'Tommy' returns: Original director expands on stage adaptation of The Who's opus 30 years later for the Goodman

“Re-imagined” doesn't adequately describe Goodman Theatre's production of “The Who's Tommy,” says writer/director Des McAnuff, of the revival that comes 30 years after composer/lyricist Pete Townshend's stage adaptation of the band's rock opus opened on Broadway.

McAnuff, the two-time Tony Award-winner who helmed the original production and wrote the book, describes Goodman's version as an “expansion.”

“The world has finally caught up to Tommy Walker,” he said. “It's time to do it again.”

But Goodman's production isn't a retread, he says of the show, which remains “faithful to the original score without being obedient.”

But because the story is a fable, it allows the creative team to take “flights of fancy,” McAnuff said.

Ezekiel Ruiz, center, plays Young Tommy in Goodman Theatre's 30th anniversary production of "The Who's Tommy," directed by Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

“This version has more detail in terms of Tommy's journey and the journey of the characters around him, particularly his parents,” he said. “Some elements are orchestrated differently, with Pete's blessing, but there are no major detours.”

Adapted from The Who's seminal 1969 album, “Tommy” tells the story of a young boy who - after witnessing his father murder his mother's lover - becomes deaf, mute and blind. He finds relief playing pinball, and Tommy's skill turns him into a media sensation with a cultlike following.

While the story is rooted in childhood trauma and abuse, the musical is also a potent examination of leadership and the abuse of power.

“We live in a world where many people are willing to blindly follow a leader off the edge of a cliff,” McAnuff said. “That is a major theme in 'Tommy' as well. After he (Tommy) awakens, he takes on a kind of power that can be equated with that of a religious leader, a political leader, or a cultural leader. That's when things start to go awry.”

McAnuff says that human nature being what it is, people look for a mother or father figure to tell them what to do, “to provide them the door to enlightenment.”

“That's not always wise,” said the Princeton, Illinois, native who grew up outside Toronto, Canada, and spent five years as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. “When people acquire a lot of power, there's a tendency for corruption to follow.”

Singer/actors rehearse Goodman Theatre's 30th anniversary production of "The Who's Tommy," which is among the summer theater season's most eagerly awaited shows. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The idea to “expand” the show began around 2019 when Townshend approached McAnuff about developing a movie version of the musical. Instead, they decided to revisit the stage adaptation and premiere it in Chicago.

“The Who has a huge following in Chicago,” said McAnuff, who said he's always wanted to birth a show here.

He said there's something about the Midwestern sensibility, along with a sense of rebellion and the psychological realism that animates so much of Chicago theater that suited Townshend's music.

Those passionate about “Tommy” won't be disappointed, McAnuff said. But theatergoers don't have to be aficionados to appreciate the show.

Townshend's score has tremendous imagination, he said. It's universal, and for that reason, McAnuff said, “Tommy” - in whatever incarnation - will always be appreciated as a great work of art.

Asked if he has plans to take the production to New York, McAnuff said he lives in hope, but a Broadway transfer isn't on his mind. Not at present.

“The only thing on my mind is this production for the marvelous Goodman Theatre,” he said.

“The Who's Tommy”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; plus additional matinees. Runs through July 30

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, $30-$180COVID-19 precautions: Masks recommended

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