I READ WITH GREAT interest Bob Mondello’s review of The Who’s Tommy at the Kennedy Center (Theater, 1/6). I also recently attended that show. In fact, while a college student in Boston in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was at the same Who concert that Mondello so affectionately recalls, although I think they appeared at the Boston Tea Party, not the Orpheum Theater.
Before I saw the Kennedy Center production, I had also read the reports that former-counterculture-hero-now-Broadway-composer Pete Townshend sold out the plot line for Tommy by having his hero opt for “normality” instead of rebellion at the close of the Broadway version. As a fan of The Who that had to order their early singles and three pre-Tommy albums from England due to the indifference of Decca, their initial American label, I am admittedly an insufferable elitist when it comes to the group, even more so than Mondello (it’s Daltrey, not Daltry, so there). As such, I view, with appropriate distaste, the group’s post-Keith Moon albums and 1982 and 1989 tours (the latter of which, by Townshend’s own admission, was truly characterized by the term “The Who Sells Out”). With this heavy emotional baggage, I approached the night that I attended The Who’s Tommy at the Kennedy Center with some dread.
Contrary to your reviewer’s reaction, I thought the show was great. As to the widespread criticism of Townshend for having tailored the plot to pander to yuppies and their wallets, I had the opposite reaction. I have always perceived Tommy as autobiographical in nature, a work by which Townshend related his emotionally troubled youth, his developing proficiency as a musician, his rise to fame as the leader of a rock group, and his disillusionment with all that notoriety brought him. When I first heard the record, I thought that he showed remarkable honesty in conveying these sentiments.
With this same honesty, Townshend’s revisions reflect the changes in his own attitudes from when he wrote the songs at age 23 to when, at age 54, he adapted the album for the stage. Indeed, I have viewed with some cynicism the original Tommy‘s final embrace of anarchy as an attempt to pander to 1969’s potential record buyers. (Remember the immortal 1960s ad campaign slogan of the truly subversive CBS Records, “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music”? Right on!) Because of its fuzziness, the conclusion was the least satisfying aspect of the original plot.
The point is, we all have changed since 1969. It would have been far more calculating for Townshend to have left the plot intact for the Broadway production, thus appealing to ticket buyers’ hazy memories of those good old days when they barricaded the administration building instead of running businesses, delivering pizzas, teaching school, preparing pleadings, and writing theater reviews to pay their mortgages. The Broadway version is Townshend telling his story to us now, still pulling no punches. If you want to go back to what he thought in 1969, play the record. As a great man once said, if memories are all I have, I’d rather drive a truck.