Books, Music

The Who’s Tommy: A Rock Opera (As Experienced by an Assistant Director)


Last week Northwestern University saw its last performance of a concert production of The Who’s Tommy and I was fortunate enough to be able to serve as the assistant director for the incredible Geoff Button. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, the rock band The Who released a concept album in 1969 called “Tommy” which was later made into a musical (or rock opera if you will). It’s a story about a young boy (Tommy) who witnesses the murder of his mother’s lover by his parents after his father returns unexpectedly from war. Although his mother turns him away from the fight he sees everything through a mirror, and when his parents realize this they freak out and tell him he didn’t hear it, didn’t see it, and can’t say anything to anyone about it, traumatizing the boy and causing him to become deaf, dumb, and blind. The rest of the show follows him as he is abused in a variety of ways, and while he can’t hear, speak, or see, he constantly stares into the mirror. Eventually his mother breaks the mirror, he’s cured, and a cult forms around him. The whole thing is weird but fantastic…weirdly fantastic??

Anyways, watching the director shape the story was an amazing experience and made me think about the nature of storytelling. Too often I find myself subconsciously thinking that the stories I read and the music I listen to could never have been different, that the way I am experiencing them right now is them in their “final,” “perfect” form. I suspect those who blog and/or write are already strongly (perhaps painfully) aware that this is not the way things are. No published book is ever “perfect” or “complete!” Don’t we wish there could be an “aha” moment where light shines through the clouds and we knew something is completely done and perfect! (And if you’ve actually had one of those moments please tell me about it in the comments!)

I was fascinated by how the director would make certain changes to bring out a specific interpretation of the story, altering who sings certain lines, who people are singing to when they’re singing, etc. For example, in the song “Twenty-One” where Tommy’s mother is singing about turning Twenty-One:

“Got a feeling twenty-one is gonna be a good year
Especially if you and me see it in together”

the lover shares the verse with her, singing:

“Now you’re twenty-one you’re ready for a new year
Let’s marry now and celebrate forever!”

In the original script, the stage direction is for the mother and lover to be singing to each other, but Button changed it so that the mother sang the words to Tommy while the lover was singing to the mother, showing that the lover is way more into her than she’s into him and making it easier on the audience to accept the lover’s impending death. It also alters how we perceive the characters in that it emphasizes how much the mother truly loves her son (despite accidentally traumatizing him a few moments later) and her loyalty and love for her presumed-to-be-dead-from-war husband. Then, too, the lover is portrayed as particularly forceful which would not have appeared in his character otherwise, singing lines like “your future is with me now,” where Button had the actor place special emphasis on “me.” The whole dynamic between the characters was altered, even though they were singing the same words that were in the original script! I’d never seen a story become altered like that.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the original is worse and his version is better or vice versa, but it shows the powerful, strong differences that can occur among different interpretations. I think this is where theater gets it right! Any time we see something performed we’re getting one specific interpretation of it, and that’s the magic. Maybe this is why retellings of fairy tales and other common stories are so great: they show us the possibilities inherent in a general story, opening up creative possibilities we might never have seen before. Music too works in similar ways by offering remixes and versions of the same song sung by different artists. All in all, experiencing individuals’ unique interpretations of stories is one of my favorite things, and it would seem I’m not alone!

Well, while there are many versions of this post that I could have made and I’ve had no light shining through the clouds moment informing me this is now perfect, here it is! But before I finish, do you tend to think of stories as more malleable or ultimately rigid? Do you think stories should remain true to the original version if there is one? Let me know in the comments!

21 thoughts on “The Who’s Tommy: A Rock Opera (As Experienced by an Assistant Director)”

  1. I was actually thinking about this a few days ago with regard to Shakespeare plays! Theatre is so interesting because every director can interpret things differently. Thanks for this great post– I’m glad that you got the opportunity to help with this show!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I use Sherlock Holmes as an example of changed stories, which are done quite well, I think. The general idea is more or less the same–Holmes and Watson solve mysteries, blah-blah, this and that; however, there are the tiniest changes to those tales based on generational reasons, or “keeping up with the times.” Holmes can still be a drug addict, but be using a different form of drug every time around. The cases can have the premise, but take place in different settings, was well as have diverting endings.
    Those changes work for Sherlock Holmes, and; in fact, I believe they open the mysteries to new lenses and perspectives through our ever-altering times. His are some of the stories in which changes can be accepted.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the Who and I love this album – the band’s performance of it at Woodstock in 1969 is incredible. Full marks for effort. Pete Townshend spent hours arguing with the concert’s promoters to make sure they got paid. One has included a link below, on has, I trust you don’t mind!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome, thanks for the link! Interesting to see them perform! When I listened to this album before working on the show it was very surreal and disturbing for me, I think because the story is so dark but the music is so light and happy. Very cool.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My comment is both “I don’t know” but also that’s the great part about theatre, the play is always different…it’s like this dynamic process…stories can be dynamic, too, but movies/TV, in a way, by comparison, are static. Am I even making sense? A week of madness over here… *laugh*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha no that makes sense to me! I think that’s part of what intrigues me about live music. It’s taking a seemingly static “track” but recreating it live which makes it different in certain ways, even if they don’t alter it dramatically!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes! in folk music this is called “the folk process” where songs get changed as they pass through singers, and the same with jazz and expanding on the “Standards,” but all performing arts have their analogs to this process.

    Written literature tends to avoid this, the text becomes holy and unchangeable. I sometime revise/remix stuff in the public domain, taking my performer’s license to do this.

    Like this:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very cool! Thanks for sharing the link! I barely know anything about folk music so that’s really interesting to hear that this kind of thing happens there, too!!


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