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Pinball Wizard: MUSKET puts contemporary spin on The Who's classic rock musical

By Anna Sadovskaya, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published March 22, 2012

It’s 2003. President Bush gives his “Mission Accomplished” speech and American troops are slowly sent home. Among them is Captain Walker, a man presumed to be dead by his family. As he enters his home, he finds his wife in the arms of another man. Filled with rage, Captain Walker kills the man while his 4-year-old son Tommy watches.

The stage is set: Newspaper clippings, pictures of Tommy as a little boy and photos of current events create an atmosphere of media sensory overload. The stage is designed to look like the inside of Tommy’s mind, and it is here that the characters and ensembles come alive in MUSKET’S production of “The Who’s ‘Tommy.’ ”

As actors file in for rehearsal, the energy and chemistry between cast members is apparent. Loud and happy, they interact with each other, preparing for the last week of rehearsals before the premiere. While modern, subtly avant-garde costumes are tucked away in a theater closet awaiting the dress rehearsal, the actors — clothes rumpled from a day of school and hands antsy from hours of taking notes — move into the rehearsal space, carefully calculating and picturing their place in the performance. Though the music has been difficult and overcoming the popularity of the album has been challenging, each actor is enthusiastic and excited about the feel of the show.

Conceptualizing the album

The Who’s Tommy was the group’s first rock-opera album and was released in 1969. Since then, it has morphed into a Tony award-winning musical, “The Who’s ‘Tommy,’ ” which premiered on Broadway in 1993 and has enticed The Who enthusiasts and non-listeners alike with its edgy songs.

The original album, largely composed by Pete Townshend, centers on Tommy, a deaf, blind and mute boy trying to cope with the shambles of his life, who has a talent for playing pinball. Though the rock opera follows the album thematically and musically, everything else about the production is up to the director of the show.

“The Who wrote this as a concept album, so you can do anything with it,” said Linda Goodrich-Weng, associate professor of dance. “There’s a lot of room for discovery, and any production you would see of ‘Tommy’ would be different because it wouldn’t all be there in the writing.”

Media savvy

Tomorrow night, more than 40 years after the album premiered, the revisited and overhauled “Tommy” will be presented by MUSKET, the University’s only student-run musical-theater organization. As MUSKET prepares to unveil its 21st-century version of “Tommy,” director Taylor Norton, a School of Music, Theatre & Dance freshman, discussed the advantages and complexities that revamping such a popular show entailed.

“In the original show, Captain Walker is a pilot in the British army,” Norton said. “So what is he in America in 2001? There needed to be an event that spurred Captain Walker’s release, so the whole show hinges around the ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech that Bush gave in 2003.”

Finding appropriate backstories for characters was just the tip of The Who-sized iceberg. Due to the rock musical’s concept-album beginnings, connecting the multiple layers present in the original work has been a challenge from the show’s first production, no matter the time and place in which the show is situated.

“Trying to highlight the moments that aren’t about a huge rock show, the moments where there’s really something happening between two people onstage — even if it’s something horrific — how do we communicate it without it being uncomfortable?” Norton said. “How do we tell the story rather than demonstrating (it) onstage?”

In keeping with the theme of modernity, the 21st century is woven into the show: Not only do characters carry cell phones and iPods, but the back wall of the set will also be a series of muslin screens onto which video clips will be projected.

The reason behind the marriage of social media and rock opera is the intense cultural connection people have with the Internet today: Sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube allow ordinary individuals to skyrocket to fame overnight. The show portrays Tommy as a YouTube phenomenon, made famous instantaneously for his skills playing pinball.

“The idea of Tommy as a YouTube sensation really clicked for me because it happens all the time, and it happens instantly, so we’re using the projections to pull from the media,” Norton said.

“Sure plays a mean pinball”

MT&D senior Lance Fletke plays war veteran Captain Walker, Tommy’s father. After he murders his wife’s lover, Captain Walker must deal with the fallout of his actions: Tommy is traumatized after witnessing this struggle and becomes catatonic. Throughout the show, Captain Walker tries to resolve his relationship with his son and his wife, wanting to return to the pre-war familial life he shared with them.

“He’s a murderer, and (though) he got away with it, he’s traumatized his son,” Fletke said. “But through it all, his main goal is to come back to this woman that got him through the war, to reconcile and fall back in love with Mrs. Walker.”

Captain Walker soon learns that it is not as simple as apologizing and moving forward. As Tommy grows older, hope for a cure is sparse. He and Mrs. Walker continue to take Tommy from doctor to doctor, hoping that a new therapy or medicine is available for their son.

“You can never really have what you’ve lost, but you can have something different, something new, and so, to do that, he’s trying to get his son better,” Fletke said. “There’s a lot of guilt there, not only with killing the lover and affecting Tommy but also from the war. Captain Walker is very laden down with guilt, and so he’s trying to find a way to peel that off and live a typical, normal life.”

