The Story of The Who’s Tommy: A Broadway Masterpiece

The Who’s Tommy is a rock opera that tells the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy named Tommy. The story begins with Tommy’s accidental death and his subsequent journey through life, as he discovers his own identity and the world around him. With its themes of rebellion, hope, and the power of music, The Who’s Tommy has become a Broadway masterpiece and a cultural icon. The show’s electrifying music, innovative staging, and powerful lyrics have captivated audiences for decades, making it a must-see for anyone who loves rock music and thought-provoking theater.

The Origins of The Who’s Tommy

The Inspiration Behind the Story

The inspiration behind the story of The Who’s Tommy can be traced back to a number of different sources. One of the most significant influences was the experiences of Pete Townshend, the lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Who. Townshend had a difficult childhood, marked by trauma and abuse, which he later explored in his writing. Additionally, the band was known for their innovative use of rock music as a medium for storytelling, and their desire to push the boundaries of what was possible in the genre.

Another influence on the story of Tommy was the counterculture movement of the 1960s, which valued free expression and individualism. This movement, along with the emergence of the rock musical as a genre, created a space for the band to experiment with new forms of storytelling and express their ideas in a more nuanced way.

The story of Tommy was also influenced by the broader cultural and political context of the time. The Vietnam War, civil rights movement, and the rise of consumer culture all had an impact on the themes and messages of the musical. By incorporating these elements into the story, The Who was able to create a work that was both timely and timeless, and that spoke to a generation of young people who were looking for new ways to express themselves and connect with the world around them.

The Evolution of the Musical

The Conceptualization of the Musical

The idea for The Who’s Tommy was initially conceived by Pete Townshend, the guitarist and songwriter for the British rock band The Who. Townshend had written the bulk of the music for the musical, drawing inspiration from The Who’s 1969 album, “Tommy,” which told the story of a “deaf, dumb, and blind” boy who becomes a messianic figure. The album had been a commercial success and had garnered critical acclaim, making it an ideal basis for a musical adaptation.

The Collaboration with Des McAnuff

Pete Townshend collaborated with Des McAnuff, a Canadian theater director and playwright, to develop the book and lyrics for the musical. McAnuff brought a wealth of experience to the project, having directed several successful musicals, including “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” The collaboration between Townshend and McAnuff proved to be a fruitful one, as they were able to combine their respective strengths to create a compelling and cohesive story.

The Workshop Process

Before the musical’s world premiere, Townshend and McAnuff workshopped the show in various venues to refine the material. One of these workshops was held at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California, where the musical received its first public performance in 1992. The workshop process allowed the creators to experiment with different musical numbers, staging, and storytelling techniques, ultimately leading to a more polished and refined final product.

The Development of the Score

In addition to adapting the music from The Who’s album, Townshend also wrote new songs for the musical. These new compositions helped to expand the narrative and provide a more cohesive structure for the story. The score for The Who’s Tommy blended elements of rock, punk, and Broadway show tunes, creating a unique and distinctive sound that would come to define the musical.

The Incorporation of The Who’s Signature Style

Throughout the creation of The Who’s Tommy, the creators sought to incorporate the signature style of The Who, which included the use of loud, energetic rock music and explosive stage dynamics. This integration of the band’s style helped to establish a connection between the musical and its roots in rock music, further solidifying the musical’s identity as a Broadway masterpiece.

The Characters of The Who’s Tommy

Key takeaway: The Who’s Tommy is a Broadway masterpiece that combines the band’s signature rock sound with theatrical storytelling and social commentary. The musical’s story, characters, and music all work together to create a powerful and engaging musical experience that explores themes of redemption, love, and the triumph of the human spirit. Additionally, the social and political context of the time in which the musical was created had a significant impact on its themes and messages, making it a timeless piece of musical theater that continues to captivate audiences to this day.

The Lead Role: Tommy


Tommy, the protagonist of The Who’s Tommy, is a young boy who undergoes a transformative journey throughout the musical. His character serves as the central figure of the story, with the narrative unfolding around him.

Character Background

Tommy is initially introduced as a shy and introverted child, struggling to cope with the trauma of witnessing his father’s death during a game of pinball. This traumatic event leaves him emotionally detached and apathetic towards the world around him.

