Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tommy Can You Hear Me?

A while back I wrote a post on how the general consensus is that for books that are made into movies, the book will almost always be better. After seeing not one, but two stage versions of The Who's rock opera "Tommy" I have come to the conclusion that musical theatre is to music as movie adaptations are to books.

Rock & Roll music made into a movie with some of the
biggest names of that time in showbiz

There's a reason there's the musical expression "phrasing". Music, you see, is a language. From our friends at Wikipedia: "Phrase and phrasing are concepts and practices related to grouping consecutive melodic notes, both in their composition and performance." Music, much like the words on the page, allows the mind to wander, fill in the gaps, and fill the consumer with wonder and amazement.

Neither the 1995 nor the 2013 editions of "Tommy" did any of that for me and mostly for the same reasons. I expect a certain style when it comes to musical theatre, but I also have expectations when it comes to live music (not just concerts, but any non-recorded music). Live music should be bigger, louder, full of emotion and energy. It should invoke feelings, and lots of them.

I know, I know. $75 freaking dollars - for balcony?!

Granted, I was only 21 when I saw the 1995 show but I was no stranger to theatre. For its time the visuals were outstanding but I found the actors to be disengaged and tentative, almost as if they were afraid to make a mistake or personally offend the original creators. The music was definitely loud enough, but it was lacking most of the criteria I was expecting.

Now with a few more years behind me (eighteen to be precise), I can look at the performance from this week and, well, basically say the same things. Most of the players were pretty engaging, but I found the lead (teenage Tommy) to be weak. It was as if during the whole performance he was wondering what he'd be having for dinner after the show. The new fancy backdrop visuals were distracting and didn't add any value. The music could have been louder, and it was lacking intensity. It was as if someone threw a towel over the guitarist's amp and took away his distortion pedal.

Stratford Festival ticket deal for the win!

Now here comes a comparison with another stage show based on popular music: Abba's "Mamma Mia!" (this could very well be the first time someone's ever compared Abba and The Who. A quick Google search turned up 40,700,000 results of which I looked at the first two pages and found no such comparison. Feel free to check out the other 40,699,960 results and prove me wrong).

This principal difference between the two plays (aside from the vastly different plots) lies in the music and the musicians themselves. Abba songs are not rock & roll. Abba songs are poppy, toe tapping ditties and they lend themselves quite nicely for use in a live musical. Abba songs aren't bigger than life; the stage production brought them to life and then gave them more heart. Songs by The Who absolutely ooze rock & roll. Songs by The Who are not toe tapping and the lion's share are far from anything I'd classify as a ditty.

They are amplifier exploding epics that make you want to smash things.

You know what I expect when I hear someone play The Who? More freakin' guitar, that's what. Cowbell is to Blue Oyster Cult as guitar is to The Who and from what I heard in Stratford - and in listening back to the original 1995 stage recording - Peter Townshend should be rolling over in his grave (wait... what? He's not dead?! Oh. Sorry, Pete. Moving on...) At the end of it all I simply found "Tommy" to be a little too much tea & crumpets and not enough rock & roll (finale excepted - it was great in both performances).

I can't say I'm terribly surprised though. Music, really good music, packs so much into each song that it has got to be really difficult to breathe more life into it, short of performing the song live at an actual concert. Could this be a reason for there being such a lack of stage musicals based on popular music? I happen to think so. That being said, if anyone wants to go out and put together a stage production of RUSH's 2112 I'd be all for it. Lord knows that would at least allow for a better comparison than ABBA.

RUSH's 2112 "Starman"

~Andrew

2 comments:

  1. I also saw Tommy at the Elgin Theatre that year. What a coincidence! I liked it, but it wasn't for me. That's why I opted not to see it at Stratford this year. But I know many people who absolutely loved the Stratford version and know of one person who has gone at least twice to see it.
    But I think he really likes the music. Not sure of this thoughts of the performance.

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    Replies
    1. I can't believe I missed this comment. So sorry about that Christina! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, a big coincidence you went to see Tommy at the Elgin. Next you'll be telling me you saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in London, England in 1992 :)

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