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THEATER : Will New York Embrace the Pinball Wizard of La Jolla? : Serendipity and hard choices went into debate about bringing the rock opera to New York, then Pete Townshend spoke up

April 18, 1993|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

NEW YORK — "Poor Des," Pete Townshend said one day late last month, just before the curtain rose on the first preview of the new production of "Tommy" on Broadway. The composer of the legendary rock opera was referring to the show's director, Des McAnuff, and his voice betrayed a trace of amused pity for his collaborator.

"I've been watching him during the last couple of days of rehearsals, and the poor man, he doesn't know who he is. I feel when he leaves the theater I must help him across the road. And in Cornwall, he seemed like such a smart guy."

Broadway can do that. To paraphrase writer Larry Gelbart, preparing a musical to open there is a punishment fit only for Nazi war criminals. And in those last hectic days before "Tommy" began previews on March 29, last summer's halcyon interlude at Townshend's vacation home in Cornwall, England, seemed distant indeed.

It was there that McAnuff broached the "B" word to Townshend for the first time since the two began collaborating on the stage adaptation of "Tommy"--the latest incarnation of the story of the autistic pinball wizard, Townshend's seminal rock opera recorded by the Who in 1969. "Tommy" has since been translated to film, ballet and a West End concert version, and last summer, Townshend and McAnuff's new musical version of the epic sold out a three-month premiere run at the La Jolla Playhouse.

All along there had been plans for a national tour of the show after the Southern California run, but while the two were sailing off Cornwall, Townshend said, "Des suddenly started to talk about how various elements were in place for the show to move to Broadway, and I was quite curious as to why he was even bringing the subject up."

Townshend was being coy, of course. The New York producers had sunk $650,000 of "enhancement money" into the La Jolla showcase and had the rights to tour the production--"to Peking if they wanted," in Townshend's words. But he had personally retained the Broadway and London rights in order to protect what is widely regarded as the most significant achievement of his career.

"I'd decided not to expose 'Tommy' to the impetuousness of the New York critics," said the rock icon, who will be 48 tomorrow. "But, in the end, I felt that if Des was confident it could succeed, then I was confident too."

"Tommy" will open on Thursday at the 1,600-seat St. James Theatre. Its accelerated march from La Jolla to Broadway this season, and the implications of that gamble for the show's future success, are to some extent simply a story of talent, sweat and serendipitous timing. But there have also been some hard choices along the way.

In November, 1990, when the Pace Theatrical Group negotiated with Townshend and his representatives for the theatrical rights to the rock opera "Tommy," Broadway wasn't on the table. PTG was looking for a product to fill the theaters and subscription series it operates in 22 cities across the United States. Although it has co-produced such shows as "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber" and "The Magic of David Copperfield" for those venues, the group has largely looked to Broadway to pick up productions for its theaters, and has toured shows such as "The Secret Garden," "Evita" and revivals of "Gypsy" and "Fiddler on the Roof."

"The plan was to tour North America with a production of 'Tommy,' " said Scott Zeiger, the 33-year-old president of PTG. "We envisioned playing arenas and amphitheaters during the summer of 1993 with stars--Michael Hutchence (of the rock group INXS) playing Tommy, or maybe David Bowie as Captain Walker and Tracey Ullman as Mrs. Walker--names that could fill large spaces."

But that's not how things worked out.

Having secured the rights, PTG invited Dodger Productions to participate in mounting "Tommy" for the road tour. A loose theatrical partnership with an impressive track record ("Big River," "Secret Garden," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Into the Woods"), this group of baby boomer investors also had a reputation for encouraging the uneasy alliance between rock music and theater--at least what was left of it. It had previously helped produce such Off Broadway shows as "Gimme Shelter," "Holeville" and "Leave It to Beaver Is Dead." In fact, Dodger had earlier repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire theatrical rights to "Tommy."

"The tragic flaw of the Dodgers is that we produce what we love, and rock 'n' roll is one of them," said Michael David, 50, one of the group's partners. "Doing 'Gospel at Colonus' on Broadway nearly killed us. But when Pace called, we said, 'Sure,' and they handed us a list of directors who they thought were right for it, everyone from Trevor Nunn to Peter Sellars."

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