Development of the Character

As the story progresses, Tommy’s character undergoes a profound transformation. Through various experiences and encounters with different characters, he discovers his unique talents and gifts, particularly his incredible sensitivity to music and sound.

The Pinball Wizard

Tommy’s journey culminates in his ascension to the status of the Pinball Wizard, a messianic figure who is revered by his followers. In this role, he becomes a symbol of hope and inspiration for those around him, using his extraordinary abilities to bring people together and foster a sense of unity and purpose.

The Character’s Impact on the Musical

Tommy’s character serves as the backbone of The Who’s Tommy, embodying the central themes of the musical and providing a powerful emotional core for the audience to connect with. His journey from a timid and vulnerable child to a charismatic and transformative figure captures the hearts of audiences, making him one of the most memorable and beloved characters in Broadway history.

Supporting Characters

Captain Walker

Captain Walker is a key supporting character in The Who’s Tommy. He is a disciplined and strict army officer who is tasked with transforming Tommy into a proper soldier. He represents the oppressive and controlling forces that attempt to suppress Tommy’s individuality and creativity.

The Doctor

The Doctor is another important supporting character in the story. He is a medical professional who treats Tommy after his accident. He is portrayed as a caring and compassionate figure who tries to help Tommy overcome his disability.

Mrs. Walker

Mrs. Walker is the mother of Captain Walker and the grandmother of Tommy. She is a nurturing and loving figure who tries to protect Tommy from the harsh realities of the world. She represents the maternal love and care that Tommy needs to heal from his trauma.

The Pinball

The Pinball is a unique and mystical character in the story. It is a metaphor for the chaos and unpredictability of life. The Pinball is a guiding force that leads Tommy on his journey of self-discovery and enlightenment.

The Hawker

The Hawker is a traveling salesman who sells Tommy a new set of glasses that enable him to see the world in a different way. He represents the power of perspective and the ability to see beyond the limitations of one’s circumstances.

The Acid Queen

The Acid Queen is a character who embodies the counterculture of the 1960s. She is a provocative and rebellious figure who challenges the status quo and encourages Tommy to embrace his individuality.

These supporting characters play an important role in the story of The Who’s Tommy. They represent different aspects of Tommy’s journey and provide him with guidance and support as he navigates the challenges of his life.

The Music of The Who’s Tommy

The Rock Opera Genre

The Who’s rock opera, “Tommy,” is a musical masterpiece that defies traditional classification. The rock opera genre combines elements of rock music and opera to create a unique and immersive musical experience. The term “rock opera” was first coined in the 1960s, and it refers to a type of musical production that blends rock music with theatrical storytelling.

Some of the key characteristics of the rock opera genre include:

  • A blend of rock music and classical music: Rock operas often feature complex musical arrangements that incorporate elements of both rock and classical music. This can include the use of orchestral instruments, operatic vocals, and rock-inspired rhythms.
  • A narrative structure: Like traditional operas, rock operas tell a story through music. However, they often use more modern themes and subject matter, and they are often more accessible to a wider audience.
  • A focus on social commentary: Many rock operas, including “Tommy,” use music to explore social and political issues. They often use satire, irony, and metaphor to critique contemporary society and inspire thought and reflection.
  • A mix of rock and theatre: Rock operas are often produced as stage productions, and they combine the energy and emotion of rock music with the storytelling and theatricality of opera. This can create a powerful and engaging musical experience for audiences.

In the case of “Tommy,” the rock opera genre allowed The Who to create a unique and innovative musical production that blended their signature rock sound with theatrical storytelling and social commentary. The result was a groundbreaking musical that continues to inspire and captivate audiences to this day.

