Thursday, February 25, 2010

Back in Time: 1993 - 94: The Who's Tommy, Part I

A couple of months ago, I did a series on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a moderately successful, award-winning production from the 1980's.  I chose that show to focus on because it is one of my favorites and because the people involved in it continue to effect today's Broadway scene.  For similar reasons, I have selected The Who's Tommy to focus my next series on - this time from the decade of the 1990's.  Like Drood, the show was a critical hit and continues to influence today's theatre scene.

From Concept to Broadway

No doubt, especially since The Who has again recently made headlines for their Super Bowl halftime appearance, you are aware that the rock group has influenced music since the 1960's.  Among their many accomplishments are two concept albums, Tommy and Quadrophenia.  Both were produced with the idea of eventual evolution into fully staged rock operas.  To date, only Tommy has accomplished that goal.  The Tommy double album was introduced at a concert given by the band who then played a great deal of it at once.  Fans embraced it immediately, though not necessarily because they understood the complex, detailed story, but rather because the music style fit nicely with the rest of The Who's catalogue.

Later, the London Symphony Orchestra recorded the score, and staged concerts began cropping up, including shows that featured the likes of Bette Midler, Elton John, Ringo Starr and Steve Winwood among others.  Eventually, in 1975, filmmaker Ken Russell got the project set to film, starring The Who's Roger Daltry, Ann Margaret, Elton John, Tina Turner and Jack Nicholson.  Every effort was made to create each scene as wildly as possible, with vivid, disturbing images, locations and a psychodelic feel.  The film remains popular today, though it was not the box office smash that it was originally puported to be.  Fans were divided, and the whole thing still made the plot incomprehensible to many.

Then, almost 25 years since the group debuted the concept album, a fully realized and fleshed out rock opera with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend (and contributions from the other group members), a book by Townshend and director Des McAnuff, and choreography by Wayne Cilento, opened on Broadway at the St. James Theatre.  It was a critical smash, and lines formed daily at the box office.  I remember being on that block when a tour bus, stopped in traffic, had the tour guide announcing over its loud speaker that Tommy would run for years.  It would be Broadway's next A Chorus Line.  Ironically, a similar statement was made about a future tenant of the St. James, The Producers.  Despite numerous awards and enthusiastic audiences, neither show lasted as long as predicted.

Tommy by the Numbers

The Who's Tommy
Began previews on March 29, 1993
Opening Night was April 22, 1993
Closing Night was June 17, 1995
27 previews
899 performances

The Who's Tommy was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  It won 5: Best Score (in a tie with Kander and Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman), Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting, Best Choreography and Best Direction.  The awards were not won without controversy.  Shortly after that tie for Best Score, the Tony committee began its long process of debate over scores written specifically for theatre - a debate which, a few years later became the rule as producers of The Lion King, Mary Poppins and a variety of other shows found out.  Some would make the cut, others would not.  But Tommy really started that ball rolling.  And more than a few pundits cried foul when McAnuff bested Harold Prince (Kiss of the Spider Woman) for Best Director.  A semi-feud/competition grew between the two shows as they both ran.  In fact, they both announced closing notices within hours of each other, and then Kiss extended "by popular demand" in order to out run Tommy by a mere 5 performances, closing on July 1 after 904 shows.

As we will see in later blogs in this series, The Who's Tommy turned out to be ground-breaking for more than changing the Tony rules for Best Score.  Scenic elements that are common place today got their start in the show, the creatives have gone on to illustrious careers, and the cast boasts MANY of today's Broadway stars, who then were just starting out.

Comments?  Leave one here or email me at

(Photos from Getty Images and Amazing - the Michael Cerveris official archive.  Facts and figures from The Who's Tommy, published by Pantheon Books (left) and The Internet Broadway Database.)


  1. Thanks for all the info about Tommy. It's still one of my favorite shows, and I as wrote in your cast recording post, one of my top 10 desert island cast recordings. I saw it in Philadelphia around 1994, when I was 16. It's the only show my dad has ever taken me to. So it's special to me for that reason too. I loved everything about it. It's perfectly enjoyable on the surface, but there's *so* much to it underneath. I saw it again several years ago in DC, in a much pared down form. I have to admit, though I still enjoyed the music and acting, I missed the spectacle/ rock concert feel of the first time I saw it. They also were missing one of the Tommy's. Instead of having the 4 year old, 10 year old, and then the young adult version, they were missing one of the younger ones- probably the 4 year old Tommy. I guess it's probably tricky taking 4 year olds on tour.

  2. You know, I have to agree with you. This is one show when pared-down, it loses something. I think the Broadway production was so carefully constructed that anything less is really noticeable. That said, I have seen a concert version, where the cast sat on stools and just sang. The singing and the orchestra were so great. But that was all about the music. And isn't it nice to have a wonderful memory with a loved on sharing a show? Some day, I'll write about seeing shows with my grandmother...

    Thanks for writing!


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