DESPITE THE FACT that it's a musical, the Studio Theatre Secondstage production of "The Who's Tommy" includes neither bells nor whistles. In director Keith Alan Baker's unembellished staging of the concept-album-turned-cult-film-turned-Broadway-musical, there's very little on the stage at all except the singers and the band.
Which is exactly where things stood 35 years ago, when Pete Townshend's rock epic was released. [Pause here to feel old if necessary.] In the ensuing years, the material was adapted first as the notorious 1975 Ken Russell film and, more recently, a slick Broadway show. Indeed, the visual images threaten to supercede the musical ones in the public imagination. Two decades as a Midnight Movie have taken their toll: Who can think of "Tommy" these days without picturing Ann-Margret writhing in an ocean of baked beans?
Baker acknowledges the hazards of taking on a work from the pop-culture canon. "A lot of people know the 1969 concept album and love it and think it's pure and sacred and can't be touched -- I've dealt with a lot of those people in this process," Baker says. "I grew up, of course, on the movie, and I think it's pure and sacred and can't be touched. And then there's the Broadway version. They're all three completely different, and everybody has very strong opinions about which one is the right one. What I was trying to do, successfully or not, is combine a little bit of all three and basically put the focus on the music itself, not on the plot or the trappings."
The complete absence of baked beans from the production sat well with the cast and crew. "The people involved in this one, they wanted to do their own thing, too -- the directors and designers and the cast," Baker says. "We weren't interested in re-creating somebody else's thing."
As for adapting the songs' narrative for another medium, it's just about as easy as you'd expect for a story about a child who sees his father commit a murder, becomes deaf and blind as a result, suffers physical and sexual abuse, achieves fame and fortune as a pinball prodigy, is spontaneously cured, and adopts then rejects the role of messianic cult leader. "There isn't a real narrative, there's not a real plot," Baker says. "It's wonderful music, that's what it is. But it wasn't intended to be a fully booked musical -- that's not what they were doing in 1969."
What they were doing was making rock 'n' roll, a genre not known for lending itself to literal interpretation. "Some people who know and love the concept album, part of what they love about it is that you can fill in your own story," he says. "You can make up what happens."
Or you can elucidate the material to death. "In the Broadway version, there was a lot of dialogue added to try to make it understandable for a mass audience," Baker says. "We didn't do that -- we approached it as more each song has to stand on its own. It's more snapshots in Tommy's life, on his journey. . . . In that way, it's more imagistic and impressionistic. You just have to accept each song on its own and, hopefully, it adds up to something."