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Townshend Says Audience is Hero of ‘Tommy’

Pete Townshend
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

With a “super deluxe” version of the Who’s Tommy on the way and the musical version of the album currently running in Canada, Pete Townshend finds himself once again talking at length about the 1969 rock opera. Townshend, who wrote the classic piece, is particularly inspired by the new musical running through October 19th at Canada’s Stratford Festival, which is headed up by its original Broadway director Des McAnuff.

He explained to The Globe And Mail, “I think (Des has) turned it into the definitive rock n’ roll theatre piece. Des understands the language, and understands that in a rock show, the only thing that is important is the audience. The only thing. And the message is from the audience to the stage, not the other way round. It’s a strange mechanism, the one that underlies rock n’ roll. The hero is not on the stage. So the hero is not Tommy. It’s everybody in the audience. And I know that sounds like a pat cliche, but it happens to be true.”

Townshend shed light on his original idea and work process behind the original Tommy album back in 1968 and 1969: “Originally in the story, pinball was not a part of the exercise. The boy was not deaf, dumb and blind except in clinical terms. He had been traumatized. . . I spoke to our manager, Kit Lambert, who was the son of Constant Lambert, and who knew about opera, who knew about music outside rock n’ roll. And he was very encouraging of me to do something very audacious and grand that was challenging, and challenging in a way that would challenge our audience.”
He went on to explain: “At that time. . . I kind of felt I wasn’t going to get what I needed from family, or get what I needed from fame. And you know? I wasn’t going to get what I needed from art. To make my work ask a question, the only answer I was going to get was from the audience.”

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