LONDON — “We’re hoping for a new kind of musical.”
So says Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter of British rock band the Who. And that potential mold-breaker is “Quadrophenia,” opening May 9 at Theater Royal Plymouth, one of the U.K’s. largest regional houses, ahead of a six-month tour.
While the title was filmed in 1979, anyone imagining another screen-to-stage retread like “The Full Monty” or “The Wedding Singer” will be surprised. This “Quadrophenia” has nothing to do with Franc Roddam’s Mods-vs.-Rockers pic.
Jeff Young, alongside music director John O’Hara and director Tom Critchley, has adapted Townshend’s original concept, music and lyrics. “This is totally drawn from the album,” Young says. “We wanted to return to the primary source.”
Even though the 1973 album was not the first rock opera from the Who — their smash hit “Tommy” was released four years earlier — “Quadrophenia” was iconoclastic, not least in its presentation. A big hit in Britain (and No. 2 on the Billboard album chart), it consisted of a double-LP and full-size booklet with lyrics, the lengthy synopsis of the story driving the songs, and a collection of black and white photographs.
“Those photos tell an evocative story in themselves,” Young says. “The film deviated from that essence.”
That’s not just Young’s view. Although the Who acted as exec producers on the movie, it mushroomed beyond the original conception and the soundtrack even added songs from other artists. The stage show is a return to basics, and a return that has been attracting interest for decades.
As helmer Critchley observes, it was an idea considered by Richard Eyre during his tenure as a.d. of the National Theater (1987-97). Trevor Nunn, who succeeded him, was also interested.
The current creative team grew out of pre-existing links with Townshend, forged over past music-theater projects. Townshend himself, however, is taking a back seat.
He backed the creatives’ vision after a workshop two years ago, has been involved in casting and band auditions but remains hands-off. “A generous, slightly distant father-figure,” Young says.
The original youth-oriented, rites-of-passage story of identity crisis, set in London and Brighton in the early 1960s, remains. What’s different, the creators argue, is the treatment.
Sung-through with no dialogue, the show consists of 27 songs. Those are the originals plus eight, such as “Substitute” and “I Can’t Explain” from elsewhere in the Who catalog, inserted to enhance and elaborate upon story elements. Song structures have been reshaped, instrumental sequences lengthened and orchestrations added for the nine-piece rock band playing live and visible — but there are no new lyrics.
Everything serves to create a through-line of a dream over one night inside the head of one boy, Jimmy. His personality, as the title suggests, is split four ways into the romantic, the lunatic, the tough guy and the hypocrite.
Young describes the production process as being about bringing “rough theater” approaches into a high-profile commercial legit project.
“It has some kind of scruffy, punk aesthetic,” he says. “People want to compare us in some way to ‘Spring Awakening,’ but to us, that show feels pretty conventional.”
Nor, he adds, is it a jukebox musical, a tribute show or something like the Queen long-runner “We Will Rock You” which, he argues, merely illustrates every lyric or title. “This is a powerful drama with some of the most astonishing rock songs ever written,” Young says.
Critchley, too, underlines the rock ‘n’ roll aspect.
“The cast doesn’t just walk through Who songs, it’s a story told visually and theatrically,” the director says. “We’re trying to reclaim that clunky term ‘rock opera.’ A lot of music-theater like ‘Buddy’ or even ‘Lennon’ is either pastiche or homage. We’re trying to create a form of theatrical entertainment that doesn’t lose or diminish its rock ‘n’ roll quality.”
Is it then a cousin of Des McAnuff’s staging of “The Who’s Tommy” that went from La Jolla to Broadway and London’s West End with varying degrees of success?
“I don’t think it relates to “Tommy” at all,” Critchley stresses. “That show used a lot of projection. I’m a bit fed up with that style now. We’re trying to be a bit more rough, more poetic. Lots of musicals are huge — we have a stripped-back stage with no wings, and some of the lighting is hand-held. We want to get back to the purity of story and music.”
With U.S. producers Bill Schultz and Ina Meibach on board, the backers are clearly aiming to attract not just die-hard Brit fans. In fact, a fan event is the last thing they want.
Young laughs: “Pete Townshend says the very worst thing that can happen is that we get an audience full of fat blokes in their 60s wearing parkas.”