A ‘Tommy’ for a new generation
by Seth Rogovoy
(STOCKBRIDGE, Mass., July 17, 2003) -- When Berkshire Theatre Festival executive director Kate Maguire sits in the Unicorn Theatre watching a run-through of “The Who’s ‘Tommy’” – which opens tonight and runs through August 2 -- she doesn’t see a rock opera. She sees a classic. Not in the sense of the Who’s “classic-rock,” but a classic story in the sense of Strindberg, or even the Greeks.
“I really see it as a great piece of theater,” said Maguire in a recent phone interview. “Yes, it’s a rock opera, but I sit in that theater and I’m incredibly moved in the same way as I am when I look at ‘Miss Julie.’”
Maguire also sees a show that transcends its origins as a unique cultural artifact emerging from the 1960s counterculture.
“I kept hearing from several sources about this fabulous production that was done at N.Y.U. in a very tiny theater,” said Maguire. “And all these young actors who were here last year at the Unicorn kept saying we should do ‘Tommy’ in the Unicorn.
“The fact that all these young artists were wanting to see ‘Tommy’ done made me feel that it was time to revive it, that it’s time in our social history to hand it over.”
Maguire did indeed hand it over to a new generation. At 24, director Jared Coseglia, who was in the N.Y.U. production she heard about, wasn’t even born when the film version of “Tommy” came out, and the album was already an oldie by that time.
“I could have Eric Hill do ‘Tommy,’ and he’d do a great job, and it would look like what it looked back then,” said Maguire, referring to her director/husband, who is in fact a huge fan of the Who.
“But I just decided to give it to them because it really resonates with these young people. They’re all in their twenties, and somehow what they say about the world feels very similar to what we were going through in the Sixties and Seventies.
“And the other thing is my daughters said, ‘You guys were so lucky, you had the best music,’ and I thought, ‘Yes, let’s go back and remind them of our music.’”
In Coseglia, Maguire got a young but already seasoned director. A graduate of N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, Coseglia’s production credits include “Mack & Mabel,” “Ragtime: The Musical ,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” “A Lie of the Mind” and “Godspell ,” among others.
Cory Grant stars as the adult Tommy, Julian Alexander Barnett plays the teen-aged Tommy, and Maguire’s son, Alexander Hill, plays Tommy as a child. James Barry is Captain Walker and Stephanie Girard is Tommy’s mother. Ken Clark is musical director, working with a six-piece band featuring two guitarists.
“Tommy” has a long and somewhat spotty history. Originating as a double-album by the English rock group the Who, it was one of the first attempts at writing a sung-through rock opera. The narrative, such as was discernible at the time, traced the story of Tommy Walker, a child who turned blind, deaf and mute after witnessing a trauma, was subsequently abused, became a champion pinball player and a pop idol and finally a messianic guru.
The Who only performed “Tommy” in its entirety a handful of times, including two performances at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in June 1970.
The Who’s chief songwriter, Pete Townshend, produced a new recording of “Tommy” in 1972 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir featuring Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, Richie Havens, Ringo Starr, Sandy Denny, Richard Harris and others. Director Ken Russell tightened up the story for his 1975 cult-smash film version, which featured the Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey as Tommy and starred Ann-Margret as Mrs. Walker and Oliver Reed as her boyfriend. Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, Elton John and Who drummer Keith Moon also played roles in the film.
Working with Des McAnuff, who is now the director of the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif., Townshend reinvented “Tommy” as a stage musical in 1993. The Broadway version, renamed “The Who’s ‘Tommy,’” received five Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards and three Outer Critics Circle Awards.
But Coseglia didn’t merely want to restage the Broadway musical, or any of the earlier versions of “Tommy.”
“I felt like the movie had the clearest story of any of the versions, but it’s so dated, such a period piece,” he said. “And the original concept album was so period, and the Broadway version was so Disney. And it didn’t really tell a story. It wasn’t clear to me what was happening and how each event led to the next, as opposed to being just a series of great musical numbers.
“I really wanted to tell a really clean story, with characters drawn from a clear psychological point of view, so that we could have a catharsis.”
Coseglia filled in some of the blanks and restructured some of the relationships to give the plot line more logical causality. “We started by setting the play in a different time,” he said. “It doesn’t start in World War Two, where it normally starts. It takes place in a world much like our own -- not in any real time or place -- but aesthetically it starts at the Vietnam War, which takes it through the late-Eighties by the time we get to the end of the play.”
Conceptually, Coseglia enhanced the significance of the pinball machine, feeling that in addition to playing a central role in Tommy’s growth as a person, it “really reflected this generation -- machinery is such a part of how we function as humans today, more than ever before,” he said.
Coseglia also explored the real-life parallels between the fictional Tommy Walker and Michael Jackson. “We did a lot of research on Michael Jackson and how the idea that this greatest pop sensation of all time really didn’t have a childhood,” he said. “That led us to the idea that as Tommy becomes a sensation and he can see again, he kind of sells out. We adapted one of the reprises into a soda commercial, mirroring that of Michael Jackson in the mid-Eighties, when trying to sell something destroys his identity of being an artist.”
“Tommy” is also a story of violence and child abuse, made all the more resonant by Pete Townshend’s recent arrest in England for downloading child pornography from the Internet (the charges were subsequently dropped).
Coseglia and Maguire both say that after working on the production, they totally believe Townshend’s explanation that he was doing research into the sexual exploitation of minors for an autobiography which will explore his own victimization as a child.
“I believe his explanation that he was abused as a child,” said Coseglia. “It makes total sense to me because of Tommy and the character of Uncle Ernie.”
“When you see ‘Tommy,’ you understand,” said Maguire. “It’s so personal. It’s by a writer who was speaking from great knowledge of a particular subject.”
Townshend himself is no stranger to BTF; he came to the Unicorn a few years ago to see Ron Silver portray the late rock promoter Bill Graham in “Bill Graham Presents.” Maguire has tried to get word to Townshend about this production in the hopes he will come by to see it. “But I’m not expecting him to helicopter in again,” she said.
“I hope he does,” said Coseglia.
“The Who’s ‘Tommy” opens July 17 and runs through August 2. Evening performances are Monday through Saturday at 8. Special matinee on July 19 at 2. For reservations and information call 298-5576.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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