Tommy and Creative Responsibility

[Note: I wrote this a couple of months ago, but I’ve been so busy with The Sea Will Claim Everything that I couldn’t even find the time to proofread it!]

A while ago we saw The Who’s Tommy at the English Theatre in Frankfurt. The English Theatre is, apparently, the biggest English-language theatre on the European mainland and has been showing high-quality plays and musicals since the late seventies. And before you ask: in terms of presentation their production of Tommy was really top-notch. I realize that few of you live around here, but if you do I really suggest that you give The Who’s Tommy at the English Theatre a go. The performers are all excellent, even if Leo Miles as the titular Tommy takes some getting used to. The theatre’s stage is tiny, but the set really makes the best of what space it has to work with, and the choreography is really nice too. So, yes, the show is really good and truly enjoyable.

Why then, if most of my readers are not from Frankfurt or even from Hessen, and thus don’t give a rat’s ass about the local theatre output, do I write about the English Theatre’s production of Tommy?

Well, here’s the thing. Although the show was excellently staged and I was truly touched by many of the performances, the affair as a whole left a bitter aftertaste. The Director, Ryan McBride, has made some changes to the original show and these changes range from cowardly to unfortunate to downright vile.

There’s small stuff, like changing the timing of Tommy’s parents’ wedding, his birth and his father’s capture by Russian forces during World War II. It’s nothing too consequential, nothing that upsets either the pacing of the show nor the intended message (which can be a terrible word when applied to artistic output; why do we always need to boil everything down to one easily-digestible slogan?), nothing I can easily find fault with.

And then there are some things that are a little more tricky. The hawker, a pimp who tries to sell one of his whores as a miracleworker (a highly ambiguously-phrased song), is transformed into a priest. The whore is in this context Mary. The song receives connotations of blind religious devotion, faith healing and (much less overt) sexual abuse. Acid Queen, a song that in the original Broadway version (not on the concept album, though) immediately followed The Hawker, is moved to the second act, when Tommy is already played by an adult. Again all direct allusions to prostitution are removed and the whole scene is set up as part of a voodoo-like ritual.

Now, first of all: sexual abuse of children by members of the church is a real problem. It is a problem worth discussing and I think art is a good way of bringing public attention to these atrocities. That having been said: what’s with all the making the show child-safe? The acid queen sequence in the original is a highly disturbing scene, in which a father is so desperate as to bring his eleven year old son to a prostitute in order to get any reaction out of him. Ultimately the father changes his mind, taking Tommy with him before anything can happen, but the build-up to that scene is more than a little graphic. I can’t bring myself to really disapprove of the changes made to the story, not in this case, but it all feels a little too safe. Too wholesome, if that is the right word.

And then there is the big one. The deal breaker. The one thing that made me hate the show (briefly – now my feelings are just thoroughly mixed: it was nice up until that point).

The show has three or four new pieces of spoken text, which weren’t included in the original Broadway run. A doctor Schofield seems to be examining Tommy at the beginning of the first act, then there is a break for dialogue in the actual examination scene in the second act. And again at the end. In that last one we learn that Tommy’s miraculous recovery, his rise to fame and subsequent realization that he shouldn’t try to be a messiah, is all a dream. Or a hallucination. Or whatever. It isn’t exactly clear who is dreaming this, essentially the plot of the entire second act. Is it Tommy himself? His mother? We don’t know and it ultimately isn’t important to my criticism.

Tommy, the original Broadway show, had a very positive ending. A good message, if you want. Tommy realizes that the cult of personality that has formed around him is a bad thing, because there is nothing that people can or should learn from his disability, except that he is better off for being healthy now. In the end he goes home and reconciles with his parents. Nice.

In the English Theatre’s version Tommy is still catatonic in the end and nothing is to be gained from this two-hour experience except that catatonic people will stay catatonic and there is nothing to be done about it. Now go away and wallow in nihilistic thoughts!

We had a long talk after the show, about the changed ending. Was it a) good b) bad and/or c) unethical? I personally think the change doesn’t do the show any favours. I also think that Pete Townshend and Desmond McAnuff didn’t add a more positive ending to their 1993 stage version (the album is a lot more ambiguous) for fun. They wanted to say something about the human condition, about hope, about endurance. And Ryan McBride has shat all over that. Does he have the right to do so? From a legal perspective the answer is, sadly, a resounding yes. But I think that in terms of creative responsibility he has committed a great crime.

Imagine: a new translation of The Lord of the Rings is published in Germany, the translator changes the ending and now Gollum actually gets the ring, hands it to Sauron and together they bomb Lothlorien back to the Stone Age.

So shame on you, English Theatre.

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