Thirty years ago, when the Who’s 1969 concept album “Tommy” was transformed into a rock opera for Broadway, it was hailed as a triumph of the form — a production that had finally managed to authentically marry theater and rock ’n’ roll.
Fueled by the spiritual exploration of a 23-year-old Pete Townshend, the Who guitarist and songwriter, the original production of “Tommy” drew crowds of baby boomers primed with adolescent nostalgia for the story of a boy who discovers a superhuman aptitude for pinball despite not being able to see, hear or speak.
The Broadway show raked in a record number of ticket sales the day after opening night, ran for nearly 900 performances and won five Tony Awards, including one for its director, Des McAnuff.
With its depictions of rebellion against authority and analogies to spiritual enlightenment, the show was firmly rooted in the youth culture of the 1960s. So why would McAnuff, for whom “Tommy” was a career-defining success, take the risk of reimagining the work for today’s audiences?
“Sometimes you just don’t get things out of your system,” McAnuff said in an interview shortly after his new production of “The Who’s Tommy” opened last month at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. “I felt like it was time to make it contemporary.”
In resurrecting “Tommy,” McAnuff and Townshend, who wrote the book together, sought to prove that the work was not simply of an era, but carried the promise of timelessness.
In 2023, McAnuff argues, Tommy’s transformation from catatonic schoolboy to a kind of charismatic cult leader resonates even more strongly when considering the modern-day culture of celebrity worship. And the show’s exploration of trauma — including post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual abuse and bullying — is something that audiences now have a much deeper understanding of.
The reimagining of “Tommy” is not so much in story but in style, with McAnuff opting for futuristic austerity over 1960s nostalgia. Tommy displays his skill not on a kitschy pinball machine but a spare set piece (designed by David Korins) in which the outline of a machine is represented by narrow panels of light. The personality cult that encircles Tommy feels more sinister than in the original production.
The production, which runs through Aug. 6, has received rave reviews in Chicago, with the critic Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune calling it a “ready-for-prime-time stunner.” The Goodman says the show is on track to be its highest-grossing production ever, a boon for the organization during a time of high anxiety around regional theater’s post-pandemic return. The show’s commercial producer, Stephen Gabriel, said several options for the production’s future are being weighed, including a Broadway run.
The story at the center of this production is much the same as the one the Who told when it played its new album