Tommy reconquers London: Van den Ende creates whirling musical version of old rock opera

Tommy is back again, this time in the form of a musical. Twentyseven years after guitarist and lyricist Pete Towsend from the rockgroup The Who brought the ‘deaf, dumb and blind boy’ to life, he conquers the West End, the theatre heart of London.

Shouting with joy the British critics embraced their prodigal son one day after the premiere on Tuesday. Tommy hasn’t forgotten how to play pinball. With this musical Joop van den Ende, who owns the production rights for all of Europe except Germany, entered the West End spectacularly.
On London’s streets it’s hard to miss that Tommy is back. ‘Tommy. See me, feel me, touch me’ is the slogan on the side of double decker buses. The robust and rough looking black letters on a yellow background form a noticeable contrast with the red – and sometimes green – of the city buses. In pubs and cafes the posters, smaller but no less distinguishable, are hung. Even on a building which is being restored the poster is seen. The yellow hangs beside a poster of the Palace Theatre, where ‘Les Miserables’ is being played.
‘Tommy’ is the story of the toddler who is a witness to his father killing the lover of his mother. His parents implore him: “You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it. You won’t say nothing to no one ever in your life.” Tommy becomes literally deaf, blind and dumb; only behind the pinball he comes to life. After his wondrous healing he gets a big share of followers, who see some kind of Messiah in him. Disappointed with the human Tommy they finally turn away from him.
The musical version is a flashing and whirling show from the first very loud chord until the finale some two hours later. By placing different emphases in the story and by broadening the family story, Pete Townsend and the American director Des MacAnuff have taken the story toward the nineties. Tommy has been made more accessible for an audience that isn’t looking for a guru or for those who think the rock era is over.
Tommy, played convincingly by the nineteenyearold Paul Keating, becomes the favourite of the press after his healing. His message is that he has finally become a normal person after years of isolation and that all his admirers shouldn’t strive to be just like him, but he isn’t understood in the end. When the sudden fame gets to Tommy’s head and he becomes arrogant as a young pop idol, everyone turns away from him. For Tommy finally normal life starts near his own family.
Especially the mass hysteria is spectacularly shown because the whole stage including the nearby balconies look like a giant pinball machine. Lamps go on and off. Lots of little video screens show images of a crazed audience and close ups of Tommy. No-one in the audience can escape the magnetic attraction of the pinball machine.
That ‘Tommy’ isn’t just sold to the audience very effectively, but has also awakened something within the English, was proven by a political cartoon in the liberal and independent newspaper, The Independent. In it, prime minister John Major is shown as the ‘Pinball wizard’, who does his best to keep his ball in the game behind the machine. Other than Tommy, the real wizard of the game, Major seems to lose the game.
‘Tommy’ has gone through a lot since 1969. First the was the raw and unpolished double LP by The Who, after that there were live performances in the same year on the legendary Woodstock festival, where singer Roger Daltrey entranced the hippies with his performance of ‘See me feel me’. Three years later the band worked on the bombastic rock opera ‘Tommy’. After Ken Russell’s movie version from 1975, in which Tina Turner played a starring role as ‘Acid queen’, the drug addict prostitute who tried to get Tommy out of his isolation, it went silent around Tommy.
Until in 1992 in America the musical premiered and since the beginning of 1993 played two years on Broadway in New Tork. Executive producer Robin de Levita of Joop van den Ende Production isn’t persuaded to do an optimistic prognosis for the West End production. “But it would be strange if ‘Tommy’ doesn’t play for a year. The coming months we will see the reactions from the audience and then we decided whether we’ll do a second production for a European tour, or wait for the end of the English production.”
The Dutch musical fan who doesn’t want to wait so long, will have to travel to London.