Game on: Ten things we learned at 'Tommy' first rehearsal

The making of 'The Who's Tommy'

Photos from the first rehearsal of the DCPA Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Who’s Tommy.’ To see more, click on the image above to be taken to our full Flickr photo gallery Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The appeal of Tommy: The Who’s adapted rock opus proves musical theatre can be both dangerous and entertaining

By John Moore
SenIor Arts Journalist

Staging The Who’s Tommy has been a dream of Director Sam Buntrock’s since 1995, when the wiry young Brit saw one of the first performances of The Who’s theatricalized tale of the deaf, dumb and blind kid at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. And Buntrock doesn’t even like musicals.

But this wasn’t any musical. It was The Who. And it wasn’t a musical — not really. It was an unprecedented rock opera directed by the legendary Des McAnuff. “That extraordinary production showed me that musical theatre could be dangerous as well as entertaining,” Buntrock said on the first day of rehearsal for his own upcoming DCPA Theatre Company production. “And I have harbored a desire to approach it myself ever since.”

Kevin Copenhaver. Tommy. Photo by John MooreSince is now, 23 years later.

Tommy — the record and the stage adaptation — is Pete Townshend‘s psychedelic trip down memory lane. It tells the story of a boy who retreats into a world of darkness and silence after witnessing a traumatic incident and emerges as a rock-star pinball wizard. It is based largely on Townshend’s boyhood story, when he was sent away by his parents because London had become unsafe during the second world war. “He went to live with a grandmother who was severely mentally ill, and a number of terrible things happened to him,” Buntrock said. “He wrote this piece from the heart.”

The Who had released three records by 1969, and by then Townshend was wanting to progress beyond the standard three-minute pop-single. So he wrote the trippy pinball opus that changed rock forever.

(Pictured above and right: Costume Designer Kevin Copenhaver.)

“I want to tell Pete’s story as authentically as possible,” Buntrock said. “I want to tell the story of the repercussions of a moment of violence on this family, and how that cascades down over time and lasts for decades.”

The Who’s Tommy cast list includes Broadway stars

Buntrock says The Who’s Tommy is about parents failing. “It’s about growing up and realizing parents are just people. They are not gods anymore,” he said. “What Pete tapped into, as all geniuses do, was taking something deeply personal and finding a way to explode it into this fantastical story.”

And, Buntrock added, “No one else in the world will be able to tell that story like we are telling it — and that is a testament to how great Denver is. This is a phenomenal theatre. This particular building is magical to me.”

Here are 10 more things we learned at first rehearsal of The Who’s Tommy:

Sam Buntrock. Tommy. Photo by John Moore

NUMBER 1I’m a sensation. There should be a moratorium on saying this, Buntrock admitted, “but Tommy was a sensation,” he said. “It became something more than itself.” He recalled a great story about when the band performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1971. “At the end of that concert,” Buntrock said, “Leonard Bernstein ran up to Pete Townshend, grabbed him by the lapels and said, ‘Do you know what you have done?’ That’s Tommy. That album caused a huge shift in how rock music was considered.”


Throw the book at them. Buntrock has encouraged every member of his creative team to read Townshend’s autobiography Who I Am. (The title is a variation on the band’s anthem “Who Are You?”). At age 50, Townshend wrote an undelivered letter to his 8-year-old son. In it, the father advises the son to be a pessimist. “It is the safest, most pragmatic way to be,” Townshend wrote. “Being an optimist may enrich the lives of others … but it leads you unaware to danger.” Says Buntrock: “It’s one hell of a read. It’s so generous and open and profound.”

NUMBER 3The watered-down truth. Many of Buntrock’s out-of-town cast members are still adjusting to life — and singing — at a mile high. Music Director Gregg Coffin has encouraged them to drink plenty of water. But how much is enough? “Take your weight and divide it by two,” he said. “That’s how many ounces of water you should drink every day. ”


See me … at age 4. Expect to see more of 4-year-old Tommy in Buntrock’s show than you ever have before, he said. The whole point is for us to see the story of Tommy’s parents through the 4-year-old’s eyes, Buntrock said. But in most stage productions, you only see the 4-year-old for about a minute before he’s gone for good. Not here. “We get to live in the 4-year-old’s head for about 15 minutes, right up until the moment of violence and everything gets taken away,” Buntrock said. “This approach will allow us to see the world the way he sees it until he literally hands the story over to his adult self. That way, when we get to the end, we know how extraordinary the journey has been — because we have been inside the mind of the 4-year-old. We know how beautiful that is. How untouched that is. How pure and how limitless that is. And hopefully, you know, everyone will be in tears by then.”

