Tommy Director’s Notes
In The Who’s rock opera Tommy, the song “Amazing Journey” begins Tommy’s narrative of events in his life laid out for us in the story to follow. My own amazing journey with this show started several years ago. We were just finishing up The Rocky Horror Show, and a bunch of us were throwing out ideas for the next musical. Rocky had been a very satisfying project for me both personally and professionally. I was hoping to find something that would be just as fun to do and would also indulge my long standing love for rock music. Several titles were tossed around and someone mentioned doing Tommy. Everyone stopped. Everyone ooohhed and aaahhhed. Then we sort of dismissed it. Between then and now we did another musical that was also rewarding both personally and professionally (Reefer Madness), and again, the search was on to find still another musical that would be as much fun as that one. Tommy came to the forefront again. This amazing journey started for me almost a year ago.
Some deeper background: In the early 1960’s the music industry hardly noticed when an obscure little four man group with the unlikely name of The Beatles released their first album in the UK and the US. This would mark the beginning of what would become known as the British Invasion. Groups like The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, The Spencer Davis Group, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Kinks, The Moody Blues and The Rolling Stones would all find a niche in the American psyche that would last for the next several years. Indeed, some of those groups would go on to become huge acts for decades to come.
In mid 1969, one of these groups, known as The Who, releases their fourth album. Already known for songs such as “I Can’t Explain”, “The Kids Are Alright”, “Happy Jack” and “My Generation”, this fourth album moved in a new direction. The album, billed as the first rock opera, was entitled “Tommy”. The storyline loosely tells of young Tommy Walker who, after witnessing a traumatic incident, becomes ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ on his way to becoming a messiah figure due to his eventual proficiency playing pinball games. With such hits as “See Me, Feel Me”, “I’m Free”, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and the incredibly popular “Pinball Wizard”, the album garnered high praise. On its release, Time Magazine declared “For sheer power, invention and brilliance of performance, Tommy outstrips anything that has ever come out of a rock recording studio.”
An interesting highlight in the Tommy timeline occurred in 1971 when the first fully staged theatrical production of Tommy was produced by the Seattle Opera at The Moore Theater. The play featured then relatively unknown Bette Midler as The Acid Queen and Mrs. Walker. Also interesting is the fact that most of the cast was nude by the final scene. Well, it was 1971 after all…..
In 1975, a movie version was released, directed by Ken Russell. Changes were made to the song order and some lyrics. The movie featured (in addition to members of The Who, with Roger Daltrey playing Tommy) Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tina Turner, Ann Margaret, Jack Nicholson and Oliver Reed. The NY Times stated in their review of the movie that it was “…composed of excesses. Bad jokes or heavy-handed satire are redeemed by everyone—director, production designer, orchestrators, actors—going too far, which is, after all, what the original Tommy is all about: a world inhabited by people too jaded to react to anything but overdoses.”
In 1992, Pete Townshend paired with Des McAnuff, artistic director for the La Jolla Playhouse, to bring an entirely new theatrical version of Tommy to the stage. The song order was again re-arranged, making the story a little clearer. Lyrics were again changed, or changed back; most notably in the play’s final scene, making many critics proclaim that the author of “I hope I die before I get old” had now become one of the dreaded ESTABLISHMENT.
My own involvement with The Who was pretty much with their single releases. I was familiar with “Baba O’Riley”, “My Generation”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Love Reign O’er Me” and others. I knew “Pinball Wizard”, “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” quite well, though was never really aware they were part of this opera called Tommy. Now that I have gotten the chance to work on this show, I have become enamored of some of the other songs from the story: “Sparks”, “Christmas”, “Smash the Mirror” and a very nice new song Pete Townshend wrote for the play “I Believe My Own Eyes”.
As I write this, we are still early in tech week. In my Dracula Notes, I wrote at about the same time, stating “there are still a million things to get done”. Some things never change.
The musicals BLT produces year after year keep getting bigger and bigger. I remember when we did Reefer Madness – the amount of costume changes, and props, the number of cast members – that had been the biggest show we had done to date. I am here to tell you this one looks even bigger. There are two stage assistant stage managers back stage, three people in the booth; there are videos and slides projected onto two screens, our usual four piece rock band and a cast of 15. The designers are working overtime to get their work finished and the cast is trying very hard to integrate all their costume changes, props, set changes; as well as their music, dance and acting into the show.
Burien should consider itself lucky to have such talent making theater down here at BLT. This show continues the tradition of showing Burien some of the most amazing talent in the area, and I for one, feel myself fortunate to be part of this Amazing Journey. As Tommy says “I’ll be your leader, I’ll be your guide. On the Amazing Journey, together we’ll ride….”
Come join me…..
Update: Photos added Feb. 20. All photos by Craig Orsinger for Burien Little Theatre.