It’s May and that means it’s time for the annual high school musical. Our high school — and this is not only the high school where my husband teaches, but also the one we both graduated from — has a pretty amazing music program. Not to brag or anything, but this year the orchestra won a Grammy award for being the best in the entire country. I said, the best in the entire country! And let’s just say their musical theatre program is not too shabby either. They did a great job with Hair last year, and before that there was a truly amazing production of Little Shop of Horrors. This year: Tommy.
Ok, before I tell you about the show I have to give a bit of slightly embarrassing self-disclosure. When I was an angst-ridden teenager, The Who was my favorite group. I own every last one of their albums, including some bootlegs, Keith Moon’s awful solo album, the movie soundtrack of Tommy, etc. I don’t even know how many midnight showings of The Kids Are Alright I saw. Now, The Who are not exactly your typical teen heart throbs. But what were the other choices in the early ’80s? Rush? Oh ha ha, Styx? Flock of (can hardly type for laughing) Seagulls??? I don’t think so! Clearly there was something about The Who’s self-absorbed, pretentious, misanthropic, edgy music that struck a chord, if you will, with Teenage Bookworm.
All my Who records have twenty years’ worth of dust on them now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t miss Tommy, even though we couldn’t get a babysitter. (My sister graciously allowed me to tag along with her and her friend — thanks again, Sissy!) The production was great. As I mentioned, there are some incredibly talented kids at our school. The kid who played Tommy, my god, what a beautiful, sweet voice he had. Two of the weakest songs on the original album, “Amazing Journey” and “I’m a Sensation” were positively transformed coming from this kid. (Though even he couldn’t do much with “Welcome,” the dorkiest pop song of all time. Why they left it in the show, I will never understand. Shudder.)
In case you’re not familiar, here’s a brief outline of the plot. Mrs. Walker, believing her husband killed in the war, hooks up with another guy. Captain Walker comes home, finds Mrs. W. with the other guy, and kills him. Their young son, Tommy, is present during the murder, though his mom turns him away so that what he sees is his own reflection in a mirror. Captain & Mrs. cover up the evidence, instructing Tommy that he didn’t hear it, didn’t see it, and will never tell what he knows is the truth. This is so traumatic that Tommy becomes psychosomatically deaf, dumb & blind, as well as obsessed with his reflection in the mirror, which he can see. He suffers abuse by various family members, is poked and prodded by many doctors, learns to play pinball, etc. Finally, in a fit of anger his mother smashes the mirror and lo! he is cured. Not just cured, but mystically enlightened. He becomes a pop icon, with screaming fans who want to be just like him. He tries to help them become enlightened like him, but they don’t want to suffer his pain and they rebel against him. Then Tommy reconciles with his family. The end.
Tommy affected me very differently from way than it used to. As a teen, I responded mainly to the music. And I can’t deny that I loved hearing that familiar music performed live last night. But even more, I responded to the parenting bits. “What About the Boy” had me in tears. And, god, “Smash the Mirror” practically gave me an anxiety attack right there in the theater. What mother hasn’t been there before? Felt that intense anger and frustration with her beloved offspring? And in this story, when the mother expresses her feelings by smashing the mirror — Tommy is cured! There must be a lesson in there somewhere.
When I got home, Steve had just finished putting the kids to bed, and as an antidote to Tommy we watched a bit of the best rock ‘n roll movie of all time, The Last Waltz. Why I love The Band, and why they’ve withstood the test of time for me while The Who have not, is a subject for another day.