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Townshend Shows His Mettle : Rock opera: 'Iron Man,' a romp for children by the creator of 'Tommy,' opens at London's Young Vic. Opening-night critics claim its music is too bland.

November 27, 1993|JEFF KAYE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Power chords: there were none. Lightning, blues-based riffs: never happened. Frantic drumming: hardly.

The music seemed far more reminiscent of Broadway than Woodstock on Thursday night as former Who frontman Pete Townshend debuted his new rock opera, "The Iron Man."

While winning some praise for its inventive stage design and the enthusiasm of its young cast, the show was generally panned by opening-night critics.

Particularly off-putting to the London theater press was--sorry, Pete!--the music. "There's nothing remotely hummable from the former Who guitarist," said the Daily Express. "Just one bland rock ballad after another."

As he did for his Tony award-winning "The Who's Tommy," Townshend has taken a 1960s story about a youngster with a dilemma, written the music and lyrics, and helped adapt the work for the stage. But similarities in origin, content and finished product pretty much end there.

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"The Iron Man," based on the 1968 children's book by English poet laureate Ted Hughes, tells the story of a boy and a metal-eating monster. The production, staged at London's Young Vic theater, is modestly budgeted and essentially for children. Kids might have some problems following the action if they are not familiar with the book, however.

Hogarth, the boy, saves his village by trapping the monster, who has been munching all the machinery in town. But Hogarth eventually befriends the Iron Man. And when the world is threatened by the scary Star Spirit, the Iron Man battles her and triumphs. In the end, the Star Spirit realizes she can be a force for peace and harmony in the world.

Along the way, there are some very politically correct messages thrown in about things like fast food and pollution.

The set features a junkyard setting, complete with the shells of old cars, and a gigantic Iron Man, with moving arms and legs, who is made anatomically correct by the clever positioning of a motorcycle gas tank.

Above the stage are musicians playing guitar (almost entirely acoustic throughout the show), keyboards, drums and cello. The music is sometimes bouncy and lively, but nothing that would inspire anyone in the audience to go home and start a rock band.

Perhaps this idea was discounted for being too obvious, but it seems like a rock opera about a metal-eating monster could benefit from having at least one throbbing, ear-splitting heavy-metal number. There's even a song in the show called "I Eat Heavy Metal" that seems perfect for transformation.

Or how about acquiring the rights to Black Sabbath's seminal headbanger classic from 1970, "Iron Man"?

Townshend says he first came across the story of the "The Iron Man" in 1976 while running a publishing company specializing in children's books. His partner suggested they use "The Iron Man" as a model for the kind of material they should publish and gave Townshend a copy.

"I read it and I loved it," said Townshend in an interview. "I was just enchanted."

Townshend eventually wound up working as an editor at Faber & Faber, Hughes' publishing house. There, he met the author, who agreed to let him adapt the book for the stage. Townshend sees that as an incredibly brave move for Hughes, who has a particularly strong attachment to the story. He had written the book to comfort his children after their mother--his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath--committed suicide in 1963.

By Townshend's reckoning, the Star Spirit in the story is Plath, the Iron Man is Hughes and "Hogarth was the kids in the middle of this terrible, terrible thing."

Hughes was uncomfortable with Townshend's symbolic characterizations of the Iron Man and Star Spirit as parents--the Star Spirit is androgynous in the book, but made into a sexy female in the rock opera--but allowed it anyway. "It's too specific for him," Townshend said.

After the guitarist wrote the music and book for his "Iron Man" opera, he could not get it staged. "I just could not convince people it would work," he says." He released an album of the music in 1989.

Last year, the Young Vic theater approached Townshend about the rights to "Tommy." The rights already had been turned over to the Broadway production of the show. But as a result of the contact, Townshend began writing a new script of "The Iron Man" with the then-head of the Young Vic, David Thacker, who is directing the current production.

"The Iron Man" is scheduled to continue at the Young Vic through Feb. 12.

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