'This production of Tommy is ramped up from the original Broadway production. The drama comes across more directly, more cinematically. It's a funny thing to say, but this production, though it's quite similar to the original, gets the music out of the way."
Like the crowds listening to Tommy's pinball-playing protagonist, from Pete Townshend, I'm getting opinions. From him, I'm getting the story.
The rock conceptualizer and legend is speaking from Stratford, Ont. He was there to attend the May 30 opening-night performance of the revival of Tommy by his chum and collaborator, the Tony Award-winning stage whiz and former Stratford Festival director Des McAnuff. The conversation's topic was rock operas, on which he is an authority. Upon the release of the album version of Tommy in 1969 (and Quadrophenia in 1973), the erudite Townshend spent much of his breath and vocabulary attempting to explain the through-narrative of the piece about spiritualism and a boy traumatized to the point of deafness, dumbness and blindness. All these years later, he's thinking that perhaps it is better, on some level, to keep the music and the story separate.
The guitarist is currently on a break from the Who's arena tour of Quadrophenia, his elegant mod-centric masterwork on alienation, love's reign and a young man's very bad day. When the band first toured the album, singer Roger Daltrey would attempt to explain the story to rock audiences who weren't really looking for context.
Fast-forward to 2012: Townshend read a review early in the Quadrophenia tour from a critic who was relieved to find that with the live presentation of the album the music had been "released" from the story. "I was aggrieved at first," Townshend explained, "but I began to understand that the music and the internal drama that the audience experiences have to be allowed to breathe in their own way, and that they're better when they're each freed."
The success of the rock musical We Will Rock You is confirmation enough that theatre audiences are not necessarily concerned with the matching of music to story. Ben Elton's musical applies a futuristic storyline (involving the banning of rock music) to a sequence of unrelated songs from the catalogue of the grandiose band Queen. "People I know, including members of Queen, turn their noses up at We Will Rock You," Townshend says, "but that's elitism, isn't it? It's low common ground, but that's what the audience wants. They want you to get out of the way of the music."
It is true enough. On her last tour, for example, the audacious Lady Gaga applied a storyline of sorts to her slew of dance-pop hits. Likely the audience was oblivious to the sci-fi conceit. The tour ended months ago, and forensic scientists are still at work trying to make sense of the concept.
If a plot must be attached to a string of songs, the blockbuster jukebox musical Jersey Boys is probably the template to follow. The simple story is the rise and personal complications in the lives of the members of the Four Seasons, the pop-vocal act whose discography (and that of lead singer Frankie Valli) is co-opted for the slick, tuneful production.
Townshend did not stop writing conceptual pieces after Tommy, Quadrophenia and the failed Lifehouse project (which yielded the classic 1971 album Who's Next). His thematic solo works include 1985's White City: A Novel, 1989's The Iron Man and 1993's Psychoderelict. The Iron Man, an adaptation of a children's story by the poet Ted Hughes, was mounted at London's Young Vic in 1993.
"I think the finest songs come from story," Townshend says, mentioning West Side Story, opera and the Beach Boys. "And I've always wanted to create an imaginative setting for my own writing."
As an example of using story to push pop and rock music to its highest effect, he cites Pink Floyd's The Wall and its epic song Comfortably Numb. "It's a beautiful song on its own, but within the context of the album it kicks off from a higher point."
A higher point, literally, when The Wall is staged. "It's elevated in the scenery," Townshend says, "and it's elevated in the passion of the rest of the music. The setting becomes something like a brilliant novel or a classic Greek story or a bit of Shakespeare."
Those moments are few and far between when it comes to jukebox musicals or concept albums adapted for the stage. Like any music, conceptual or not, a good part of the appeal lies in the memories stirred by the songs themselves. And Townshend is no different when it comes to that kind of heavy recollection. "When I sit through a theatre version of Tommy, I'm taken back on that journey of what the music once did, and, in bits, still does," he says. "The songs are a representation of what we've been through, and, as the composer, it's a fascinating place to be."