A pumped up, sold-out crowd leapt to its feet repeatedly as performers from the original Broadway production of The Who’s Tommy commanded the stage at the August Wilson Theatre on Monday, December 15th for The 15th Anniversary Concert of this modern pop-opera.
Based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera – which included the rock-n-roll classics “I’m Free,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and “Listening to You,” plus globally renowned hits like “Acid Queen,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Pinball Wizard” – the original Broadway production of Tommy opened at the St. James Theatre on April 22, 1993 and ran for 899 performances, winning five of its 10 Tony Award® nominations including Best Original Score for Pete Townsend and Best Direction of a Musical for Des McAnuff.
The anniversary concert benefited BC/EFA, as well as The Broadway Dreams Foundation and Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation. Returning were Tony Award® winner Michael Cerveris, reprising the title role, Marcia Mitzman Gaven (Mrs. Walker), Jonathan Dokuchitz (Captain Walker), Cheryl Freeman (Gypsy/Acid Queen), Anthony Barrile (Cousin Kevin), Paul Kandel (Uncle Ernie) and Sherie Rene Scott (Sally Simpson).
Other company members included original stars Alice Ripley, Norm Lewis, Christian Hoff, Michael Arnold, Bill Buell, Maria Calabrese, Tracy Nicole Chapman, Paul Dobie, Tom Flynn, Romain Frugé, Jody Gelb, Pam Klinger, Lisa Leguillou, Lee Morgan, Timothy Warmen and national tour cast member Destan Owens as “The Hawker.”
Billy Elliot‘s David Bologna played the role of young Tommy. Original cast member Donnie Kehr played three key roles in this historic reunion: staging the evening with musical direction by Joe Church; serving as co-executive producer along with PATH Fund Director Cori Gardner and PATH Fund board member Sandy Hicks; and reprising his role as “the pinball kid” from the original production.
Tony Award® winning director Des McAnuff was on hand for sold-out event. He began the evening by reading a letter from Pete Townshend, who was unable to attend the event:
“How amazing to be able to gather all the original cast members,” wrote Townsend. “The cause is, of course, one that I’ve always been glad to help, and I know all you rally together whenever you can in support. So, I’m especially sad that I can’t be there. You have all moved mountains to be together and so I wish the mountain I had to move was smaller. You may not know that The Who are doing three shows in London while you are rocking here in New York. So, there will be some cosmic trans-Atlantic Tommy connections over the ether on this special day.”
“I know,” he continued, “in the theatre you love to express your love to each other, while in rock n’ roll we prefer only to try to look tough. As this is a letter, I think I can tell the truth for once, and say that working with you all on Tommy on Broadway was one of the greatest times of my life….I think of all of you, bashing out eight shows a week while I sat in The Lucky Strike, in Sam’s, or in Un, Deux, Trois getting smashed. What a life! I know tonight’s show will be great. I thank you, and I still love you all!”
BC/EFA’s Provides Back Up
A stage manager who previously worked on Jersey Boys in the same theatre, BC/EFA staffer Michael Clarkston, was on hand to help organize a large crowd in a small space over a short period of time, with the able assistance of about 20 Broadway Cares staff members along with another 25 volunteers.
“I only got involved with the event in October, attending production and concept meetings,” Clarkston says. “The August Wilson Theatre is rather small and there is little-to-no room due to all the automation we have. I needed to find a place to put 10 musicians and 32 cast members and be able to feed the 125 people involved with the event. It was helpful to have worked on Jersey Boys, so I already knew the crew, the automation pieces, and how the projections worked. It made assisting Donnie with the technical elements much easier.”
He added, “Things may have been cramped backstage, but the audience was clearly psyched by what they saw and heard from the stage.”
Cerveris Makes Time to Make History
The logistics of bringing back Broadway’s original Tommy – multitasking Tony Award® winner Michael Cerveris – proves the old “where there’s a will, there’s a way” adage, with both sides going all out to make it happen. Cerveris explains, “As for the fact that I had four (!) jobs that week – rehearsals for Hedda Gabler on Broadway, performances of (Stephen Sondheim’s)Road Show at the Public, shooting more episodes of (the series) Fringeand doing Tommy, all of it went smoothly, but it meant I only got a short rehearsal Sunday night and then four or five hours Monday. But it all came back fast and no one was more pleasantly surprised to find I could still do all that stuff than me!”
“It was a night I will cherish the rest of my life. And there will never be anything quite like it again It was a homecoming, a rediscovering, a celebrating and a confirming that the history we made back then is still deeply meaningful today. It was a night of so much love and joy—things in all too short supply this year,” Cerveris said.
“Every one brought their families, their partners and their huge, huge hearts. And the other half of our cast—the audience—thundered, cheered, made us tear the roof off and gave us the greatest gift of thanks and love,” he said. “It was truly one of the most remarkable nights of my life. The very best part was knowing it was going to mean more than our personal joy and reminiscing. We connect on a deep level again as a company and did that in order to help out BC/EFA and their many wonderful and vital works.”
The Rockers/Tommy Continuum
The event also marked the 15th year of Rockers on Broadway, the organization Kehr founded and continues to run in collaboration with Cori Gardner. Rockers began when Kehr was appearing in the show’s original run, after Townshend asked him to help produce “an event that would let Broadway performers know what it felt like to sing in a rock & roll venue, so they could understand and transfer the rawness of that edge to the stage.” Donnie readily agreed and continued producing Rockers benefit events after Tommy’s long run ended. “It was born as a way to raise money for significant causes, but also to let performers express themselves in new and exciting ways.”
“Staging this reunion was coming full circle,” said Cori Gardner, who also singled out Tommy creators McAnuff and Townshend for making the evening possible. “We could not have put on this event without their support. The feedback in the weeks following this event has been tremendous.”
The 15th Anniversary Benefit Concert of The Who’s Tommy was sponsored by Jeff Davis, The Dodgers, The Frye company, Joseph J. Grano, and Kevin & Tamara Kinsella, with support from Sony BMG Masterworks, Miller Coors and Rothmann’s Steakhouse – with special thanks to Music Theatre Intertnational for its support and permission.
Visit www.rockersonbroadway.com for more on this event, plus their next benefit “Celebrating the 60’s”
All photos by Peter James Zielinski