25 Years Ago: The Who’s ‘Tommy’ Comes to Broadway
That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure could play a mean pinball, but how would he do as the main attraction on the cover of a Broadway playbill?
The rock 'n' roll and theater worlds would find out when the two cultures collided as the Who's rock opera Tommy landed as a production on the famed district in New York City at the St. James Theatre on April 22, 1993.
Rock musicals on Broadway were nothing new; look no further than Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell in the early '70s. But to have a bona fide, loud and proud, guitar-smashing, microphone-twirling outfit have their composition land on the Great White Way? Leave it to the Who to take a shot at breaking down those barriers.
"What we're trying to do is create a new kind of rock event," Who guitarist and Tommy mastermind Pete Townshend said the summer before when the rock opera did a test drive at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. "A lot of people that loved rock all their lives have had it with rock 'n' roll in live performance. Because they grew up on rock and now happen to like opera as well, they feel they've outgrown it. Maybe this will help bring them back."
Watch Footage From the 1993 Broadway Premiere of the Who's 'Tommy'
The seeds for Tommy's long-awaited arrival onstage were sown when the Who reconvened in 1989 for the Kids Are Alright world tour. The jaunt included four performances of Tommy, the 1969 concept album about the "deaf, dumb and blind kid," as detailed in the LP's hit single "Pinball Wizard," who ultimately takes on a messianic role.
Des McAnuff, the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, worked with Townshend on bringing it to the stage, giving it a more clear narrative and retooling certain aspects of the story, some major and some minor.
A new song, "I Believe My Own Eyes," was written to bridge the gap between "Tommy Can You Hear Me?" and "Smash the Mirror." Calling it "a conventional music-theater number in many respects," Townshend acknowledged it wasn't as popular as he would've liked, but considered it vital to show how difficult the process was to raise Tommy. Later, when Tommy goes to visit the Acid Queen, his father intervenes and pulls him away before he can be dosed. Most glaringly, the original ending, where Tommy instructs his followers to completely dull their own senses of sight, hearing and speech to become better enlightened is flipped; he now says to be their own persons and not mimic him. The results are the same, though, as his flock still rejects him, but rather than retreating inward again, he turns to his parents, a tweak that had many fans of the original bemoaning the more family-friendly outcome.
"That's the typical self-destructive side of the intellectual left," McAnuff said in response to the criticism. "Often, we've allowed the right wing to abscond with basic notions like family or patriotism. We just sit back and allow them to do it, accepting that it must be correct. I've never met anybody who didn't consider families important. Just on that level alone I reject it."
He went on to note that "we were well aware there would be audience members who felt that they kind of own this piece." The big question would be if Townshend's arguably best-known work would translate to the stage. It left him extremely concerned about the effect it might have not just on his career in general but life as a whole.
"I was very worried that if Broadway failed, it would halt Tommy as a property for probably another 10, 15 years," he said. "And that would have been a shame, because my instincts told me this is the right time. One of the things that was very disturbing is that I knew that if it was successful, it would change my life. I was excited that if the show did well, it could feed my future creative life, but I was also frightened that maybe I should be retiring, you know? Maybe I should be just taking the money I already have and slowing down, getting out of show business. I was worried that I would get drawn into a kind of ecstasy from the success of the show. It wasn't that I didn't want the show to be a success, but I would argue with Des. He'd say, 'Don't worry, it's going to be really successful.' And I'd say, 'But, Des, that's what I'm worried about.'"
Following 899 performances over a period of more than two years, a litany of Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards and even a Grammy bestowed upon legendary producer George Martin for Best Musical Show Album, Tommy was regarded as an unquestionable financial and artistic achievement, quelling some of Townshend's fears. Not all members of the Who were happy about it though, as singer Roger Daltrey aligned with those who felt too many modifications had been made.
"I have to be very careful what I say about Tommy on Broadway because I hate hurting people’s feelings in the press, because I know what it’s like to read things about yourself in the press that hurt -- it’s not nice," he told Goldmine in 1994. "I don’t like Tommy on Broadway at all. I like the music, I’m pleased with Pete’s success, but I don’t like what they’ve done to it. Why they couldn’t have adapted more of Broadway for Tommy than Tommy for Broadway. But who am I to knock it? It’s a huge success."