Director Sam Buntrock on 'Tommy' and riding the rock 'n roller coaster

by John Moore | May 04, 2018


Our video takes you behind-the-scenes with the making of the DCPA Theatre Company’s 'The Who's Tommy, Interviews include Director Sam Buntrock, star Andy Mientus and choreographer Katie Spelman. Video by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk.

 

A deeper drive with the director: What happens when we discover our fallen gods are merely human beings? 

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The Who’s seminal rock opera Tommy is Pete Townshend's semi-autobiographical story of a kid who was molested, abused, exploited and grows up to be internationally celebrated. And then it becomes a commentary on the fickle nature of pop idolatry, which could be seen as two very different things.

“Well, it is two different things, but it's the same thing,” said Sam Buntrock, who is directing the DCPA Theatre Company’s vibrant new look at the 1994 Broadway stage adaptation through May 27.  

“That’s the Amy Winehouse story. We’ve seen it a thousand times, and we’ve seen it end tragically a thousand times. The notion of somebody whose stardom is made through their past, whose unique abilities and charisma and enigma is their past, and the idea of them becoming a star and then falling from grace — it's all the same thing. It’s the vicious cycle of stardom.”   

In his story, Townshend turns a deaf, dumb and blind kid named Tommy into an iconic — and ironic — hero of a sport that no one actually fan-follows. And just as quickly, he’s yesterday's news.

“That is why this is such a surprisingly rich piece,” Buntrock said. "He’s talking about how we love to lift up in order to tear down. You see it happen again and again in the British tabloids, almost on a daily basis: A star is either on their way up or being pulled back down again. It's this idea that because we have made their lives news, then every intimate thing about them must be known. And then we find out that they're just people. We find out that they're not gods. We find out that they're just human beings. And then they disappoint us. And that disappointment is the moment the elevator stops to go back down again.”

Buntrock first came to Denver for the 2012 Colorado New Play Summit that would lead to his direction of Michael Mitnick’s world premiere Ed, Downloaded. He returned in 2016 for an innovative staging of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, in which the actors playing both God and Monster switched each performance.

Ed, Downloaded introduced me to the capacity and the ability of the Denver Center as a house for making sensational and world-class theater,” Buntrock said. “And then Frankenstein was essentially making a movie on stage.”

Here is more of Buntrock’s conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore:   

Sam Buntrock The Who's Tommy. Photo by John Moore.


John Moore: How did the idea to take a fresh look at The Who's Tommy come about?

Sam Buntrock: When I was invited to come back and direct Frankenstein, I remember sitting on the steps of The Stage Theater with (former DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director) Kent Thompson when he asked me what I wanted to do next. I said “Tommy,” because it was a piece I'd always dreamed of having a chance to do. And I realized that the only place I could do a version with my vision and of this ambition is at a place with the multi-departmental excellence of the Denver Center.

John Moore: Your cast is smaller than the original Broadway production by half — but I have a feeling your vision is no less grand.

Sam Buntrock: This one is gargantuan in its own way, but also tiny. I mean, that's the challenge — making an intimate version that's also huge.

John Moore: You have said that as a theatregoer, you don't particularly like musicals. So is this then a musical for people who don't like musicals?

Sam Buntrock: I, by default, don't like musicals because musical theater at its worst is a series of conventions unchecked. I've learned over decades of working in the development of musical theater that so much of the conversation is about how we have to do certain things because that's the way it is always done. It's almost like a factory. A production line. I'm drawn to musicals that don't do that. The work of Stephen Sondheim has been incredibly influential on me because he reinvents the form each time he does a show. He looks at what the story needs and he reinvents.

Our interview with The Who's Tommy star Andy Mientus

John Moore: How is Tommy an exception to the rule?

Sam Buntrock: Tommy isn't a musical; it's a collage. It's a song cycle. It's an album written by a man in his early 20s that is a form of self-expression about his childhood. And he is talking about the childhoods of a whole generation of people who experienced the second World War and its repercussions as children. And therefore, it's about the birth of the '60s because those people went on to make the '60s. Pete Townshend is writing about his own personal experience through the filter of a grand metaphor, and somehow that manages to be about all of us. Our childhoods make us the people we are, for good or ill. Every single one of us. Tommy is about how these incredibly damaging things made him who he is — and also happened to make him a star. There's this line when his fan, Sally Simpson, says she wants to be more like him. But all he wants to be is more like them. He just wants not to have had his past. Not to have had those things that made him who he is. But if he doesn't have those things, he stops being the star.

John Moore: The film version of Tommy was released the same year as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. In some ways, they seem to be the same story.

Sam Buntrock: Well, Jesus's biggest crime was that he was just a man. That's what made his downfall. People aren't interested in any nuance. I mean, you look at that in the world we live in right now: People would rather just be told the simplified version of the truth and not deal with the fact that things aren't simple. And the moment you start to find out the reality of any human being — that they are contradictory, and that they are flawed, you start to lose sight of the mythology.

Tommy-home-slide
Scenic design by Jason Sherwood. Photo by Adams VisCom.

John Moore: In what ways are you changing the framing of the storytelling in your version of Tommy?

