The Who's Tommy
The Who's Tommy

Why the Right Time for The Who’s TOMMY Is Right Now

It’s been 55 years since the seminal rock band The Who first released Tommy as a two-LP concept album, 50 years since it hit the big screen as a memorable movie, and 30 since it became a Tony Award–winning musical. And yet a new Broadway production of the enduring rock opera is proving that the time for The Who’s Tommy is right now.

In the words of director Des McAnuff: “The world has finally caught up to Tommy Walker.”

McAnuff, the director of both the acclaimed Broadway musical in 1993 and the highly anticipated new staging, says the story’s fresh relevance revealed itself during recent discussions about the project with Pete Townshend, the Who band member who wrote the majority of Tommy. In re-examining the musical, they both discovered a prescient topicality in the story of a traumatized young man who rises from unhappy beginnings to become an unlikely pinball star and then the leader of a new religious movement.

As the tale progresses, Tommy touches on issues of trauma, abuse, leadership, and spirituality — which all carry a vital currency in today’s world. “I just thought, ‘My God, this is about now,’” Townshend says. “It has a whole new energy and new thrust. It feels as though the story is being told anew.”

Chicago critics agreed with him. The new Tommy arrives in New York after a sold-out run in the Windy City, where the Chicago Sun-Times declared the show “as fresh and vital as it was when Nixon was president.” The Chicago Tribune called it “a ready-for-primetime stunner,” adding, “Broadway has nothing else like this wizardry going on.”

Fans of the music can expect to hear all their favorite tunes, including “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me,” and “I’m Free,” in orchestrations that honor the music’s rock roots. “I would say that this time around, the show has more of heavy, rock-band sound than it did before,” Townshend notes with approval. “It’s got tremendous energy.”

The score itself and the show’s story remain mostly unchanged. That’s because both Townshend and McAnuff decided Tommy needed no rewriting to highlight its relevance.

“There’s a power in this story that doesn’t require a lot of fussbudgeting with changes,” McAnuff says. “Tommy became more pertinent all by itself.”

What has changed is the entire look of the show. Whereas the original production told the story through a whirlwind of stage technology, the new design, as exemplified by the sleek, minimal set created by Hamilton Tony winner David Korins, now brings the tale to life as a human-powered marvel, with an interplay of light and shadow that adds mystery and depth.

“The lens through which we’re seeing Tommy is what’s different,” McAnuff explains. “It’s much more updated and contemporary, and it adds a layer of humanity and compassion. It’s very emotional. The thing that’s wonderful about this production is that it has so much heart.”

Adding to the production’s fresh take is the new choreography by Lorin Latarro (WaitressInto the Woods), who brings a modern-dance sensibility to the way the show moves. That element of the production is already drawing plaudits, with the Chicago Tribune declaring that Latarro’s choreography “has Tony Award written all over it.”

The new Broadway vision for Tommy also features a youthful cast, led by breakout newcomer Ali Louis Bourzgui as the titular pinball wizard. “Ali is about the same age that Pete was when he put the album out,” McAnuff says. “It gives him almost this telepathic connection to the material that’s really quite uncanny.”

Broadway regulars Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), Alison Luff (Waitress), Bobby Conte (Company), and Christina Sajous (SpongeBob SquarePants) add additional star power. All of them began their journeys with Tommy in the Chicago run, where, McAnuff says, “the show really soared to new heights.”

Townshend, who’s based in the U.K., got his first full taste of the new production when it was already up and running in Chicago. He saw it three times in two days.

“What I felt was the shock of feeling like Tommy is a new voice, asking big questions,” he says. “And there’s a new sense of celebration at the end. I really feel like the world has in many ways caught up with Tommy, and I have my fingers crossed that Broadway will see it that way too.”

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