The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society presents its first-ever classic British rock opera, The Who’s Tommy!. It’s a far cry from “Three Little Maids” and “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
The Who’s Tommy! is a rock opera with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, and book by Townshend and Des McAnuff. Townshend is an English musician, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, best known as the lead guitarist, backing vocalist, and principal songwriter for the rock band, The Who.
Seattle G&S Artistic Director Phil Lacey directs, with musical direction by Brandon Peck. The company claims to be bringing Tommy! into the 21st century with an electrifying force. Their new adaptation highlights different races, genders, and ages, adds original digital projections, and promises that the Acid Queen is unlike the original portrayal. Five local musicians play the live music.
Townshend has always been obsessed with story. When the idea of a “rock opera” was just a glimmer in his eye, Townshend, impatient with quick-hit radio singles, imagined stories that could expand the genre. He came up with the concept of Tommy!, joking that he would talk about the notion of a rock opera to anyone who would listen.
The Who began recording Tommy! in late-’68. Critics lavished praise on the double-LP of Tommy! as a breakthrough for The Who and as one of the most daring albums in rock ‘n roll. With “Pinball Wizard” as a hit single and The Who hitting the road for marathon performances of Tommy!, the album launched the band into super-stardom.
The Who promoted the album’s release with an extensive tour, including a live version of Tommy! during 1969 and 1970. As a result, the rock opera expanded into other mediums, including a Seattle Opera production in 1971, an orchestral version by Lou Reizner in 1972, a film in 1975, and a Broadway musical in 1993. The original album has sold more than 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Although The Who usually avoided festivals, they made an important exception with Woodstock in 1969 (Yes, that one). The band agreed to perform for $12,500. The festival ran late, so the group didn’t take the stage until the early morning, but it still made history. During “Pinball Wizard,” Abbie Hoffman leaped onstage to protest the imprisonment of poet/activist John Sinclair (possession of marijuana) before being thrown offstage by Townshend.
The public embraces “Pinball Wizard” as their #1 favorite Tommy! tune, but more obscure songs are actually fan favorites, like the haunting character introductions in “Cousin Kevin,” “Fiddle About,” and “Sally Simpson.” Or perhaps, the bold, fast-paced sound of “Go to the Mirror,” which allowed the late Keith Moon to show off his phenomenal drumming skills. (“Pinball Wizard” was actually written as a ploy by Townshend to win favor with a critic who was a massive pinball fan.)
Then came the 1975 British independent rock musical fantasy film version of Tommy!. Directed by Ken Russell, the film featured a star-studded ensemble cast, including the band members themselves (most notably, lead singer Roger Daltrey, who plays the title role), Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson.
After 27 previews, Tommy! officially opened on April 22, 1993 (This critic attended the opening to photograph celebrities for Playbill magazine.) and closed on 17 June 1995, after 899 performances. It was produced by Sir George Martin and directed by Des McAnuff, with choreography by Wayne Cilento. Actor Michael Cerveris made his Broadway bow as Tommy, snagging a Theater World Award. The rock musical subsequently was produced by various touring companies throughout North America and Europe.
The stage adaptation of The Who’s classic album, rock opera and film tells the story of a deaf, dumb and mute boy who becomes a world-famous Pinball Wizard and the leader of a cult of devotees. After witnessing his father commit murder, Tommy is traumatized into catatonia. As an adolescent, he discovers a natural knack for pinball, and after breaking through his catatonia, becomes an international pinball superstar. All of this is layered with Tommy’s dysfunctional relationship with his family. As New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote, “He [Tommy] gets the uncritical adulation from roaring crowds that his despised parents never gave him at home.”
In 1993, the musical was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Director and Best Original Score. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. The 1997 London production was nominated for eight Olivier Awards, winning three for Best Musical Revival, Best Director, and Best Lighting Design.
The Who’s Tommy! even made Seattle history. In 1971, Seattle Opera, under director Richard Pearlman, produced the first-ever, fully-staged professional production at the Moore Theatre. The production included Bette Midler in the role of the Acid Queen and Mrs. Walker.
There are several plot differences between the album, the film, and the stage production, though the general storyline is largely the same.
The original 1969 album was much more ambiguous in its specific plot points than the 1993 stage musical and 1975 film version. Originally, the album version took place in post-World War I setting. In the film, the story was changed to post-World War II. In both the album and stage versions, the father kills the lover, but Ken Russell’s film reversed this, by killing the father and having the lover then assume the role of a step-father to Tommy!.
