La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Rock Opera: Mega Multi-media Tommy Stratford's "Biggest Ever" Musical!

Music and Lyrics: Pete Townshend
Book: Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Director: Des McAnuff
Musical Direction: Rick Fox
Choreographer: Wayne Cilento
Set Designer: John Arnone
Costume Designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting Designer: Howell Binkley
Sound Designer: Andrew Keister
Projection Designer: Sean Nieuwenhuis

Mrs. Walker: Kira Guloien
Captain Walker: Jeremy Kushnier
Uncle Ernie: Steve Ross
Minister: Larry Herbert
Tommy: Robert Markus

Avon Theatre
Stratford Festival
Saturday, June 15, 2013

A few weeks ago Maestro Mario Bernardi passed away. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have thought about the current musical theatre offerings at the Stratford Festival.

For several years back in the 1970s, Bernardi led memorable performances of Mozart’s operas in the Avon Theatre. It was a time when Shakespeare dominated the theatre festival and the musical offerings were equally classical. As the festival grew into the new century, management was forced to respond to changing trends, and the Mozart operas were replaced by Gilbert and Sullivan. This era too was impressive, with several productions filmed for posterity. Finally came the festival’s Broadway period, which continues full swing to this day, encompassing the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy.

Over its long and illustrious history, the Stratford Festival has refused to stand still, wisely moving with the times, all the while maintaining its high standards. Change has been part of its DNA. Some of those changes have been for the better; others, perhaps not.

From Mozart to The Who: Our Ever-Evolving Stratford
This year’s Tommy is a case in point. This is a show made for Broadway, but how good a fit is it for Stratford? Is rock opera the right direction for a festival that began as a celebration of Shakespeare and great classical music?

Let me say from the outset that Des McAnuff (photo: right), Tommy’s director, made the best possible case for the inclusion of this show in the Stratford Festival. This was a spectacular production in terms of its multi-media effects, vivid costumes, world-class dancing and singing, and, if Pete Townshend’s music is to your taste, great playing out of the pit band and the state of the art sound system at the Avon. It was a truly impressive show by any standard. As Des McAnuff put it in the program notes: “We are able to do things visually and in sound that we could never have dreamed of before.” And he should know: it was McAnuff who directed the 1993 production of Tommy on Broadway.

This same day I had attended a fine production of Fiddler on the Roof in the Festival Theatre – a pretty traditional musical, with a story line that made sense. The show is arguably a little lightweight for its subject matter, but it has at least some elements of thoughtfulness. I can’t say the same for Tommy. It’s important to remember that Tommy was originally a highly successful rock album by The Who. It was released as a 2-LP set in 1969 and sold more than 20 million copies. The Who played Tommy in concert and Ken Russell filmed it in 1975, but only in 1993 did it get a full-blown stage production. Clearly, the stage show Tommy grew out of the rock album.

In his program notes, Des McAnuff presents the story of the show as profound and all-encompassing: “the largest themes of the story have to do with the relationship between war and peace.” Tommy himself “becomes a spiritual guide and a political force.”

Realizing that the new world of audio-visual stage technology is not without risk, McAnuff writes:  “We have done our very best to rethink the visual storytelling while at the same time being careful to maintain the integrity of the story we all believe in so passionately.”  While getting carried away talking about the big theme of war and peace, however, he concedes that the story of Tommy is actually not much more than a story about pop culture: “Ultimately, Tommy parallels so many of the important characters of the sixties. He is Pete Townshend smashing the electric guitar. He is John Lennon stepping into early retirement and rejecting rock stardom. He is Bob Dylan refusing to be pigeonholed as the leader of the protest movement.”

Thoughts on the Music and the Book 
At the performance I attended, I noticed that many in the audience were probably of an age to have known Pete Townshend (photo: right) and The Who in their youth. I spoke later to some audience members who confirmed my impression. They had come to see the show because they had grown up with The Who, and in some cases had seen earlier productions of Tommy. It was really the music that drew them to Tommy. I must confess that I personally paid no attention to The Who in my youth or later; I was too busy idolizing Mozart. I do, however, like to think of myself as open-minded. Where there is music and literature, imaginative or entertaining, that has something important to say about the human condition, I want to know about it – classical or not.

With respect to Tommy, I don’t find anything original or interesting about Peter Townshend’s music in itself. It is loud and exciting in small doses, but like so much rock music it succumbs to sameness. There is not enough variety, there is not enough subtlety and its limited range cannot begin to express a full range of emotion. 

How about the book, then? The book struck me as a series of sketches rather than a coherent narrative. Granted, many classical opera libretti have the same problem, but in most of those cases, we continue to perform them because the music has great value.

In the case of Tommy, to my mind, we have neither a story nor music of exceptional quality. What we do have in this Stratford production, deserving of rave reviews, are sensational production values: sets, costumes, lighting, projections, film, sound, and a superb cast. This Tommy was a true ensemble effort with each singer and dancer contributing to the overall excellence of the show. And how do they do it? Many of the same performers who excelled as Russian dancers in Fiddler on the Roof in the Festival Theatre in the afternoon were back on stage at the Avon in the evening tossing off rock and jazz moves as if to the manner born.

Can a Case be Made?
If you like pop culture given the royal theatrical treatment, Tommy is the show for you. As for me, I suspect it may be time to consult the ghosts of Mario Bernardi and Glenn Gould – yes, Gould presided over some extraordinary concerts at Stratford in the early days – on how to convince the “powers that be” to program some “real” music at Stratford. “Back to the Future," anyone?

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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