The Who’s Tommy
Paramount Theater, Aurora, IL
Adaptations of things we love can change our relationship with the source material. The best adaptations add new dimensions and new understandings of the source material (see NBC’s Hannibal or Johnny Cash’s cover of NIN’s “Hurt”), helping you to understand how rich it is or a different side of it. The worst adaptations make you question the source material and why you ever liked it in the first place. Unfortunately, the latter is the case with the Who’s Tommy. The album that birthed the rock opera, Tommy helped me grow an appreciation for the concept record and the Who themselves. In college I saw the movie which features the likes of Tina Turner and Elton John, which is absolutely terrible, but I just counted that as Hollywood screwing it up.
I finally got around to seeing the musical adaptation of Tommy at Aurora’s Paramount Theater, which debuted on Broadway in 1993 and has since made it around the country and been picked up by different production groups. I assumed like most things, Broadway magic would take over and it would be a feel good, entertaining show. Instead, my wife and I suffered through one of the worst two hours of “entertainment” I can remember, calling into question what makes Tommy so great beyond it being the first of its kind.
To be sure, not everything is meant to be adapted from audio to visual. I think for example, of the Janelle Monae’s entire catalogue, which centers around a narrative involving her android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, or David Bowie’s space messiah Ziggy Stardust. Music narratives can be more outlandish because they don’t have to be visualized, being extreme in order to convey an emotional point more thoroughly. And Tommy would have remained fine if it would have just been left as an album. However, by doing a musical and movie version of the concept album loosely based on Who guitarist Pete Townsend’s childhood, it draws tons of attention on just how stupid and ridiculous a story Townsend came up with to mirror his own childhood.
When I say stupid and ridiculous, I mean the idea of a boy going deaf, dumb and blind (and calling it deaf, dumb, and blind) from seeing his father murder his mom’s lover and then that being reversed when a mirror is smashed in the third act. I mean two attempts at child molestation (one successful in Uncle Ernie and one not with the Acid Queen) within a 15 minute span of the musical, done to a 10 year old child. I also mean Tommy becoming a huge megastar on the back of playing pinball really well with fans having a Beatlemania level of love for him. I mean the second half of the story being pretty much incomprehensible leaving half the audience asking what just happened. It makes no sense to make this subject matter a musical for certain, but it does call into question why this story makes sense at all.
The Aurora production also made matters worse with poor acting, shrill singing, cheesy effects, and a sloppy band. But again, all this can seem bad just because of the source material.
There is also something to the fact that childhood trauma makes for really poor Broadway material. My friend Alex recommended I cleanse my palette by listening to Live at Leeds or Who’s Next to re-establish my love for the Who, but I’m afraid it’s going to take an Men In Black memory zapper type of device to undo the damage done by the musical The Who’s Tommy. It’s really that bad.