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'Tommy' Premieres on a London Stage

Sadly, however, it doesn't translate

Roger Daltrey of The Who performs in a stage version of 'Tommy' at the Rainbow Theatre in London.
Michael Putland/Getty Images
January 18, 1973

LONDON — "Lou Adler and I are doing the negotiating to bring the show to New York. There's talk of Madison Square Garden, but I'm aiming for the Met. They have the facilities we need." Lou Reizner talking, the week after the London presentation of his production of Tommy.

"It's funkier than any opera will ever be," Merry Clayton said with a giggle. "Let's call it 'The Funky Opera.' It's beautiful. I'd like for the show to go on and on with the original cast."

"Sure we'd like to take it on the road," Maggie Bell agreed. "Merry wants to take it to Broadway."

If the Tommy that played its much-ballyhooed one-night stand December 9th at the Rainbow Theater ever were to make Broadway, it would need a week in New Haven. The audience shelled out up to $50 a ticket for filet mignon and got a Big Mac instead: palatable theater, but hardly aesthetically inspiring. The sad fact is that the people responsible for a remarkable album were unable to transfer that record's coherence and beauty to the stage.

The grossest offender was, tragically, the man who first breathed life into Tommy, Peter Townshend. On the threshold of one of the peaks of his career, Townshend walked onstage in no condition to perform. There was some question as to what was wrong with Pete.

"Internal problems," BBC disk jockey Emperor Rosko ventured. "On my Roundtable program the evening before he was doubled up in pain with constant stomach cramps."

Whatever the difficulty, the composer of the bulk of Tommy degraded the occasion by muttering silly jabs at the London Symphony Orchestra, conductor David Measham and Reizner. Townshend then humiliated himself with a thoroughly inept performance as the Narrator. After he finished his part by mauling "Sally Simpson," blowing entrances and missing lines despite the aid of printed words, he indicated knowledge of his failure by wiping his butt with the libretto.

Keith Moon, replacing the filmmaking Ringo Starr as Uncle Ernie, played not the dastardly relative but the rapscallion Keith Moon. He attempted humor by sounding impossibly nasty, and strutted across the stage in leather briefs that had been hidden beneath his trenchcoat. In overacting his part he also succeeded in losing his place in the lyrics. And just as Moon made his brief segments onstage his rather than the opera's, Rod Stewart made the three-minute "Pinball Wizard" a mini-Rod Stewart show, slinking around cockily a la a Faces concert.

Three minutes of a Rod Stewart performance was fine as a Rod Stewart performance, but it typified the major fault of the staging: Tommy should have been an entity, not a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars where everyone got his ten minutes and was then replaced by a non sequitur.

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Pete Townshend

Listening to the record, one could concentrate on the continuity of the music, undistracted visually. This was difficult at the Rainbow, where many performers acted themselves rather than characters from Tommy. For example, Peter Sellers, cast as the doctor to replace the unavailable Richard Harris, was his usual humorous self. Dressed in a Nazi war helmet, smock, high boots and long hair, he recited most of the lyrics with a clipped accent, then sang in an intentionally overdone schmaltzy style. But there is nothing funny about the doctor's song, and in allowing Sellers to clumsily grope for parts of Roger Daltrey's body when the latter intoned "See me, feel me," and probably in choosing Sellers to begin with, producer Reizner and director Don Hawkins erred seriously. They got a big name, a magnificent comedian, but in so doing got a performance incongruous with the material.

The principal reason the men behind the production didn't exercise much dramatic control over their soloists was that they didn't want to. "I think a lot of people were expecting Madame Butterfly," Reizner mused later, "but it was intended to be a concert of the record."

By the nature of the business, the stars could get together only at the last minute. Richie Havens canceled thousands of dollars in stateside performing contracts, Stevie Winwood halted a Jamaican recording session, and Rod Stewart interrupted a Faces tour for the two shows, benefits for the Stars Organization for Spastics, which netted approximately $17,000.

There was only one fairly complete rehearsal before the day of performance, a critical fact considering that the artists had never previously assembled with the orchestra and choir, the album tracks having been recorded in stages. It had been weeks since the vocals had been laid down, suggesting that those soloists who missed lines had simply forgotten.

At the end of the performance half of the audience stood in ovation, indicating that there had been things to cheer about despite the flaws. Roger Daltrey played the part of Tommy with the new intensity and distinction that marked the Reizner album. Unlike many of the stars, who chatted with each other or mugged onstage, Daltrey was serious throughout. Glassy-eyed and reserved before his cue, he broke out convincingly and furiously as the new Messiah. A film that accompanied "I'm Free" showed Roger horseriding, running and frolicking with a pet dog. The combination of inspired vocal with appropriate footage was a moment of triumph.

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Michael Putland/Getty Images
Roger Daltrey of The Who performs in a stage version of 'Tommy' at the Rainbow Theatre in London.
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