Tommy is back home: successful baptism of fire for Joop van den Ende in London

With an avalanche of rave reviews Joop van den Ende can look back on a successful debut in the London West End. Although not a lot of British people will know it, with the premiere of the musical Tommy, this week in London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, another lifelong wish has come true for the amusement king from Aalsmeer.

For the West End audience Tommy is in the first place the brain child of Pete Townsend, guitarist and composer from the British rock formation The Who, which presented the rock opera in 1969. Townsend – 50 years old by now and rid of his alcohol addiction – was closely involved in the making of the musical. For two years he worked on the West End version, which has been made according to the same principles as the Broadway-musical, which received five Tony Awards in New York.
Townsend did his work for the firm Endemol this time. With the exception of Germany, the firm owns the European rights for the piece. If Tommy becomes a commercial success – and it looks like it after the first reactions – then there will be a second production which will go on tour visiting Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris and Madrid.
“I am very happy with the reactions from the audience”, says Pete Townsend after the premiere which was received with a standing ovation. “The show is obviously more rooted here than in America. This is our sixth Tommy and we are getting quite good at it.”
With the exception of the Daily Mail all the newspapers were full of praise for the musical, in which Kim Wilde plays the role of Mrs. Walker and the totally unknown Paul Keating excels as Tommy.
‘Spectacular and exciting’, writes The Times and ‘the most storming rockband I’ve ever heard on the West End’, wrote critic Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph. The Guardian spoke of an ‘energetic performance’. The Independent praised the musical for its timeless character. ‘Age old rock still has the power to shock’, was the vision of critic Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail. ‘Nothing, but nothing moved me’, he wrote in a very sour piece.
Both Joop van den Ende and producer Robin de Levita were very satisfied with the reviews. “Contrary to New Tork you haven’t got the situation here in London that one paper can make or break this show”, says De Levita, who was earlier responsible for Van den Ende’s failed adventure on Broadway, Cyrano. “The opinion of the Daily Mail doesn’t weigh more than all the other ones. I am convinced that it will be a hit, more so because it’s a musical with an English background.”
Who has seen the show has to say De Levita is right. Even before the lights in the 1400 seat Shaftesbury Theatre go down, the secretly laughing director of the orchestra Colin Welford delivers a near-heart attack to the audience with the first very loud chord. From that moment on the theater changes into a giant circus of light, sound and effects, in which music and beautiful images vary in a high tempo. An overture introduces the story.
Captain Walker is a handsome Englishman, some 25 years old and during World War II he’s serving the airforce. On two half invisible screens images from the frontline are shown. Soldiers march in between. It’s 1941. There’s shooting and in the next scene we see two airforce officers knocking on the door of 22 Heathfield Gardens: Captain Walker hasn’t returned home. His unborn child will never get to see him.
Mrs. Walker delivers a boy (Tommy) and finds a new lover. At the end of the war the captain suddenly reappears in Heathfield Gardens. There is a row between Walker and the new lover, after which the captain shoots the intruder. The four year old Tommy is a witness of the incident and is instructed to never talk about it. He takes it so literally that he changes into a withdrawn boy, who can’t talk, hear or see anymore. The only thing he can excel in is playing pinball (Pinball Wizard).
Tommy is a model for Pete Townsend’s traumatic youth. He wrote the rock opera when he was 23 and has never been able to get away from this early masterpiece. Tommy is universally considered to be one of the highlights of his career or even of the whole history of rock. Tommy has been seen in many guises. The Who’s performance during the Woodstock festival in 1969 is legendary. What followed was a ballet, a movie (with roles for Elton John, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner) and during the 20 year jubilee in 1989 there was a concert in the Radio City Music Hall in New York. For the current version Townsend wrote one new song. On top of that he and artistic director Des McAnuff write some texts to join scenes together and they added a ‘happy end’, conforming to theatre tradition.
Whatever one can say about Tommy, it’s a fact that it still stands up 27 years after. Only a sourpuss can blame Townsend that he is now part of the establishment he protested against in his work. He has reconciled with the idea that he will always be associated with his creation. Because Tommy is, as he said in an interview once, ‘fucking brillant’.
Pete Townsend is no second Andrew Lloyd Webber, but with the current success of Tommy you could imagine that his other big The Who project Quadrophenia from 1973 may find its way to Broadway and West End. Joop van den Ende announced that Tommy is just the beginning of his international ambitions. The contacts with Townsend are good and there are ‘many offers’ for big international projects. London, New York and Amsterdam have been warned.