Blast correspondant Joelle Jameson attended the Boston Conservatory’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” with Simon Paul Augustine and Sarah Ehrich, Boston writers and card-carrying members of the “Who” fan club.
BEFORE THE SHOW
JOELLE JAMESON: Sarah and Simon, when were you both first introduced to “The Who’s Tommy”?
SARAH EHRICH: My older sister was obsessed with the album when she was in the 8th grade. That and “Rent”— I’m not sure how that works. I remember the album cover was yellow, red and black, and the song “Pinball Wizard.” We both liked it because it was a musical with The Who’s music, which automatically made it more cool than any other musical.
SIMON AUGUSTINE: The Who is one of my favorite bands; since I was 10, I’ve been a Who maniac. “Tommy” is especially significant because it’s the first famous rock concept album: it’s like a musical, but it’s a rock album. Actually, when the musical came out on Broadway in the 90’s, my first thought was that it must be sacrilege. For me, [Pete] Townsend is about rage and energy and anger and jumping around and wind-milling and smashing things, not to mention teenage lust and rage, and I thought they’d turn it into something flitty. But Townsend was behind the production, and it received rave reviews. My parents went to see it, but I didn’t get to, and it’s been one of my great regrets.
JJ: Wow, so tonight is a big night for you.
SE: Are you nervous that they won’t do a good job?
SA: No, I’m excited! I hope that it kicks ass: I hope it’s loud and powerful like Tommy’s supposed to be. I mean, when The Who played parts of “Tommy” at Woodstock—I was just listening on the way over—it was gut-crunching. It’s hard rock in the hardest sense. But I’m open-minded.
JJ: Can you talk about the concept behind “Tommy”?
SA: Sure: it’s primarily a spiritual journey. When Townsend first conceived “Tommy,” he was talking to Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone. Jann was talking about a kid who’s deaf, dumb and blind. Townsend actually thought he was dropping acid. Anyway, the kid became that way because he saw something awful—
SE: Can we say deaf, dumb and blind? Is that okay?
SA: Yes, that’s PC. I don’t think you can say ta-tas or bazongas anymore, but deaf, dumb and blind is okay. Anyway, he sees something he’s not supposed to see, and his parents put a sort of hex on him so he won’t say what he’s seen. Because of that, he’s totally inside his consciousness. When all his senses are removed, his true mind comes through. It’s a kind of myth you can’t really figure out—I’ve been living with this story for years, and I still can’t put it all together. Since it’s geared to be a spiritual journey, you really don’t know what could happen during this musical.
SE: So, there are as many spiritual journeys as there are audience members?
SA: Absolutely. But hey—who is the person that you most look up to?
SA: No, besides God.
SE: Catherine Zeta Jones. I like her eyebrows.
SA: No, I mean an artist, a poet, a writer . . .
SE: They’re all human.
SA: Well anyway, Townsend is that person for me. The artist I most admire. So yes, I’m excited to see the show.
JJ: The performers in the show are all students. Does that alter your anticipation at all?
SE: You know what? I was recently reading some poems that I wrote when I was 19. And they’re not all great, but I thought, hey, there’s something really pure and good there. Currently I’ve been working with teenagers, and I like some of their poems better than the ones I’m writing now, because they have that same unself-conscious quality. I’m hoping that the student performers tonight will operate along those lines: maybe their youth will mean they’re uncorrupted by years of knowing and conforming to what they’re taught a performance should be.
SA: And the story is about returning to innocence, so younger performers make sense. But these are conservatory kids. They’re not screwing around, so the quality should be there. I’m curious about how they’ll handle a few of the songs, like the Acid Queen scene. Tina Turner played the Acid Queen in the movie.
SE: Oh! Tina Turner is my idol. Changing my answer from Catherine Zeta Jones.
AFTER THE SHOW:
JJ: What were your favorite parts of the show tonight?
SA: As far as the performances go, Babs Rubenstein was great as the Acid Queen. That number really kicked the production up a notch, rock-wise. And Stephanie Miller had an enormous presence when she sang “Eyesight to the Blind”; her sinuous, bluesy delivery was definitely memorable. Tommy (Ryan Overberg) did a great job as well: he’s got a stocky virility that’s incredibly interesting to watch. He’s rugged and handsome, yet boyish, and it works perfectly with the story.
SE: I loved the choreography in the Acid Queen scene, but some of the dance numbers in the rest of the show didn’t seem quite as together. The movement was fun to watch, though.
JJ: It definitely was. I actually like that parts of the choreography are wild and relatively unpolished. I think it captures the spirit of the show in that way, youth and freedom and all that. But mostly, I’m blown away by the quality of the voices.
SA: The concept of Tommy being an ethereal spirit present in the background is brilliant, and an element that isn’t present in the film. Having the young Tommy and older Tommy onstage at the same time was really powerful.
JJ: Earlier you expressed worry that the stage version might not hard rock enough. How has this production fared in that arena?
SA: Oh, it’s kicking it up. Part of me even wanted it to be more of a rock concert setting.
JJ: Yes, I really want to clap more and get into it. I wish we’d been allowed to dance; the energy projected from the stage inspires it.
SE: I was into it, and I’m not much of a musical person. I love the music, and the whole rock concept.
SA: There were some things I missed from the original album and film, but a lot was added too, primarily the interaction between young Tommy and older Tommy on the stage. That was very well done—magical, even.
“Tommy” plays through April 10 at the Boston Conservatory.