New Wolsey Theatre plays host to Tommy - the Pinball Wizard
- Credit: Archant
Pete Townshend’s classic rock opera Tommy is one of the great cultural treasures of our time. It started life as a double-album released by The Who in 1969. It was the first time that rock music had attempted to tell a complex story through song.
It was a concept album before the term was invented and gained such a hold on the public imagination that in 1975 renegade film-maker Ken Russell turned it into a star-studded big screen musical which led to its first live staging at the Queen’s Theatre, London, in 1979.
The show was revived and extensively re-worked for an award-winning 1993 Broadway production which was then revised again for its West End run at the Salisbury Theatre in 1996.
Now it is being revived and revised once again by the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and has been cast with a mixed able-bodied/Deaf-disabled company, as part of the Ramps on the Moon project which seeks to offer more opportunities to Deaf-disabled actors in mainstream productions.
Tommy is a show with a history and director Kerry Michael is delighted that rock legend Pete Townshend is so excited by this new production that he has penned new lyrics for the song Amazing Journey and written a new song for The Acid Queen to sing as she makes a previously unseen entrance in Act Two.
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Kerry says that he’s hugely honoured that Pete Townshend has taken the time and touble to contribute new material to the show and wants to be kept informed of the developments. He says that the show has undergone various changes over the years and so is always in a state of flux but while Townshend is happy that he put his stamp on this new production, he’s very aware that you can’t change things too much.
“It was a slight relief and also a slight concern that there wasn’t a book set in stone. On the one hand it is really great that Pete Townshend is up for allowing us to make sense of his show in the modern world – the show was tweaked for the Ken Russell film, again for Broadway and again for the West End, so we do have lots of different versions to refer back to – but at the same time you have got to be careful how you handle this iconic musical (and the original concept album) which people have fond memories of. If you push it too far then it stops being the show that they want to come along to and sing along to. So you have got to respect the source material and realise that the original has worked for many years and changing it for changes sake is never a good idea. It just means you think you’re clever when clearly you’re not.”
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He says that Townshend may not be in the rehearsal room but he is an integral part of the team which is giving the show a new lease of life. “We’ve had lunch and he’s in regular contact. He likes to be kept informed on where we are in the process, what we are doing and we bounce emails back and forth. He’s very engaged and he’s been very generous with the show. He’s given us a lot of his early writing detailing his original thoughts about the album and the songs. The original idea sprang from a very long poem that he wrote and we talked a lot about the symbolism the show contains.”
For Kerry the scale and ambition of the show, along with the quality of the music, are the reasons that he wanted to revisit this classic show. He also knew he wanted to tempt original cast member Peter Straker to return to the production.
“It was attractive because it looks fantastic, it has a great musical score – even with those famous lyrics, which are rather problematic now: ‘That deaf dumb and blind kid who plays a mean pinball’ and I knew that Peter Straker was in the original West End production and I thought that with all those elements, if we could bring them all together then we would have a really good show. There would be some great possibilities and opportunities to do something different, something fresher.”
The biggest changes that they have brought to the show have been updating the setting and allowing Peter Staker’s Acid Queen to make an appearance in the second half.
“What we have been doing is looking at a way to incorporate a new song by Pete Townshend for the Acid Queen – which helps give the Acid Queen more of a through line. In the previous versions of the show, she doesn’t come back after Act One, so we have tried to flesh out her story. We want it to be true to its past while speaking to a 21st century audience.”
He says that casting Peter Straker as The Acid Queen was a no-brainer. “There are many ways to play the role. You can get a strong female diva to really blast it out and that’s the way that many people choose to do it, but I wanted to step back and do something different. I have worked with Peter on a number of different projects and the thought of having Peter back in the show, having been in the original production, was a lovely idea but then what could he play? Then it quickly became clear that have him play The Acid Queen was the most exciting idea. He can sing that big, big diva number and he had to have a think about it, whether he wanted to go on tour, but once he had made the decision to revisit his past, then he was really up for it.”
Tommy is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until April 15 and then is on tour across the UK.