Fresh from an epic trans-oceanic flight, Pete Townshend sits in the La Jolla Playhouse's administrative compound, conducting his first interview in what he calculates is "a long, long, long time." Outside the window, stagehands grapple with freakishly mismatched props: a World War II fighter cockpit, a sinister-looking apothecary table, a pinball machine.
"What we're trying to do is create a new kind of rock event," says the Who's erstwhile guiding light in his gentle, Rock-Eminence-on-Thames inflections as a circular saw screams. "A lot of people that loved rock all their lives have had it with rock 'n' roll in live performance. Because they grew up on rock and now happen to like opera as well, they feel they've outgrown it. Maybe this will help bring them back."
"This" is the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Tommy," Townshend's storied rock opera about an autistic boy mistaken for the new messiah, which opens Thursday at the Mandell Weiss Theatre. Released by the Who in 1969 as a concept album, "Tommy" was performed by the band in concert settings--the last time in 1989 at the Universal Amphitheatre with several guest stars. It also has been performed by entities ranging from the London Symphony Orchestra to marching bands; Ken Russell, with Townshend's participation, directed a bombastic film adaptation in 1975. Although theater companies great and small have mounted productions over the years, including South Coast Repertory and Saddleback College, Townshend was never directly involved with any of them.
The La Jolla production, however, boasts Townshend's creative counsel and, during final rehearsals and on opening night, his presence. (Former Who-mates Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle will also attend the premiere.) Although Townshend is described by the theater's staff as unfailingly low-key and affable, having a bona fide Monterey and Woodstock alumnus on campus has had predictable results. "When he came in it was like the Red Sea parting," says Michael Cerveris, who plays Tommy. "I'm sure he's used to it, but for the rest of the rehearsal he couldn't bat an eyelid without everyone noticing."
Directed by La Jolla's artistic director, Des McAnuff, who collaborated with Townshend on the adaptation, this latest "Tommy" is strictly legit. Where previous stage productions scraped by with little more than the album's lyric sheet for artistic guidance--the original "Tommy" never had a libretto or score--there is at long last a Townshend-approved book. He and McAnuff clarified passages in the story that have baffled listeners, such as the crucial moment when Tommy apparently witnesses the murder of his mother's lover and is struck deaf, mute and blind by the adults' rejoinder to "never tell a soul / what you know is the Truth."
La Jolla might seem an unlikely venue for the first official "Tommy" adaptation, given the gaping geographical and cultural chasm between London, where Townshend lives, and Southern California. On the other hand, the theater is one of the few regional playhouses that regularly presents large-scale musicals--the McAnuff-directed Broadway hit "Big River" developed there--and it has already hosted a British rock legend in the person of the Kinks' Ray Davies, who wrote the score for La Jolla's 1988 musical version of "Around the World in 80 Days." McAnuff, a guitarist himself, has directed several other rock-based theater productions. "A frustrated rock star," Townshend characterizes his collaborator.
The seven-member band--composed of two guitars, two keyboards, bass, drums and French horn--includes veteran musicians who have played in everything from studio sessions to symphony orchestras. Conducted by musical director Joseph Church, the band will perform in a pit directly in front of the stage and will play from scores created by Church and Steve Margoshes, who orchestrated "Big River" on Broadway. "We approached it with great care," says Margoshes, who first met Townshend during rehearsals. "The music demanded a certain purity be maintained, yet we had to find a way to theatricalize the sounds." The guitar parts, especially, he says, were little changed--one of the guitarists plays a vintage Les Paul expressly to mimic Townshend's distinctive voicings.
Given his composer's role, Townshend actually had little involvement in adapting the music. He was not involved in choosing the musicians and saw the band for the first time just last week. "Me and the guitar players I'm sure will have lots of conferences on chord shapes and guitar sounds and stuff," he says. "But apart from that, really, they can do it." Drummer Luther Rix, he adds, "is doing what is required rhythmically to give you a Keith Moon feel, but without blowing the walls off."