'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
Roger Daltrey of The Who performs in a stage version of 'Tommy' at the Rainbow Theatre in London.
By |

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.

Winwood was consistently strong as Tommy's father, his high voice soaring with firmness on "Christmas" and "Go to the Mirror Boy." Equally good was mother Maggie Bell, whose performance on the album should give her the recognition she deserves outside of England.

On two occasions performers were forced to take bows in the middle of the show. David Measham, conductor of the LSO, accepted the applause his colleagues earned for its version of the overture. And the real showstopper was Merry Clayton, with her diabolical and thoroughly professional rendition of "The Acid Queen."

The technical highlight of the evening was the use of slides and films that partially compensated for the lack of drama onstage. Joe's Lights were sometimes outstanding.

Overlooked in most of the London reviews were the orchestra and the Chamber Choir. Having rehearsed more than the soloists, they were tight and, under Measham's guidance, flexible enough to adjust to the vagaries of the stars. At 35, Measham is one year older than the average age of the members of what he called "the youngest symphony orchestra in the world."

It is easy and tempting to criticize the Rainbow Tommy, but the most important fact was that it happened at all. Reizner had a point when he said, "To get all those people there was the event. Just like Woodstock could be criticized for all its problems, it started the festivals. And this, too, was a first."

Your career is over after December 9th," eight-year old Claudia Reizner told her father. Not quite, but it is true that the producer of the record and stage show of Tommy had lived with the piece for 18 months. "I suppose if I ever had a little boy I'd have to name it Tommy," he said shortly before the show.

It was in June, 1968, that Roger Daltrey announced in London that the Who were to record a rock opera. "Actually, Pete has been writing these operas for some time," the lead vocalist added. "I'm A Boy" had come from a projected piece about a futuristic society in which parents could choose sex of their offspring. The baby, defending himself against the folks who had chosen a girl, asserted his masculinity by declaring "I'm A Boy." The first recorded Who mini-opera was "A Quick One While He's Away."

From 1965 until Daltrey's announcement, Townshend made demos of material later to be used in the rock opera. Finally, in 1969, the Who's Tommy was released, and for two years the group was forced to perform it on the road until, as Lou Reizner put it, "Pete had had Tommy up to his eyeballs."

While the Who were taking their show to the Fillmore, the Metropolitan Opera House, and venues across America and the continent, Lou Reizner, an independent producer living in London, was listening to the album and reading about the live performances. "I think the idea first developed by reading live reports in Rolling Stone and Time of discrepancies. It interested me to fix them up. And I thought if I could put it into another concept, more people would hear Tommy than before.

"The most important discrepancy was how did Tommy become deaf, dumb and blind. That's the key. When he says 'I saw, I heard it' – you can hardly hear that on the original."

The "concept" with which Reizner hoped to make Tommy heard by larger audiences was to have the music played by a full orchestra and the character parts sung by individuals.

Townshend recalled his initial contacts with Reizner. "I always sort of liked Lou but I didn't think anybody could pull it off. When I asked Kit and Chris, my managers, if I should cooperate, I had in mind that I'd been burnt so many times with Tommy, with projects that never came through. Kit had had this idea for himself but never gotten around to it, and when he got back to being a producer he lost it." Reassured by Kit Lambert and the fact that Pete Cameron, the Who's American manager, was very friendly with Reizner's American lawyer, Townshend supplied Reizner with his 1965-68 demos at a second luncheon meeting.

Before the individuals could be recorded, the orchestral and choral backings had to be laid down. Wil Malone, who had previously arranged an album for Reizner, was summoned. "He had only ten days for each piece," said Townshend, "so he did fantastic work. The LP is far more a Wil Malone piece than anyone realizes at this point."

Of the Who Tommy he had to work from, Malone admitted "I didn't particularly like the LP, but I had to study it. It takes time to get into it." David Measham, whose London Symphony Orchestra had done tracks for Neil Young's Harvest, had never heard the original. "It took two or three sessions to really get into it. But it was just great to be doing it. Tommy is a great piece of music." Measham also directed the choir, which in Malone's arrangements had many lines by itself in addition to those in support of soloists.

The major task after starting the recording of the orchestra was casting the individual roles. Reizner's first choice for Tommy was Rod Stewart, whose first album he had produced for Mercury.

"Rod's a funny guy, he'll say he'll do something and then won't," Reizner remembered. And Stewart didn't want to play Tommy. "There were too many words to learn. 'Pinball Wizard' – that was only four verses."

Townshend, whom Reizner consulted about the castings, didn't want Stewart to do it either. "One reason I felt Rod wouldn't be right is because he's better known as a solo artist. I feel Roger's voice is well-known, but he's not thought of so much as a solo artist." Reizner hadn't thought of Daltrey seriously until Pete recommended him, thinking he was probably as tired of the opera as Townshend. But that was not the case. "I could never get tired of it," Roger claimed. "It's part of me. I was only too glad to do it."

The morning of the Rainbow performance he explained, "It's like one long song to me. It's very boring for me to sing the same songs in a row, but for me this is one song."

It was Stewart and Daltrey who first suggested that Reizner bring the LP production to the stage. Everyone involved agreed – except the management of Royal Albert Hall. The London Symphony Orchestra makes its bookings there six months in advance, and its decision on a particular program as the concert date approaches. When the LSO decided on Tommy for December 9th, the Hall management said no: It had a ban on rock & roll.

"The original booking was for the LSO, not for Tommy," said Judy Purcell of the Hall staff. About six months ago we had to ban rock groups. We couldn't turn around and let in someone when we'd refused so many like them before.

"It's really sort of the heavy groups that cause the damage," she added.

The LSO might be surprised to learn it was considered a "heavy group." But Reizner insisted he was rejected because Tommy was supposedly "unsavory." "We sent them the libretto, an acetate, Measham sent a letter. We told them Princess Margaret would attend, and the reply was 'She's no reference, she associates with the Rolling Stones.' "

The Rainbow seized the opportunity and a Tommy ticket became the most sought-after ducat since the Stones hit Madison Square Garden.

And so, the Tommy juggernaut rolls on. "America wants us coast-to-coast," said the LSO's general manager. Reizner and Townshend say chances are very good for at least one New York performance. And, they have been offered the opportunity to make a film.

"If there's a Tommy movie, the Who have to make it," insisted Townshend. "It's down to the Who to have it made. I feel a lot of good offers will come up. . . ."

At any rate, he added, "The work Tommy is now far more in demand than the Who."

This story is from the January 18th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 126: January 18, 1973
x