“The Who’s Tommy:” The first proper rock opera

By Victoria Gill

Opinion Editor

Who is Tommy? The Washington College Music Department has reintroduced the classic rock character in this past week’s musical production of “The Who’s Tommy,” which showed in Hotchkiss Recital Hall Feb. 26, 27, 28, and 29. 

This 1960s musical, composed by the British rock band The Who, was dubbed the first proper rock opera. Sophomore Teddy Friedline, who served as the dramaturg for the production, said they, as a classic rock fan, were drawn to the history of a major turning point in rock music.

“It wasn’t originally meant for the stage, or at least, not the way we’re performing it. Released as a [1969] concept album, The Who would perform the entire story at a concert, with no added acting or costumes to go along with it,” they said. “Concert-goers would hear the story simply from the music, or buy records and listen to the story at home. It was later turned into a rock musical, which is what we are performing.”

The musical is a story of the “pinball-playing, deaf, dumb, and blind boy who triumphs over his adversities,” as stated by department advertisements.

Friedline said that prior to entering their role as dramaturg, they were curious about the titular character’s arc throughout the narrative. Tommy, at least in the first act, is portrayed as three different characters and doesn’t speak until the start of the second act.

The titular character goes on a long and traumatic journey. At a young age, Tommy witnesses the murder of his mother’s lover by his father. From there he enters a catatonic state for the rest of the first act. 

Friedline said that what stood out about the production overall was the “diffusion of responsibility.”

The show deals with how we can let other’s perceptions of ourselves affect us and keep us from what we truly want to be. Tommy’s affliction is caused by orders from his parents about how to react to trauma, and throughout the rest of the show, his condition is used to serve others’ purposes and goals, usually resulting in abuse and profiteering. Tommy allows the people in his life to define who he is and what he can be until he finally realizes the impact those around him are having on his perception and frees himself from it. 

“In an era of bias and identity awareness, this influence on our lives is apparent and the acknowledgment of such and the response to it is an important topic,” junior Will Rotsch said. During the Wednesday and Friday performances, he played the lead role of Tommy Walker. On Thursday and Saturday, the role was performed by freshman Nicholas Splendoria. This was Rotsch’s fourth time in a leading role.

“So many characters in the show know of the struggles and traumas which Tommy has endured, but they show no sympathy, and they don’t try to intervene. While Tommy is being mistreated and abused by Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin, our cast is facing upstage with their backs turned. To me, this is a commentary on how society turns their back on those in need,” Friedline said. 

Senior Emily Kreider, who served as assistant director and choreographer for the production said that an all-encompassing theme that has transcended the age of the show is how one individual’s action can affect other people. Tommy, even when he becomes famous as the “Pinball Wizard,” still faces problems that are even more important when he lacks proper coping mechanisms.

Kreider also choreographed the 2018 production of “Pippin” and the 2019 production of “Godspell.”

“As a choreographer my favorite moment of the show has got to be ‘Pinball Wizard.’ I was able to be so creative with this particular song, and the cast has done a great job of attacking it with such high energy. We’ve got dancers, flashing lights, people spinning around on a pinball machine,” Kreider said. “It’s a really fun time and a great way to close out Act One,.”

“I hope audiences will leave this production with new ideas of compassion and forgiveness. Of course, the music in this show is incredible and extremely fun to both perform and listen to, but there are some deeper meanings embedded within the story of Tommy that I hope people will be able to find and take away,” she said. 

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