What were you doing at the age of 23?
The Who’s Pete Townshend was composing “Tommy” – the band’s groundbreaking 1969 rock opera. The work tells the story of a traumatized boy who shuts down his senses – though deaf, dumb and blind, he grows up to become a pinball wizard and a messianic figure.
Back in 1993, the musical version of “Tommy” won five Tony Awards, including one for the director. Now, that director is re-imaging the stage production at the Goodman Theatre with input from Pete Townshend.
Ali Louis Bourzgui portrays Tommy Walker, a role made famous by The Who’s Roger Daltrey in concert and on film.
“Coming into it, it felt like a big weight on my shoulders, just the idea that this is such an iconic piece in the world of rock and roll, in film, on the stage,” Bourzgui said. “I came into it with all of that and trying to see like how can I bring myself into this.”
He added that no matter the role, actors bring part of themselves into the work.
“I knew that that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but I just made sure to go to back into the archives. I watched every Who performance I could find,” he said.
Soon after the album was released, the Who played a suite of “Tommy” songs at Woodstock.
In the 1970s, “Tommy” was made into an extravagant film by director Ken Russell. And then a Tony Award-winning rock musical in 1993.
“Pete and I visited a couple of years ago, right before COVID, and talked about this,” said Des McAnuff, the show’s director. “He and I agreed that the world in a sense has caught up with Tommy Walker. Everybody’s walking around staring into a mirror and there’s a tendency for people to want to escape inside themselves, to protect themselves from a hostile world.
After COVID closures, they teamed with Goodman Theatre for months of casting calls and rehearsals.
The new production is a sensory explosion and puts an emphasis on movement and modern dance.
“The challenge is to make sure you’re not over-choreographing because you’re telling a story and there’s a person at the center of it that is standing still,” choreographer Lorin Latarro. “It’s how people react to ‘Tommy’ is what’s most interesting, and what ‘Tommy’ does to people and how we all see ourselves in this person.”
Bourzgui says Tommy’s relationship with the outside world is key to the show.
“We get to see this character that has shunned the world and existence and sort of has gone internal but doesn’t really experience the world thru senses we understand, which is a really cool thing for me to have played with and figure out what that meant for me and my body and understanding touch and vibration being the most heightened state,” he said. “It’s not how I experience the world so, to instill that has been a really interesting physical challenge.”
McAnuff said Townshend discussed how “Tommy” intersects with young people of today.
“Pete talked a lot about the parallels with his generation and Generation Z and their attempt to kind of redefine values and also I think encourage a kind of human understanding of others and sensitivity and generosity,” McAnuff said. “We have to be more generous to each other.”
The show is officially titled “The Who’s Tommy, the Musical.” It’s onstage at Goodman Theatre through Aug. 6.