NUMBER 5Clap on, clap off. This will make pretty much anyone who grew up with The Who’s music feel old, but here it is: The Who’s Tommy is a period piece. Hard as that might be for anyone still breathing to accept that, it’s true. The story begins when Tommy is a child in the 1940s and runs through the 1960s. Period piece.

Mientus scheduled to appear at Alamo screening March 26

NUMBER 6Well, that’s Smash-ing.
Young Broadway and screen star Andy Mientus (Smash, Spring Awakening, The Flash) is starring as Tommy at age 18. And he has agreed to spend his only day off over a 13-day span entertaining the audience before Monday’s (March 26) screening of the film Tommy at the Alamo Drafthouse near Sloan’s Lake. The screening raises money for The Denver Actors Fund, which has made $218,000 in medical relief available to Colorado theatre artists over four years. Mientus will sing at least one song from the show, take questions, and help with trivia and ticket giveaways before the Alamo screens the movie that inspired the stage adaptation. Tickets are $20. Choose your preferred seats here.

Andy Mientus and Charlie Korman. Photo by John Moore
Charlie Korman and Andy Mientus. Photo by John Moore

NUMBER 7Intimacy issues. As the legacy of The Who has grown larger over the years, the stage musical has continued to get smaller. Music Director Gregg Coffin (A Christmas Carol, Sweeney Todd with DeVotchKa) said that when The Who’s Tommy bowed on Broadway in 1995, the principal adult cast was 18 people. “It was down to 10 when it toured, and we’re taking it down to eight,” he said. “I’m really excited about that because we are bringing it back to that 1969 sound when it was just the four guys in the band performing it. We are going to get small and iconic and authentic very, very quickly.” 

NUMBER 8David Hess as Sweeney TossWho are you? David Hess, who plays three roles including the minister, was playing Sweeney Todd at the late Country Dinner Playhouse in south Denver (pictured right) long before he played the Demon Barber on Broadway. Hess had many triumphant moments at the beloved dinner theatre from 1991-93, but one of his favorite memories was playing Curly in Oklahoma. “I was supposed to throw a rope over this hook, but one night I kept missing it,” he told me in a previous interview. “The audience roared with laughter, so I told them, ‘Hey, it’s not as easy as it looks.’ I only found out later that the whole house had been bought out that night — they were all cowboys and cattlemen.”

NUMBER 9Sound? Check. The sound designer for The Who’s Tommy is former rock engineer Ken Travis (Disney’s Aladdin, coming to Denver April 7) and he will be introducing sound techniques in Tommy that have not yet been heard on any stage before. “He’s a genius,” Buntrock said. “He invented a sound system for Aladdin I’ll never understand. This machine physically knows where an actor is onstage at any time, so it can pan the sound. When it was confirmed that I would be doing Tommy, I said to myself, ‘I have to ask Ken to do sound’ — but it got announced right away, and I immediately got an email from Ken saying, ‘I am doing this without you even asking me.’ Ken has developed this sound system in Germany that is capable of things that are really rather extraordinary, and we are going to be the first to use it in this production. I’ll just say you are going to feel like you are inside the music — without it being too much. So, that will be fun.”

NUMBER 10Jason Sherwood 160Where’s Jason? The Scenic Designer of record is the uber-hot Jason Sherwood, who has designed Macbeth, The Wild Party and now The Who’s Tommy for the Denver Center this season alone. He also designed the sets for The Chainsmokers and Sam Smith’s appearances on Saturday Night Live. Sherwood was not present at Tommy’s first rehearsal, Buntrock said, because he is in Wakefield (in the U.K.), designing the set for Sam Smith’s upcoming world tour (Which stops in Denver on Aug. 21). But Buntrock and Sherwood are in lockstep on Tommy. “He’s the yin to my yang,” Buntrock said. “He augments how I think. He makes everything I do better, and what he has done for this show is remarkable.”

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.

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 Apr 20-May 27
  • Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Previous NewsCenter coverage of The Who’s Tommy:
Tommy to star Andy Mientus and other Broadway stars in Denver

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