See me, feel me: Tommy is back in London

The elderly woman on the first row of the balcony is scared out of her wits. She’s sitting on the edge of her seat when the musical begins, determined not to miss anything. That first guitar chord scares her. What a racket! She falls back in her chair, stiffened. Some two and a half hours later she rises enthusiastically for an ovation that lasts for minutes.

Tommy is back in London. In 1969 the rock opera by Pete Townsend had its premiere during a performance of The Who at Ronnie Scott’s, a jazzclub in Soho that still exists. Then it was the hip and young generation of the capital that loved the story of the deaf dumb and blinde pinball wizard. In 1996 the rock opera-turned-musical is entertainment for a wider audience.
On the second evening of Tommy in the Shaftesbury Theatre is the hall filled with an audience that consists of all classes of the English population. There are fourtysomethings for whom Tommy will be youth sentiment. But the generations before and after them, too old and too young respectively to have taken part in the wild life of the sixties, are also well represented.


Unless you are deaf and blind like the main character it’s impossible to miss the musical that was so successful in New Tork. In London’s record stores the Tommy-cd’s (the original Who-version as well as the later Broadway-recording) are stacked up high and on almost every doubledecker bus the name of the musical and the slogan ‘See me feel me’ is displayed.
Inspired by the musical about the pinball wizard the political illustrator of the Independent drew the United Kingdom as a giant pinball, played by John Major dressed in a leather jacket. The British prime minister is a lot less skillful than Tommy and the machine is on Tilt. Game over!
For Tommy, the musical, the game isn’t over yet. The American success seems to be repeated in London. Just like their American colleagues the English critics are very complimentary about the premiere, that took place on Tuesday night. Only the Daily Mail (“No sense, no feeling in this piece of Tommy-rot”) differed. All the other tabloids and the quality papers were all enthusiastic.
That excitement is rightful. Popmusic and the theatre will probably never be bosom buddies, but as close as in this musical they have never been. Tommy is a theatre piece and a pop concert in one. Tommy is not a nostalgic sixties trip, but a modern spectacle with ingenious high tech effects and very fastpaced storytelling.
The intermission in Tommy is for the visitors more than just an excuse for a drink or an ice cream. It’s mostly a pause: to have a rest from all the visual and musical violence of the first act. In short the story of Tommy is told. He is a witness of his father killing the lover of his wife (played by Kim Wilde), goes through life as a deaf, dumb and blind kid after this traumatic experience, but finds out he can play the pinball as the best of them all.
That in itself is more action than the viewer usually gets in a whole musical. But in the same first part of Tommy the second world war is fought on stage, rock and roll starts a little later and the main character is also abused by a dirty uncle and a sadistic cousin. In the mean time actors and setpieces fly through the air and the band below the stage creates a wall of sound. That is not an uninterested group of session musicians, it’s a real band.
In the second act, when Tommy gets well, grows into a superstar and finds out that his fame has placed him in the same kind of isolation as his former handicaps, the tempo doesn’t go down. Tommy is a wild ride from beginning to end. No guitar is destroyed – like in the heydays of The Who – but the energy and excitement that are part of rock and roll were never brought this close to theatre before.
One of the papers wrote about the Dutch involvement in this West End version of Tommy. It wasn’t written about in big letters, but on top of the posters is the name Joop van den Ende. He is co-producer of the musical. His first English adventure seems to become his biggest success abroad. Robin de Levita, co-producer of Tommy, expects that the musical will last for a year in the Shaftesbury Theatre.
De Levita directs Endemol Theatre Production from New York since two years. It was involved in the Broadway successes of Victor Victoria (with Julie Andrews) and Hamlet. Robin de Leveita’s first New York production was the musical Cyrano. A flop? He doesn’t speak of it: “We have learned a lot from Cyrano. And we have presented ourselves as serious producers, we’ve made our name. Via Cyrano we have built a network of relations which we profit from til this day.”
The differences between Broadway and West End are big, says De Levita. “Just like in New York, reviews are important in London. But in America you are dependent on just one newspaper, the New York Times. In England there are at least ten papers whose reviews are important. Also the actors guilds are less strict than in New York. It makes our work a lot more easy.”
Working in England is more easy than working in the Netherlands. London isn’t that strict about children on stage. The role of Tommy is played by three actors. The youngest one (a girl!) is five years old, the second one is twelve. All night they are involved with the production.
“I don’t think you can get permission for that ni the Netherlands”, says Robin de Levita.
Paul Keating, who takes up most of the Tommy role, is nineteen years old. He had a role in Les Miserables as a child and also played a role in a children’s series of the BBC but worked in a supermarket until recently. No less than seven thousand actors/singers auditioned for the role of Tommy – amongst which various pop stars, it is rumoured. De Levita acknowledges the rumour. Members of Take That and Wet Wet Wet have auditioned and also the boys of the almost forgotten group Bros tried their hand.
Robin de Levita is originally from the popworld himself. He was disc jockey and organised pop concerts. He didn’t deliberately chose musicals. “I produced tv shows for Joop van den Ende. One day he called me with him and said: “This is Mike Burstyn. Together with him you are going to make the musical Barnum.” De Levita became producer of a series of musicals. He never became a real lover of them.
“I don’t like musicals”, he says without problems. “But I love producing musicals”. Would he ever go to a musical as a visitor? “What does is matter? I used to produce the 123 show for television. I don’t know if I’d have wanted to watch it, but I liked making it. I love producing big things. And it doesn’t get any bigger than a musical”.
He doesn’t like musicals, but for Tommy he makes an exception. “A year or two ago I saw it together with Joop van den Ende. It was great. Great music, good direction and a lot of tempo.” Robin de Levita grew up with Tommy by the Who. “Pete Townsend used to be a hero of mine. Now I work with him. He was closely involved ni the making of the West End version of Tommy. He is not the wild rock ‘n’ roller he used to be. He has become an intellectual. Townsend is a very smart man, who understands this industry totally.”
The English version of Tommy cost some 7,5 million guilders. If the musical does make it in the West End for a year, the money is earned back in full. After that the musical might go on tour. First through England, then on the continent. In which form is not clear yet: for our country a Dutch translation is considered.
Hopefully that thought will be rejected. The careful friendship that popmusic and the theatre have made with Tommy, might be ruined by a Dutch translation. There’s nothing wrong with Dutch pop music, but translation of existing and especially wellknown English popsongs cannot be anything else than disastrous. ‘Zie mij, voel mij, raak mij aan, genees mij…’… Perish the thought.