I’ve seen more musicals than I could ever possibly remember. Somewhere on an old computer of ours I’ve laid out a spreadsheet with the dates, venues, and casts of every single show I’ve seen, but until I figure out where it is I can’t even harbour a guess as to my actual number. But what I do know is that in fourteen years of theatregoing nothing’s come close to rivaling the effect that seeing The Who’s Tommy had on me, not just in terms of theatre but in terms of my actual life. Simply put, Tommy changed me forever.
And it all started ten years ago today, on July 27, 1995, when I couldn’t get tickets to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And if you don’t think I’m currently listening to a bootlegged live version of Joseph from its 1996 Boston run in honour of the show’s inadvertent affect role in this drama…well, you’re wrong.
So where were we? The story starts in, of all places, North Bay during the summer of 1994–for it was there, in the very same city where I’d learned that Wayne Gretzky had been traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, that I first heard about Tommy. We were visiting with friends of ours whose daughter Katy had been my best friend while we were growing up, but then her parents had fled Thunder Bay for North Bay (a real sideways move, that) and we lost touch. Somewhere along the line Katy had grown up–and when her mother showed us a picture of her eldest daughter the hottest girl my thirteen year-old eyes had ever seen was staring back at me. I was awestruck. So when I learned that Katy, an aspiring dancer, had just gotten back from New York (she was studying jazz with Gregory Hines) and seen a show called Tommy, it was really all I needed to hear. If you’re reading this and saying to yourself, “Wait a second, Steve: are you telling me your current obsession with music started with a schoolboy crush?” the answer, sadly, is “probably.”
But in all seriousness, something struck: Katy or no Katy I was undeniably intrigued, even though I have no idea why. A month later I asked for the original cast recording for my birthday. Ian, however, failed to deliver, and instead got me the original motion picture soundtrack. If you’ve ever heard it (or, God forbid, seen the actual movie) you’ll know why this represented failure on a mass scale; not surprisingly, I hated it. Yet when the Canadian premiere production of Tommy was announced for the following year at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto I still wanted to see it. But in March 1995 my mom and I saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Minneapolis; the show absolutely blew us away, and thoughts of seeing Tommy in Toronto that summer were quickly pushed to the sidelines as we made plans to see Joseph again.
Which brings me to Thursday, July 27, 1995. That morning my mom and I spent an hour in line outside Toronto’s half-price ticket booth, which was then located on Yonge Street directly across from the Elgin Theatre, only to discover they didn’t sell discounted tickets to the “big” shows. We also learned that Joseph was almost sold out that evening, and that if we wanted seats together they’d be in the back few rows of the 3,223-seat O’Keefe Centre. Upon leaving the ticket office we had the following fateful discussion:
Her: “Do you want to see Tommy?”
In the space of three seconds, everything changed–although I wouldn’t realize it til a few years later. We crossed Yonge Street to the Elgin Theatre and bought two $25 tickets to Tommy. That night, from the third-last row of the theatre’s balcony, we saw the show. The verdict? Considering it would prove to be a top-three seminal event for me I was slightly disappointed. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. In particular, I was bothered by the show’s breakneck pacing, its poorly developed characters, the occasional incoherence of Des McAnuff and Pete Townshend’s storytelling (which, to be fair, was probably the result of me being too young to fully comprehend it as opposed to an actual flaw with the show). I made note of these criticisms in a review for the now-defunct London, England-based theatre magazine, Musical Stages. But I was also very impressed by the cast–in particular the show’s lead, Tyley Ross. Des McAnuff’s staging was (and remains) revolutionary. And I has also genuinely blown away by the music–in particular the Act I number “Sensation” and the final, raising-the-dead chorus of “Listening to You” (more on this in a second). The next day I bought the highlights of the original cast recording.
Over the next five months I wore the album out. In October, when we were back in Toronto for my long term follow-up appointment at the Hospital for Sick Children, I had the chance to see Tommy again but passed it up in favour of seeing The Phantom of the Opera for a fifth time (seeing Ciarán Sheehan was a big priority for me; I was an odd fifteen year-old). Two months later Tommy closed, with its producers making vague insinuations about a Canadian tour the following year. But despite passing over the stage production that fall I was quickly becoming addicted to the fourteen-track album. I needed more–and that year for Christmas, the one and only item on my wish list was the complete original cast recording of Tommy. This time, my parents delivered; after we’d opened the bulk of our presents I retired to my bedroom and put the first disc into my CD player.
That was December 24, 1995. I listened to that album–I’m not making this up–every day from then until July 27, 1996. On July 27, 1996, exactly a year to the date since I’d seen Tommy in Toronto, my parents and I flew to Calgary for our summer vacation–and that night, we saw the Canadian touring production of Tommy at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. The show started at 6pm MST; factor in the time difference and it was exactly a year to the second since my mom and I had seen the show in Toronto (and yes, this is the kind of fact I totally dig). This time I watched the show in a state which could best be described as “catatonic awe.” After “Pinball Wizard” brought the first act to its dazzling conclusion the cheering inside the Jubilee was deafening; by the time the entire cast joined Tommy (played by Tim Howar) on stage for “Listening to You” the audience was already standing, and the ovation that followed was overwhelming. Nine years later I have yet to see a show that rivals this production of Tommy: it was simply the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced, and while I recognize that I overuse these sorts of superlatives there is no other way for me to categorize it.
(“Listening to You” is, without a doubt, the most awesome song ever written. Pete Townshend, in an interview for the Tommy documentary, said the audience would still stand and applaud if it was sung in fucking Greek, and from my end that’s 100% accurate. The song is a thing of sheer, awesome, majestic beauty. Three years ago I saw the Who at Madison Square Garden; when “Listening to You” brought the show to a close it was so overpowering it actually caused me to tear up. When I die I want this song played at the end of my funeral–loudly. The original cast recording version, mind. And yet I digress.)
Three weeks later I turned sixteen. For my birthday my dad bought me my first real rock album: Quadrophenia by the Who. A year later, he and I saw the Who in Minneapolis; from there, it was a hop, skip and a jump away from Pearl Jam, and the rest, as they say, is history. Yet none of it would have happened–and, by extension, I’d be a much different person than I am today–were it not for this chain of events. What if Katy hadn’t been so attractive to my thirteen year-old self? What if we could have gotten better seats to Joseph? What if the routing for the Canadian tour had been slightly different? But the bottom line: she was, we couldn’t and it wasn’t…and ten years later I’m sitting here reflecting on one of the seminal events of my lifetime. I’ve only seen Tommy one more time, a hugely disappointing non-Equity tour that played Thunder Bay in 1997. But I’d be perfectly content never seeing it again: the first two times I saw Tommy were both once-in-a-lifetime, and the fact I got to experience them twice is good enough for me. I’m still nowhere near capable of explaining why this show continues to affect me the way it does; rather than try, which might potentially cheapen everything, I’m just going to be thankful that it did. For me, the amazing journey will probably never be complete–but it started ten years ago today in Toronto, and for that I will be forever grateful.