the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Tommy (1994 stage production in Los Angeles)


Broadway musicals have survived in recent years by re-staging past hits and recycling old tunes: 42nd Street, Guys & Dolls, Carousel, Jerome Robbin's Broadway, Crazy for You, Show Boat, Damn Yankees… This trend stems from Producer's unwillingness to take risks on untried material due to the exorbitant cost of mounting productions. The 50+ crowd has been eager to spend the $60+ per seat to see elaborate re-enactments of the best of yesteryear. There is a familiar sense of "this is what Broadway should be". The challenge lies in attracting the next generation of theater-goers who are not as nostalgic; to them Oklahoma is just a state near Kansas. What's a Producer to do? Classes in American Musical Comedy might not be very popular. Tommy to the rescue!

Tommy the musical, is based on the seminal rock album of the same name by the group the Who. Most Americans with a cursory knowledge of rock (i.e.the under 45 crowd) would be immediately familiar with at least three of the songs if not the entire album itself. This late '60s so called "rock opera" spawned a cultlike following including a Ken Russell film based on the "story". One can hear the Producer's salivating. A musically based narrative which appeals to "younger" audiences who can afford the price of a theater ticket. There is only one problem - no plot. Well this is a small obstacle in the eyes of a zealous theatrical producer who sees gold. The rationalization for mounting a production might be along the lines of: Classic American Musical Comedies were always "light" on plot; for that matter look at Lloyd Weber's CATS - not much on story either.

Connoisseurs of the theater would question the artistic merits of anything based on a Cats model. Furthermore the "thin" plots of classic musicals were buttressed by the fact that the composer and playwright conceived of the piece as a staged event. Despite the massive amounts of drugs available to  Pete Townsend (the composer) in the late 1960s it is doubtful whether he could have envisaged a set of circumstances which would make Tommy a sought after Broadway Musical property. Tommy is first and foremost a rock album; albeit a revolutionary one. It sought to expand the notions of what could be done within the confines of Rock'n'Roll as experienced through woofers & tweeters and not a proscenium arch. Rock'n'roll is felt and not necessarily understood. It is common to for Rock fans to adore songs without comprehending or even knowing the lyrics (from the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" to Nirvana's "The Smell of Teen Spirit"). This casualness fits well with the carefree ambiance with which the music is heard. It is uncommon for fans to cease all activity and give their full attention to an entire album. In fact such an act might me counter-productive in terms of gauging the success of the work. Theater is the exact opposite. It requires a maximum amount of attentiveness within a set time frame. The challenge of making the transition from album to stage relies on understanding the undisciplined power of Rock and harnessing it to the rigors of the stage.

Aristotle's Poetics, the paradigm work on structuring plays, lists plot as the central element of drama. Although the Greek philosopher might be somewhat out of fashion few could argue his point. Tommy's purported plot centers around an abused boy's life-long search for his identity. In reality the storyline is a series of loosely related moments: Tommy witnesses the murder of his step father by his war-hero father. The former assumed the role of father when it was thought the latter was killed in action. The newly discharged soldier comes home and sees his wife in the clutches of another man. The result is the murder. It seems to have mattered very little to the loving wife. She never misses a beat and falls into a heartfelt swoon as soon as one body hits the floor. Her ambivalence is shared by the audience who also have difficulty distinguishing between the two men. The parents react by demanding the young boy's silence. He is a very impressionable child and takes them at their word: he turns deaf, dumb and blind. Tommy goes on through numerous cruel and inappropriate "treatments" as well as suffering abuse at the hands of his alcoholic uncle and sadistic cousin. Finally his genius is unmasked - he is a pinball wizard. A love interest appears. His fame leads to cultlike religious status and the predictable exploitation by Uncle & Cousin.  Tommy has an epiphany and stops being deaf, dumb and blind. His implores his followers stop following. A reconciliation occurs with his exploiters and his disciples. There is a happy and grand moment when everyone comes together and starts singing for no discernible reason other than the band starts playing the catchy "Listening to You". The play ends. So much for plot.

It is obvious that Tommy is about nothing and makes no sense. Pete Townsend is not to blame. In the context of the original medium Tommy is brilliant. The producers and directors of the stage version have much to explain. Instead of accepting the heartfelt illogic they attempt to force Tommy into being a straight-line narrative with intervening musical numbers. In a sense they are as absurd as any of the strange assortment of miracle cure quacks who attempt to "cure" Tommy's affliction. Tommy needs to be accepted for what it is: a magnificently crafted rock album with a passing nod towards story. Given the undisciplined nature of rock'n'roll it is no surprise that the "plot" fails to translate to the stage. The producers ignore the visceral sense of the music and focus on the non-existent plot. Mr. Townsend, sensing trouble, shied away from writing an extra song which would "tie the whole story together". The producer inspired musical addition is, not surprisingly, forced and forgettable.      

The play is not the thing; the music is. Forget plot just play the songs and stage a series of flashy disconnected stage happenings. Focus on two elements: music and special effects. A sign greets current audiences: WARNING THIS PRODUCTION CONTAINS FLASHING STROBE LIGHTS AND LIVE GUNFIRE. Unfortunately not enough of either to make any lasting impact. The fact of the matter it would be more entertaining if this production gave up any pretense of being a play and instead embraced a Lazerium or rock concert approach. Underscoring this point is the placement of the musicians. The current production, taking its cue from musicals, places the band in the orchestra pit. It only becomes apparent that live musicians are performing when the conductor occasionally bobs his head & arms above the sight-line. All the actors must play instruments in order to fully integrate the music with the show. The sound system should be "Cranked up" and  the smoke machines and the laser guns must be at full throttle. All the songs should be eliminated except. "Tommy Can You Hear Me", "See Me, Hear Me", "Listening to You" and "Pinball Wizard". If the required time-frame isn't met just repeat the songs at a different tempo with a different light show until the crowd feels its received $60+ worth of entertainment. Any Audience member who complains about missing Pete Townsend's imaginative story (with all those delightful characters) should be directed back stage for a live encounter with Tommy's dear Uncle and Cousin. If that isn't enough they should be placed in a sensory deprivation tank where they can experience Tommy's angst.     

No comments: