the Who’s 1969 concept album “Tommy” was transformed into a rock opera for Broadway, it was hailed as a triumph of the form — a production that had finally managed to authentically marry theater and rock ’n’ roll.

Fueled by the spiritual exploration of a 23-year-old Pete Townshend, the Who guitarist and songwriter, the original production of “Tommy” drew crowds of baby boomers primed with adolescent nostalgia for the story of a boy who discovers a superhuman aptitude for pinball despite not being able to see, hear or speak.

The Broadway show raked in a record number of ticket sales the day after opening night, ran for nearly 900 performances and won five Tony Awards, including one for its director, Des McAnuff.

With its depictions of rebellion against authority and analogies to spiritual enlightenment, the show was firmly rooted in the youth culture of the 1960s. So why would McAnuff, for whom “Tommy” was a career-defining success, take the risk of reimagining the work for today’s audiences?

“Sometimes you just don’t get things out of your system,” McAnuff said in an interview shortly after his new production of “The Who’s Tommy” opened last month at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. “I felt like it was time to make it contemporary.”

In resurrecting “Tommy,” McAnuff and Townshend, who wrote the book together, sought to prove that the work was not simply of an era, but carried the promise of timelessness.

In 2023, McAnuff argues, Tommy’s transformation from catatonic schoolboy to a kind of charismatic cult leader resonates even more strongly when considering the modern-day culture of celebrity worship. And the show’s exploration of trauma — including post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual abuse and bullying — is something that audiences now have a much deeper understanding of.

The reimagining of “Tommy” is not so much in story but in style, with McAnuff opting for futuristic austerity over 1960s nostalgia. Tommy displays his skill not on a kitschy pinball machine but a spare set piece (designed by David Korins) in which the outline of a machine is represented by narrow panels of light. The personality cult that encircles Tommy feels more sinister than in the original production.

The production, which runs through Aug. 6, has received rave reviews in Chicago, with the critic Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune calling it a “ready-for-prime-time stunner.” The Goodman says the show is on track to be its highest-grossing production ever, a boon for the organization during a time of high anxiety around regional theater’s post-pandemic return. The show’s commercial producer, Stephen Gabriel, said several options for the production’s future are being weighed, including a Broadway run.

The story at the center of this production is much the same as the one the Who told when it played its new album at Woodstock in 1969.

A 4-year-old Tommy watches as his father — a British Army captain believed to have died while on duty — shows up at the family’s home, ultimately 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 invasive doctors. After the world discovers his stunning talent for pinball, he becomes a messiah-like figure with a band of devoted followers.

Whether “Tommy” can become a national phenomenon again, and not just a nostalgic tribute, depends, in part, on its ability to capture a new audience.

McAnuff sees Ali Louis Bourzgui, the 23-year-old lead, as the show’s “doorway to Gen Z” — though not long out of college and largely unknown, he is viewed by the director as a natural star who will be appealing to a new generation of prospective “Tommy” fans.

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

“He gets filled up by his followers,” Bourzgui said. “He keeps feeding off that, getting more gluttonous with power, until he realizes they’re following him because they want to feed off his trauma.”

Bourzgui was born 30 years after the release of “Tommy” the album, but he has his own memory of his first listen — to the vinyl, in fact — in a friend’s apartment his freshman year. He remembers feeling moved by the music, if not a little bit befuddled by the plot. (McAnuff likes to call the story a “fable,” gesturing at the suspension of disbelief required to accept Tommy’s arc from silent child to pinball wizard to cult leader.)

In preparation for the role, Bourzgui pored over performance videos of the Who on YouTube, finding himself in awe of the band’s magnetism. Wary of falling into mimicry, he hasn’t watched videos of the earlier production.

“We’re not in the business of presenting museum pieces,” said Roche Schulfer, the Goodman’s executive director, who was approached about staging “Tommy” before the pandemic upended the theater world.

Schulfer was persuaded by McAnuff and Townshend’s ideas for an update as well as their consideration of how certain themes and language might translate onstage today.

The question is one that theater makers across the country are grappling with: Should revived works be altered to align with the worldviews and sensitivities of present-day audiences?

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

For example, the lyrics “deaf, dumb and blind” are central to some of the album’s hits, including its most famous: “Pinball Wizard.” When Townshend originally wrote “Tommy” in the 1960s, the word “dumb” was commonly used to refer to someone who was nonverbal, but it is now considered to be an offensive and archaic term. McAnuff said that he and Townshend did not seriously consider changing that language, viewing it as too much of a lyrical departure in foundational songs such as “Amazing Journey.”

“‘Sensory impaired’ — I don’t think it would work,” McAnuff said. “I think it’s a song that has a certain amount of pedigree and dignity.”

The story behind the concept, Townshend told an interviewer in the 1970s, came from his devotion in his early 20s to the writings of the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba — also an inspiration for one of the Who’s biggest hits, “Baba O’Riley” — who taught, as he put it, that as humans, “there are whole chunks of life, including the whole concept of reality, which escapes us.”

Over the years, Townshend has described the character of Tommy as autistic, explaining that his condition was a metaphor for humanity’s limited view of reality.

Revivals over the years, including one by McAnuff a decade ago in Ontario, Canada, have given the book writers the opportunity to re-examine the show’s handling of sensitive issues. Around that time, Townshend acknowledged in an interview that the rock opera does not allow for explanation or discussion around serious issues such as sexual abuse, but that audiences can consider those topics themselves in a modern context.

“We have to live with the rock opera version that we did 20 years ago,” Townshend said at the time. “We also have to live with the fact that ‘Tommy’ started as a rock opera in 1968, ’69. And yet times have changed. Attitudes have changed.”

In the 1990s, McAnuff, who first developed the show at La Jolla Playhouse in California, staged the sexual abuse scene in such a way that had little need for alterations today. A revolving bed suggests the violation without any significant physical touch — an approach the director views as key to protecting the child actors involved in the show.

After the Broadway debut, there were some complaints that the scene was less daring than the one in Ken Russell’s provocative 1975 film, to which McAnuff responded, “That’s a real little boy up there. Does anyone actually need me to abuse that child to get the idea across?”

The most significant change in the Chicago production on the issue of abuse is the removal of a short song, “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” that brings back the sexually abusive uncle in a way that no longer seemed necessary, McAnuff said. There is also some toned-down staging in “The Acid Queen,” the wailing barnburner — performed by Tina Turner in the film version — in which Tommy’s father takes him to a prostitute and con artist who promises to cure his condition with drugs.

Without being too heavy handed in any moralistic messaging, McAnuff hopes the audience sees what the intent of the work has been since the beginning.

“At the end of the day, we portray what happens to him not to condone it but to condemn it,” McAnuff said. “And I think that’s the point of view of the whole piece.”

Content Source: www.nytimes.com


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