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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.