Pete Townshend is apparently goin’ mobile these days. The Broadway version of the Who‘s groundbreaking opera, Tommy – which Townshend collaborated on with Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff – will officially open at the St. James Theater on April 22nd, with previews beginning on March 29th.
The pair first staged Tommy last summer in an acclaimed production at the La Jolla Playhouse, in California. Always one of rock’s most intelligently introspective figures, Townshend spoke of Tommy and his promising new work in progress – a concept album entitled Psychoderelict – as well as the status of his relationship with Roger Daltrey.
Have you been as involved with the Broadway production as you were in La Jolla?
If anything, I’ve been a bit more involved because this time around I had input in the casting. For La Jolla, Des and I worked for about six weeks on getting the book right. It was a matter of making changes where necessary, reconsidering the order of songs – things like that. That involved a number of trips. Then I simply went for the technical rehearsals to check out the music. For Broadway, I’ve been involved right from the ground up, which has meant a great deal of traveling back and forth for me.
Are you excited by the idea of a Broadway opening?
I’m terribly jaded about everything in life except children. So, no, it’s not a great thrill. I’m looking forward to it, sure, but I’m also very cool about it. I’m also fairly pragmatic, and I know that Broadway is a dangerous place in many respects for a project like Tommy.
Will there be more of an emphasis on spectacle for Broadway?
The first act is very similar to the La Jolla show. Where we thought we needed work was in the second act. We thought that Tommy’s mother and father needed better characterization. We also felt that with Tommy himself we’d kind of swallowed up one of the main issues of the original story: Who was responsible in the end for the betrayal of the fans or the disciples? Was it just Uncle Ernie and the Camp Commandant, or was Tommy himself responsible? Whereas in the first production, I felt Tommy was culpable but not guilty. In the Broadway production we’ve made Tommy really thrill his audience more. We show much more of his rise and prominence.
So Tommy’s more of a rock star this time?
Des says that for him the pinball scenario is really a metaphor for rock & roll, and that’s something we elaborated on now. So there is a bit more spectacle and excitement in the second act, but apart from that it’s a very similar show.
The title role is being played by Michael Cerveris, who also starred in the La Jolla production. Was there any pressure to cast a name star?
There was a certain amount of pressure for that, and we considered looking at or talking to any stars who were interested. But we both really wanted Michael from the start. There were a few sniffs from people in rock and pop, but really when it comes down to it, the prospect of going onto Broadway and being paid $50,000 a week to do eight shows is not a prospect that the modern wanky little pop star thinks he wants.
Has working on the show taught you anything new about Tommy?
Yes, I think it did. I feel like the story that I’ve been writing all these years for Roger to sing, and later for myself to sing, has a running narrative. It’s the story of a kid from Shepherd’s Bush who emerges at the age of fifteen in the shape of the boy who sang our first record, “I Can’t Explain,” and went on to be personified as the hero in Quadrophenia. That voice has appeared in several guises over the years and continues to haunt my work. I’m not doing a Madonna here – I’m not saying it was all just an act. I’m just saying if there was a through line there, it was that I was writing for this voice. What’s strange is that I always thought that Tommy was the exception to that. And when I sat down with Des, I realized that rather than being the exception to all that, Tommy was actually the pinnacle of it.
The spiritual metaphor I used – being deaf, dumb and blind, equating to our spiritual ignorance – also equates to the social isolation of young people crawling out of adolescence. That gave me a new way of looking at the story of Tommy. I was able to look at Tommy as a real person for a change, rather than a figment of my Meher Baba-Sufi spiritual inclinations at the time. I’m not saying Tommy was autobiographical, but I was able to write an ending because I saw myself in the role. It all came into focus.
Are you surprised by how relevant Tommy still is?
No, I’m really not. I’ve always addressed and acknowledged child abuse, the neglect of children, the misunderstanding of adolescence. I’ve seen those as shades of the rock & roll story. The first song in which I addressed it was “I’m a Boy,” but it’s always been there.
Have your recent experiences with Tommy informed Psychoderelict?
It has to an extent, but it’s not Tommy II. Psychoderelict is a story with actors reading dialogue over, between and under songs. See, the thing I’ve missed terribly since the Who is context. The Who was terrific for that – it had tremendous color and melodrama. And whenever the press addressed the relationship I had with Roger Daltrey, it always returns to that old context, our version of the Glimmer Twins angle. You know, one is the good old boy who gets out there and sings, and one is the oddball who sits in the background and fucks things up.
And how do you feel about that characterization?
I think it’s terrific. I’m happy I’m not the good old boy. I think Roger and I are continuing to find ourselves in that context and trying to honor it. When we meet to discuss what we might do in the future, we have to be very careful that we don’t simply drag over the same coals again and again. Because I can’t – and won’t – continue to address history. I did that with the Who on the road in 1989, and I was happy to do it once as a celebration. But whatever the rewards and whatever the temptations, I don’t think I would do that again. We have a good dialogue. We’re trying to find a way to do something together – maybe as the Who, maybe not as the Who – which is honest and real. It will be difficult. And the stereotype of those two figures is really what I’m addressing in Psychoderelict.
It’s the story of two guys from a band. I’m projected about ten years into the future – both of them in their mid-fifties and struggling with their dreams and vision for the future, and to some extent with their perversity as a result of having been stars. It also deals with my cynical view of the press’s role in all this.
I hope it’s going to be good fun for all. I should finish it and hand it in by the end of February. I’m working with a lot of my usual musicians, and Ian Broudie has produced a couple things. The material itself is much more down-the-middle rock & roll than some of my recent work.
Any song titles you care to share?
The only title which is actually becoming in any sense pivotal is one called “English Boy.” It’s about the emergence of the modern punk.
Is it your rap tune?
It’s a bit rappy. Actually, it’s something like a cross between “My Generation” and “Face the Face.” I’m really proud of it.
So, is the theme of Psychoderelict that you hope you die before you get really old?
[Laughs] The funny thing about that, which I realized the other day, is that if I went back to the time when I said that and knew that I hadn’t died before I became old, I think I would have been fucking angry. In a sense I’ve betrayed myself in that respect. But perhaps if I had died before I got old, I might have been forgotten. You tend to hope you’ll become James Dean or Jimi Hendrix, but a lot of dead people aren’t remembered at all. So I haven’t been able to achieve that one great ambition I had when I was nineteen. But I’ve tried to compensate by actually making myself happy.
This story is from the March 18th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.