The Iconic Songs

The music of The Who’s Tommy is an integral part of the show’s success. The iconic songs from the original album have been carefully selected and adapted for the stage production. Some of the most memorable tracks include:

  • “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?”
    The song that gives the musical its name, “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” is a powerful ballad that speaks to the central character’s sense of isolation and disconnection from the world around him. The song’s haunting melody and emotive lyrics have made it a fan favorite.
  • “Pinball Wizard”
    “Pinball Wizard” is a rock anthem that has become synonymous with The Who themselves. The song’s infectious guitar riff and playful lyrics make it a standout track in the musical. The song’s energy and excitement are perfectly captured in the show’s choreography and staging.
  • “I’m Free”
    “I’m Free” is a triumphant anthem that celebrates Tommy’s newfound sense of liberation and freedom. The song’s uplifting melody and powerful lyrics are perfectly suited to the character’s journey from darkness to light. The song’s message of hope and empowerment has resonated with audiences of all ages.
  • “Amazing Journey”
    “Amazing Journey” is a musical tour de force that serves as a sort of overture to the musical. The song weaves together several of the show’s themes and motifs, and sets the stage for the story to come. The song’s driving beat and soaring vocals make it a standout moment in the show.
  • “Sparks”
    “Sparks” is a haunting ballad that speaks to the darker aspects of Tommy’s journey. The song’s eerie melody and unsettling lyrics create a sense of unease and tension that perfectly captures the character’s inner turmoil. The song’s haunting beauty has made it a fan favorite.

These iconic songs, along with several others, help to create a rich and diverse musical landscape that enhances the show’s themes and messages. The music of The Who’s Tommy is an essential part of the show’s enduring appeal and legacy.

The Themes of The Who’s Tommy

The Story’s Central Message

  • The Central Message of The Who’s Tommy revolves around the theme of redemption and the transformative power of love.
  • The story explores the journey of Tommy, a young boy who is left traumatized after witnessing the murder of his mother’s lover by her husband.
  • Tommy’s trauma leads him to become deaf, dumb, and blind to the world around him, causing him to isolate himself from others.
  • However, through the love and support of his wife, Tommy is able to break free from his isolation and embrace the world around him.
  • The story’s central message is that love has the power to heal even the deepest wounds and transform the most broken of individuals.
  • This message is reinforced through the musical’s uplifting and inspirational music, which carries the audience on a journey of redemption and hope.
  • Overall, The Who’s Tommy is a powerful exploration of the human spirit and the transformative power of love, making it a Broadway masterpiece that continues to captivate audiences to this day.

The Social and Political Context

The Post-War Era in Britain

The Who’s Tommy was released in 1969, a time when Britain was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II. The war had left deep scars on the country, and many were still struggling to come to terms with the loss of loved ones and the destruction of cities. This social and political context is reflected in the story of Tommy, which explores themes of loss, trauma, and the struggle to find meaning in a world that has been forever changed.

The Counterculture Movement

The 1960s was also a time of great social and political upheaval, as young people began to challenge the established norms and values of their parents’ generation. This counterculture movement was characterized by a rejection of traditional authority, a desire for personal freedom, and a search for new forms of expression and creativity. Tommy can be seen as a reflection of this counterculture movement, as it celebrates individualism, self-expression, and the power of rock music to inspire change.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was a major source of tension and controversy in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Many young people were opposed to the war, and saw it as a symbol of the oppressive and unjust nature of the U.S. government. Tommy can be read as a critique of war and its destructive effects on individuals and society as a whole. The character of Captain Walker represents the authoritarian and oppressive nature of the military establishment, while Tommy’s journey can be seen as a metaphor for the struggle to overcome the trauma and confusion caused by war.

The Rise of Disability Rights

The character of Tommy himself is a symbol of the struggles faced by people with disabilities in a world that is often hostile and inaccessible. The story of Tommy can be seen as a celebration of the human spirit and the resilience of those who face adversity. It also raises important questions about the social and political context of disability, and the need for greater inclusion and accessibility in society.

Overall, the social and political context of Tommy is a reflection of the turbulent and transformative era in which it was created. The story touches on some of the most pressing issues of the time, and continues to resonate with audiences today as a powerful critique of the social and political norms of the past.

The Legacy of The Who’s Tommy

The Impact on Broadway

  • The Who’s Tommy made its Broadway debut in 1993, and it had a significant impact on the theatre industry.
  • The show’s innovative use of rock music, combined with a compelling story, captivated audiences and broke new ground in musical theatre.
  • Tommy received critical acclaim and won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score.
  • The success of Tommy helped to pave the way for other rock musicals, such as “Rent” and “Rock of Ages,” and it demonstrated the potential for new and experimental forms of musical theatre.
  • Additionally, the show’s commercial success helped to revitalize the Broadway industry during a period of decline in the early 1990s.
  • Tommy’s impact on Broadway was not only limited to its success during its initial run, but it also inspired future productions and adaptations, including a successful touring production and a 2015 Broadway revival.
  • Overall, The Who’s Tommy left a lasting impact on the Broadway industry and continues to be recognized as a landmark production in the history of musical theatre.

