South Hears a Who: TS and Music Department Present The Who’s Tommy
By Radhika Viswanathan
The emotive rock musical Tommy has been enjoyed by theater and rock music fans since its 1993 Broadway debut. This fall, South will bring this world-famed show to the stage on November 17and 18 at 8 pm.
Tommy is special to many because it is based on The Who’s 1969 album Tommy. This has excited not only the typical theatergoers but also rock lovers who come for, as sophomore Diana Charlop put it, “the killer style of music.”
Tommy is the story of a young boy who becomes deaf, dumb, and blind “after undergoing a traumatic event in his childhood” explained junior Alex Schecter, who plays Uncle Ernie in the show. This story takes the audience through the journey of Tommy’s rehabilitation and awakening.
“This show is different and challenging because it’s a rock show,” said director and drama teacher Mr. Tommy Marr. “It’s an exciting and electrifying piece that I think people are really going to respond to. All dads love Tommy!”
Because Tommy is a rock show, the instrumentalists have to use different techniques than they would in a standard musical. The variety of instruments includes synthesizers, guitars, drums, French horn, and some strings. In order to portray the abstract concepts of Tommy, “We are making different sound effects through the synthesizers. The keyboardists…have the Broadway CD, so we listen to that, and we’ll try and incorporate those sounds into the show,” said music department chairperson Mr. Michael Schwartz.
Tommy also requires even broader participation than usual. “It’s great because there are people from all walks of life in the school involved in the show in some way, whether it’s dance choreography, or lighting, or making the costumes, or building the set,” Mr. Marr said.
Portraying the special effects necessary for Tommy can only be achieved with the help of the stage crew. Technology department head and set design teacher John Motchkavitz is heading the scenery production. “Tommy is a psychedelic rock musical, so it’s different from say, Oklahoma or Guys and Dolls, which are more traditional shows. Some of the stuff can be a little wacky or out of proportion,” Mr. Motchkavitz said.
The long process of building the set starts with “meeting with Mr. Marr; Fran Harmon, who’s the choreographer, lighting, and sound person; and Dr. Levy who does the music,” Mr. Motchkavitz said. Together, they “figure out what vision [they] have for the show and what [they] want to get across to the audience.”
Although Tommy might be unique, it has some basic characteristics that can be seen in all musicals. “All of musical theater reflects on the time period in which the songs were written, and since this was by The Who, which was in the 1970’s, it would make sense that this would be rock music,” said Dr. Pamela Levy. “It’s not as different as perhaps people think.”
The ensemble and the soloists still have to maintain important music techniques and “act the songs, because in this particular musical, there is very little spoken dialogue,” Dr. Levy said. “We also have to make sure that the students are in character as they perform and that they hold the character throughout the production.”
By the opening day, the actors, instrumentalists, singers, dancers, and set designers involved in this collaborative effort will have toiled for over a month to bring the story to life. “It’s pretty impressive how quickly people take to the singing and acting and dancing and the stage,” Mr. Marr said. “We want to get the audience sucked into Tommy’s story.”