The film added a handful of new songs which were not on the original album and weren’t retained for the stage production. But the most fundamental difference in the story is the finale, which was rewritten in 1993. Originally, Tommy instructs his followers to become deaf, dumb, and blind themselves to find a heightened state of enlightenment. The crowd rejects this and turns on him. In the stage version, Tommy tells them the opposite: not to try to emulate him, but rather live out their own normal lives. Sadly, the crowd still rejects him.
In the G&S production, the role of Tommy will be shared by five different performers. Three of them-Varsha Raghavan, Emily Welter, and Garrett Dill–work together to create a complex, multifaceted protagonist. Vivienne Ridao and Fiona Alhadeff play the two young Tommy’s,
The cast features a number of performers already known to Seattle audiences: Nastacia Nicole Guimont as Captain Walker (Legend of Georgia McBride at ACT, Milk Like Sugar at ArtsWest), Tori Spero as Mrs. Walker (Gregory Award for People’s Choice of Outstanding Actress in Parade with Sound Theatre Company), and Jeff Orton as the Acid Queen (Parade at Sound Theatre Company, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at ArtsWest, Altar Boys at SMT).
“This show is a journey towards healing,” director Lacey explains. “We dive deeply into the cycles of violence that in one way or another affect us all, and through the power of presence, forgiveness, and definitely some pinball and rock ‘n roll–look for a glimpse of hope. Tommy’s story reaches across genders, ethnicities, preconceived ideas, and prejudice to unleash the sensation in all of us. The production takes place in the smaller, more intimate 12th Avenue Arts venue. Hopefully, the audience will feel what’s being sung and felt right along with the performers.”
Townshend’s masterpiece remains a groundbreaking rock opera—the first of its kind. Who frontman Roger Daltrey insists that 73-year-old is still capable of writing the best material of his life, if he can find the inspiration he needs. “I’ve always been of the opinion that if Pete really puts his mind to it he could potentially write his greatest work at this age. He’s got that kind of brain that would use his life experience and his musical ability to perhaps come up with his greatest compositions.”
About the Principal Characters
Tommy, age 16–25, a young pinball genius. Tenor.
Captain Walker age: 25–35, Tommy’s guilty father. Tenor.
Walker, age: 18–30, Tommy’s weary mum. Pop Mezzo-soprano.
Tommy, age 3–7: child Tommy
Tommy, age 8–12: preadolescent Tommy!
About the Supporting Characters
Cousin Kevin, age: 15–20, Tommy’s evil babysitting cousin. A young, loutish nuisance. Baritone.
Uncle Ernie, age: 30–45, Tommy\’s perverted uncle. A lecherous bachelor. Tenor.
The Lover, age: 25–30, Mrs. Walker’s lover, killed by Captain Walker
The Hawker, age: 20–50, an unsavory street man. Baritone
The Acid Queen, age: 20–35, a drug dealer and prostitute.
The Specialist, age: 30–50, a very modern doctor who has new theories on how to cure Tommy. Baritone.
Sally Simpson, age: 13–20, a typical teenybopper. Soprano.
Tommy – Varsha Raghavan
Tommy – Emily Welter
Tommy – Garrett Dill
Captain Walker – Nastacia Guimont
Mrs. Walker – Tori Spero
Uncle Ernie – Ryan McCabe
Cousin Kevin – Colin Briskey
Acid Queen – Jeff Orton
The Specialist – Matt Dela Cruz
Sally Simpson – Savannah Lynn
Multiple / Ens – Kelly Ufford
Multiple / Ens – Karin Terry
Multiple / Ens – Mikey Dela Cruz
Multiple / Ens – Jake Atwood
Multiple / Ens – DeSean Halley
Young Tommy – Fiona Alhadeff
Young Tommy – Vivienne Ridao
Director – Phil Lacey
Music Director – Brandon Peck
Choreographer – McKenzie Baird
Scenic Design – Margaret Toomey
Lighting Design – Ahren Buhmann
Costume Design – Emily Woods Hogue
Properties – Robin Macartney
Stage Manager – C. Arnel Lucas-Dorsey
ASM – Veronica Murray
Fun Fact: This musical inspired Data East‘s production of a pinball machine called The Who’s Tommy Pinball Wizard, which used music, sound effects and artwork based on the original Broadway production.
Seattle Gilbert And Sullivan Society’s The Who’s Tommy! runs 90 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission, August 16th – September 1st (August 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, Sept 1) at 8pm at 12th Avenue Arts, tickets $20-$40, with student, senior and industry discounts available; tickets at https://seattlegilbertandsullivan.com/the-whos-Tommy, at Brown Paper Tickets (800) 838-3006, or at the door.