Despite the setbacks and tragedies Tommy has faced, he has a secret that begins to set in motion his recovery: As one of the songs describes, he is a “Pinball Wizard.” After discovering his talent for pinball, Tommy becomes a YouTube sensation, garnering him fans and recognition everywhere.

Uplifting in music and tone, “Pinball Wizard” brings the spirit and energy of The Who to the stage with inspiring lyrics and catchy beats, reminding audience members of how very rock ‘n’ roll the musical is.

“In the show, ‘Pinball Wizard’ is a huge number — a lot of dancing, movement. And that’s the point: It’s a huge, climactic moment when you discover this kid you thought was helpless is actually this god of a pinball player,” Fletke said. “Anything that happens at the end of Act One is important because it sets the tone for Act Two, and so then (in Act Two), Tommy’s grown up and he’s this pinball wizard. It’s a big party scene.”

A song of strife

Along with the larger-than-life sequences, there are moments in “Tommy” that require tenderness and delicacy on the part of the actors and the audience. LSA junior Rachel Gubow, who plays Mrs. Walker, described the necessity of the intense scenes that occur in the show.

“We see murder, abuse, drugs and bullying,” Gubow said. “Delving into those things and understanding them allows the character to have passions and regrets and troubles, and that’s what makes it interesting to watch.”

In order to convey the darker elements of the story, “Tommy” turned to media once again. By projecting pre-recorded clips such as the abuse scene involving babysitter Uncle Ernie and 10-year-old Tommy, the show was able to utilize its technological motifs as well as convey a powerful image to the audience.

In the scene, Tommy, dressed in all white, sits in a chair while the looming figure of Uncle Ernie in a business suit stands eerily behind him. Ernie puts a hand on Tommy’s shoulder as a representation of the abusive relationship between the young boy and his uncle. The audience can extrapolate the rest of the scene without witnessing it, and the show relies on this understanding on the part of the audience.

“For us now, we understand so much more about the cycle of violence and sexual abuse,” Norton said. “We don’t have to go so far and be abrasive with those moments because everyone will understand them.”

According to Gubow, the greatest difficulty in conveying emotion during the show’s more intense moments lies in getting past the music and focusing on the lyrics.

“It’s easy to sing what’s written, but finding the meaning behind all those lyrics is the challenge,” Gubow said.

“When you’re given a script of lines, there’s no set melody to say the lines to. You get to interpret the speed, your inflection, and you put meaning behind them. But when the lyrics are set to a song with a specific melody, it takes a lot more effort to put intent behind them — to not just sing a pretty song, but mean it,” she added.

During “I Believe My Own Eyes,” a song Townshend wrote especially for the musical, there is a scene between Captain and Mrs. Walker that Fletke noted for its misleadingly upbeat music covering for a brewing intensity between the married couple. Though it’s easily sung as a large number, when probed further, it uncovers the demise of a relationship and the desire to bring it back.

“It’s a big, sweeping song that you can get caught up in, when really, all they’re doing is having a fight (and) trying to find some common ground.

“It’s not a big ballad; it’s that we’re being invested in one another and trying to help our kid,” he added. “It’s about remembering (that) lyrics come first. It’s our job as storytellers to piece everything together: All these things bring light to the stories we’re trying to tell and the people we portray.”

Putting the ‘rock’ in rock ‘n’ roll

To help the story unfold without succumbing to the vastness of the music, the set was created to portray the inside of Tommy’s mind. Along with the projection screens, the set boasts an array of newspaper clippings, photos and memories from Tommy’s childhood that link the scenes happening onstage to the setting of the show.

“You walk onto the set, and you walk into Tommy’s mind,” Norton said. “It’s like a control room, and all the colors are subdued, and the projections on the back wall will also have old media on it. You see pictures of Tommy’s first steps, newspaper clips that have to do with ‘Tommy.’ … It will be a collage of things that have to do with the show.”

But the premise of the rock opera is an album: a really loud, jamming album. Rather than trying to convince the audience that this rock musical can stand alone without The Who, Norton said the goal of the production is to incorporate rock and emotion into one exciting show.

“We’re trying to remember that this is a rock ‘n’ roll show, and as much as you want it to be a musical, it can’t be, so we’re trying to highlight the plot we’ve created and tying loose ends together, and then letting the big rock moments that everyone loves kind of explode and take over,” Norton said.

To get the people excited at the right moments in the performance, Norton explained that there will be surprises and exciting additions for the audience, such as Tommy’s YouTube fangirls appearing in the audience and interacting with the characters onstage.

“There’s a lot of stuff happening in the audience, because we really want to have the feel of a rock show,” Norton said. “With the way we have crazy fangirls from the show run up to the stage from the audience, or the way we shoot T-shirts into the crowd, we will hopefully be able to reel the audience in.”


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