The Enduring Popularity of the Musical

  • Continued Success: The musical has remained a popular fixture on Broadway, consistently attracting audiences with its powerful storytelling and memorable songs.
  • Cultural Impact: Tommy has transcended the boundaries of the theater world and has become a cultural phenomenon, with its themes and messages resonating with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
  • Enduring Themes: The musical explores universal themes such as loss, identity, and redemption, which continue to resonate with audiences and have contributed to its enduring popularity.
  • Influence on the Music Industry: The original rock opera has had a significant impact on the music industry, paving the way for the fusion of rock and theater, and inspiring countless other rock operas and musicals.
  • Contemporary Relevance: Despite being written in the 1960s, the themes and messages of Tommy remain relevant today, making it a timeless piece of musical theater.

The Continued Relevance of Its Themes

The Power of Rock Music

  • The Who’s music has a universal appeal that transcends time and cultural boundaries.
  • The raw energy and passion of their songs continue to resonate with audiences of all ages.
  • The band’s pioneering use of synthesizers and other electronic instruments helped shape the sound of rock music.

The Triumph of the Human Spirit

  • The story of Tommy is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of hope.
  • Despite facing numerous challenges and obstacles, Tommy never gives up on his dreams.
  • His journey serves as an inspiration to anyone who has faced adversity and is searching for a way to overcome it.

The Critique of Societal Norms

  • The Who’s music has always been critical of societal norms and expectations.
  • In Tommy, the band challenges the conventions of religion, politics, and education.
  • The story serves as a reminder that we must question authority and think for ourselves in order to achieve true freedom.

The Importance of Community and Connection

  • Throughout the story of Tommy, the importance of community and connection is highlighted.
  • The characters around Tommy rally around him and support him in his journey.
  • This serves as a reminder that we are all connected and that we must support each other in order to achieve our goals.

Overall, the themes of The Who’s Tommy continue to be relevant today, as they have always been a reflection of the human experience. The band’s music has the power to move and inspire, and the story of Tommy remains a timeless masterpiece that continues to resonate with audiences of all generations.


1. What is the story of The Who’s Tommy?

The story of The Who’s Tommy is a rock opera that tells the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy named Tommy. The story begins with Tommy witnessing his father’s murder and being traumatized by the event. As a result, he becomes catatonic and loses his senses. The story follows Tommy’s journey as he discovers his unique musical talent and how it changes his life. Along the way, he also discovers the truth about his father’s murder and the people involved.

2. What is the origin of The Who’s Tommy?

The Who’s Tommy is a rock opera that was originally released as an album in 1969. It was later adapted into a stage show that premiered on Broadway in 1993. The music and lyrics were written by Pete Townshend, the guitarist and songwriter for The Who, and the book was written by Townshend and Des McAnuff. The show has since become a classic of the rock opera genre and has been performed all over the world.

3. What is the significance of The Who’s Tommy?

The Who’s Tommy is significant because it was one of the first rock operas and helped to establish the genre. It also explores themes of trauma, abuse, and redemption, making it a powerful and thought-provoking work. The show has also been praised for its innovative use of technology, including the use of pre-recorded music and synthesizers. The Who’s Tommy has become a cultural touchstone and continues to be beloved by audiences around the world.

4. How has The Who’s Tommy been received by audiences?

The Who’s Tommy has been received with critical acclaim and has become a beloved classic of the rock opera genre. The show has been praised for its innovative use of technology, its powerful themes, and its catchy music. It has also been a commercial success, running for over 800 performances on Broadway and winning several Tony Awards. The show continues to be performed all over the world, and its popularity has only grown over the years.

5. What is the message of The Who’s Tommy?

The message of The Who’s Tommy is one of redemption and hope. The show explores themes of trauma, abuse, and the impact of these experiences on the human psyche. However, it also shows how music can be a powerful force for healing and how even the most broken individuals can find a way to overcome their struggles. The show ultimately celebrates the human spirit and the resilience of the human soul.

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