IN AN age of psychedelic excess, it was one of the first rock operas, an early sign of a teenage rebellion that would soon engulf popular entertainment.
It was in the autumn of 1968, under the influence of an Indian spiritualist, that The Who’s lead guitarist, Pete Townshend, began recording his magnum opus, the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who is also a wizard on the pinball machines.
Nearly half a century later, Townshend has been back at work on a revised version. The 21st century Tommy will play largely to an audience that remembers neither the Sixties album nor the following decade’s film adaptation but will, its producers hope, embody a more enlightened attitude to its central character’s disability.
The seven theatre groups behind the new version announced yesterday that Townshend had written two original numbers for it, a new version of Amazing Journey for the opening, and a torch song for the show’s drug dealing “Acid Queen”.
A cast, half comprised of Deaf and disabled actors, was yesterday being put through its paces in an Ipswich studio for the opening later this month, followed by two engagements in Yorkshire.
They will be joined by Peter Straker, a veteran of the 1990s West End revival.
Before the classically-influenced Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock operas Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy was being hailed as the manifestation of the “new music” as a fully-fledged art form.
Townshend’s muse had been Meher Baba, an Indian teacher near the end of his life, who had maintained silence since 1925.
The work was conceived strictly as a piece of music - the visuals came much later - and The Who performed it at a series of live concerts, including a celebrated appearance in 1970 at the Leeds University refectory.
The band then appeared, along with Oliver Reed, Elton John and Eric Clapton, in Ken Russell’s 1975 movie version.
The new stage production comes two years after a West End revival, and has been produced by Ramps on the Moon, a consortium involving Sheffield Theatres and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which seeks to address the under-representation of disabled people in mainstream theatre.
Townshend said he hoped the cast would shed a new and different light on the story.
“When I heard the there was a new planned production of Tommy, I was pleased of course,” he said.
“But when I heard they planned to do a production featuring actors with disabilities of various kinds, that will actually throw new light on the original story, I became very excited.
“This is a totally new adventure, and really does refer back to my original story in which a young man, disabled by extreme trauma, finds his way to some kind of spiritual place because he can feel music.”
Ramps on the Moon said that given its remit, Tommy had been an obvious choice, and that Townshend had helped to update it with 2017 values and attitudes.
The production will retain the 1940s setting of the original stage version, but will open with a present-day prologue drawing attention to the changing views of disabled people in the intervening decades.
In the story, Tommy chooses to stop communicating with the outside world after he sees his father murdered by his mother’s lover. He suffers abuse from relatives, but as an adolescent, finds salvation in playing pinball.
Ramps on the Moon’s previous show, The Government Inspector, is nominated for an Olivier Award for outstanding achievement.
• The new version will have its northern premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from May 4-13, and at the Sheffield Crucible from June 22 to July 1.