Sam Buntrock: We present the beginning of the story as Tommy's mythology, as what he understands the story of his parents to be. So his father is a god. His father is this entity who created him and left, and never came back. And so when his father does arrive back home, the first thing he does is commit a brutal act of violence. And so the man is flawed and scared and human. And that’s the biggest crime of all — to be human.

John Moore: What can we know about what Jason Sherwood is up to with the scenic design for this production?

Sam Buntrock: Well, what isn’t Jason Sherwood up to in this production? This is the most ambitious thing we've ever done together, and we went through more iterations on this than any of our other shows combined because we knew we had to get it just right. It's not a literal space, it is a beautifully conceived abstract space that helps, I hope, the audience to see the whole show through an expressionist lens. This space is fragments and memory. I think he's done something extraordinary. But then again, he always does.

andy-mientus-as-tommy-photo-by-adamsviscom_26827050207_oJohn Moore: You created some of your own animations for this production.

Sam Buntrock: Yes, I have a history and an interest in combining projection and animation with live performance. And that was a lot of fun.

John Moore: What do you want to say about the pedigree of your cast?

Sam Buntrock: Well, casting for this show was a white-knuckle-ride, but we have collected a cast the caliber of which I couldn't have dreamed of across the board. They do extraordinary things on a vocal level, but they're also really good actors. It's been so rewarding with these actors to unearth all of the emotion and pain and truth inside of what Pete was playing with.

John Moore: For fans of the film, will there be baked beans?

Sam Buntrock: Ann-Margret's not here, but there will be baked beans on that stage at some point in the show, yes.

John Moore: Let’s talk specifically about what Andy Mientus brings to the role of Tommy.

Sam Buntrock: Andy fundamentally understands what fame is about from his own experiences. All of us in the Broadway community watch people get launched into the stratosphere. We see how people handle it, and some do it better than others. I think what Andy brings — and I mean this as the utmost compliment —  is a simplicity and an innocence, but without being childlike. He's very straightforward in the way he performs. His Tommy is very clear and very, very charismatic. Which he has to be, because he's the person who takes you on the journey. But also, when he’s experienced the effects of being famous, Andy is playing that with an honesty and a brutality that's really, really arresting. And it's real.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: You show more of young Tommy throughout than any previous staging of the show.

Sam Buntrock: In this production, we meet the 4-year old at the very beginning of the show, and he takes us through his understanding of who he is and how he came to be. It's his story. The parents are incredibly important, but it's not their story; it's his story. Their story is only there because it makes his story.

John Moore: What made you think you could take two 4-year-old kids off the street to share the role and know they could handle so much responsibility?

Sam Buntrock. Photo by John MooreSam Buntrock: It was hairy initially, because first we had to find these kids who could really carry the show. And that was important to me because I think there's nothing like seeing a real 4-year old on stage to understand who Tommy was when all of this happened to him. To connect that frailty and vulnerability. Having any child on the stage is inherently fragile because you don't know what's going to happen next. And when Samuel Bird and Radley Wright are on the stage, it's incredibly fragile. As an audience member, you see a child on the stage and you wonder, ‘Well, how is it going to run?’ For me, the most unsatisfying part of seeing this show in the past has been that we only meet the 4-year old Tommy for about 90 seconds before the moment of violence that changes the course of his life. Everything that is his childhood gets internalized, and he goes into his stasis. And he’s gone. Now, if we've only seen that for 90 seconds, it's impactful, but it's not profound. If we see the whole story through his eyes, through his imagination, through his exuberance and innocence and hope, then the moment it gets internalized, I think that's a stomach punch.

John Moore: What do you want to say to people who might be on the fence about coming to see a rock opera about a traumatized and exploited pinball wizard?

Sam Buntrock: I've been approaching this show like Shakespeare. My goal is presenting a story that is clear on a visual level. This is a piece that has required every skill set; every part of what I can do and want to do. I believe that we are presenting this in a fresh way, in a very authentic way, that I hope has strong emotional resonance. But it also is really bloody entertaining, you know? This is rock and roll — and it goes up to 11.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.



Video: Your first look at The Who's Tommy at the Denver Center:

Your first video look in video at scenes from the DCPA Theatre Company's new production of 'The Who's Tommy.' Video by David Lenk for the DCPA NewsCenter. 


The Who's Tommy
: Ticket information

Tommy_show_thumbnail_160x160Based on The Who’s iconic 1969 rock concept album, Tommy is an exhilarating musical about the challenges of self-discovery and the resilience of the human spirit. When young Tommy retreats into a world of darkness and silence after a deeply traumatic incident, he must navigate a harsh and unforgiving world with no hope of recovery. But when he discovers a newfound talent for pinball, he’s swept up in the fame and fortune of his success. Tommy and his family give new voice to The Who’s classic stadium rock as they navigate the troubles and joys of being alive.
  • Presented by DCPA Theatre Company
  • Performances through May 27
  • Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Previous NewsCenter coverage of The Who's Tommy:
Photo gallery: The making of The Who's Tommy at the Denver Center:

The making of 'The Who's Tommy'
The photos above are from the making of the DCPA Theatre Company's new production of The Who's Tommy, spanning the first day of rehearsal on March 13 to the Opening Night performance on April 27.To see more, click on the image above to be taken to our full gallery of photos.

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ABOUT THE EDITOR
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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