In this article we’re going to review one of the most unusual musicals of our time, the rock opera Tommy.
The rock group, The Who, had been together for around 5 years by the time they came out with their then revolutionary concept, Tommy. It was the very first rock opera and to this day still one of the best.
What was most unusual about Tommy is that it is 100% music. There is virtually no spoken dialogue in the musical. The entire story is told in song. This is not an easy thing to pull off but The Who did it with a flair that is hard to match.
The story of Tommy, the title character, is quite a tragic one actually. Tommy Walker’s father, Captain Walker, had been listed as missing in action in the first world war. But he returns, only to find his wife in the arms of another man. Enraged, he kills the man right in front of his son Tommy. Afterwards his parents immediately issue a verbal assault on Tommy telling him that he didn’t see anything or hear anything. This was to keep Tommy quiet. As a result, Tommy retreats into a blind and deaf world.
During his childhood Tommy’s parents try a number of treatments to get their child back to normal. During this time, Tommy is sexually abused by members of his family and he became more and more cut off from the real world.
Finally, at Christmas, there was a breakthrough. Tommy took up the game of pinball. Even though he could not see or hear anything he became a master at the game, probably because he wasn’t distracted by all the bells and whistles. Tests on Tommy to try to explain how he was able to do this showed that he really wasn’t deaf and blind but had retreated into an inner self. Tommy is finally cured when his mother in her frustration smashes a mirror in a fit of rage right in front of Tommy. This snaps him out of his deaf and blind state.
After his cure Tommy starts a movement to lead all his followers to a life where they will see the true light and meaning in life. But his cult following eventually revolts against him because of the heavy handedness of his ways.
Tommy was not a happy story and had an equally unhappy ending. The Who took a lot of chances with this piece of art. Musically however, it was a masterpiece. Out of this musical, first shown in 1969, came such great rock classics as “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me Feel Me,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and the “Overture From Tommy” which has been covered by a number of artists over the years, the most popular version being the one done by the Assembled Multitude in 1970.
The rock opera later was made into a movie with such notable stars as Elton John, Ann Margaret, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner. The movie filled in some of the details that were actually left out of the original play.