"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
There are an infinite number of good ways to fill a brilliant Saturday. Spending eight hours in a 1,000-square-foot windowless room that's entirely painted black does not seem to be one of them. But that's where the 21-member cast of the Rep's upcoming musical production of “Tommy” found themselves on such a day in late May.
The prop-strewn black box — there was a gurney bed here, a wheelchair there, an apparent torture table waiting to be hauled in from outside — served as the ensemble's rehearsal space as they awaited completion of the musical's elaborate set. With just two weeks to go before the show was to open, it also doubled as a think-tank of sorts — it was here that the cast was experimenting to create the production audiences will see throughout June.
“You can't have all the ideas at the beginning — and that goes for the director and every actor — because theater is such a collaborative process,” said Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, “Tommy's” director, in a cast interview a few days after the rehearsal. “There's no way that anybody can walk into the rehearsal hall with all the answers at square one. It's like a chess game — one person makes a move and that initiates someone else's move. Once you get certain information, whether it comes from the actors or the director, that leads you to some other light bulb going off.”
According to her actors, Kurdziel-Formato is particularly good at running productions in a way that maximizes players' creativity. “Lynne comes in with a structure, with basically a great outline for us to then fill in the blanks,” said Brad Little, who play's Tommy's father. “That's not found a lot. She trusts us enough to bring in our experiences and our ideas and how we have interpreted a certain moment.”
That working method is a perfect fit for “Tommy,” which in its original version — a 1969 album by the Who — is essentially a series of character sketches arranged around the loosest of plots: A deaf, dumb and blind kid, who happens to be very good at pinball, overcomes early-life difficulties to become the leader of a messianic cult.
“What has been the most fun through the whole rehearsal process has been trying to create our version of ‘Tommy,' our story of Tommy,” Little said. “It has been just a great rehearsal process of trying to figure out how to make this album into our musical.”
Famously the first “rock opera” ever recorded, “Tommy” has had a surprisingly long shelf life. The album certainly has its moments — its best-known song, “Pinball Wizard,” sticks in your head by force of its straightforward guitar playing and absurd lyrics (“He plays by sense of smell”). Yet “Pinball Wizard” is not really characteristic of the record as a whole, which consists of reprised themes, short vignettes, multi-movement overtures — in short, songs that lack the electricity of the Who's finest. In fact, pinball has no real relevance to the album's story; Pete Townsend, the band's principal songwriter, tossed it off because he thought it would please an influential music critic.
Yet the same qualities that make “Tommy” a dodgy rock album also make it prime stuff for musical treatment. That it has a pseudo-plot built in is certainly one reason; that the songs tend to feature vocals and arrangement over loud guitars and rhythm is another. And “Tommy's” general garishness doesn't hurt either, which Ken Russell acknowledged with his rock-star-filled 1975 film version, now a cult classic. Finally, in 1993, Townsend and Des McAnuff put the material on Broadway, its most natural habitat, where it played for two years.