A Brief Chronicle of Attending the WOrld Premiere of Pete Townshend's new rock musical.
There’s not much to be said, in terms of social life, to living in Upstate New York, where stores close at five and restaurants stop serving at nine and the bars call last call at –Good God!—midnight, but this is a New York City girl talking. I spent my formative years in
But life has its way of delivering nice surprises. Just when you’re about ready to pack it in, and give up your 9-acre farmhouse in Woodstock for a 300 square foot apartment on the Lower East Side (which will take eleven additional years off your life and cost five times as much); just when you are about to have a nervous breakdown because you find out Pete Townshend—your most favorite, most admired artist—played a small gig at Joe’s Pub, and you weren’t there because you were too busy yawning in Woodstock, and spending countless hours on the internet reading about other peoples’ exciting lives; just when you are about to question why the hell you left New York City in the first place, a friend calls you up and tells you Pete Townshend’s new rock opera, the Boy Who Heard Music, is going to be workshopped just across the river in Poughkeepsie New York.
“Are you serious?” I said. And then: “Why?”
I looked online and found a few sites selling tickets for $300. This led to a half-hour’s worth of depression and self pity at the thought of not being able to go, but then I had one second of intelligence and called Vassar direct. Tickets via the theater itself were only $25. Won’t get fooled again.
And now, a brief tangent:
In my teens, twenties and thirties I was a rabid Who fan and considered Pete Townshend some sort of soul brother (I still do). The vibration he put out in his music and the vibration I felt as a teen (and wasn’t even aware of ) perfectly matched and that, my dear, is how a fan is born. You connect, you clink, a chink is made in a long, lovely, electric chain, and you find yourself entwined to a person you never met. Forever. These things cannot be undone, although they can certainly be forgotten. By the conscious mind.
In my late thirties, I was told by my then-husband that I had to “grow up” and for some reason I thought that meant having to give up my love for rock and roll. I told myself I had “grown out” of Pete and Robert and Jimmy and Jim and that I should be doing something more sophisticated with my time, (like working at a job I hated, writing stories that nobody read, and arguing with a husband I didn’t really like). Anyway, that is another story, which you can read about in my second memoir which will come out in 2009.
My whole point is to explain why I had never heard of The Boy Who Heard Music until this summer, when it landed in my lap. You see, apparently my soul brother Pete had been writing TBWHM as a novella, and he had published this novella online, and he has hundreds of fans with whom he corresponded online regarding the revisions of the novella. So while I was busy trying to dig my way out of an avalanche of a marriage, Pete’s fans—folks like me—were busy offering input on story lines, plot developments, characters and scenes. They were like talking to Pete! God bless them!
(This is what I do for a living, by the way. I edit writers’ manuscripts. Adult literary fiction mostly. And anything written by my favorite rock stars. So Robert Plant, if you’re looking for an editor, I’m yours.) End of tangent.
Now you know why I am one of the few people who saw TBWHM “blind,” meaning I have not yet had the pleasure of reading the novella on which the play is based.
Pan to the Powerhouse Theater: an alarmingly clean, civilized, user-friendly theater nestled on a college campus so picture-perfect you bemoan the fact that you did not attend college there. I got to Vassar two hours early, expecting paparazzi and mobs, and a parking lot full of middle-aged men blaring Quadrophenia from their car stereos and stoking up hot dogs on their tail-gate grills. Instead, I found a sleepy college campus—sleeping in that lazy summer way: cicadas softly buzzing, willow trees swaying in a light breeze, the grass freshly cut and green, despite a drought, because Vassar has big bucks and can afford to keep the sprinklers sprinkling. I couldn’t find the theater straightaway, but that was fine, because my dog was with me and she needed to pee, so we strolled along the wide paths, she trolling among the old oak trees and clipped hedges, me looking for another Pete fan who could steer me toward the Powerhouse.
But it was the dog who ultimately led me to the theater. She caught a scent trail and bee-lined it toward an impressive looking building: clearly modern, but modern in a tasteful way that did not violate the august codes of the Ivy League, which say a college must have old stone buildings and a colonial scale and a limestone library flanked by lions or statues of dead white men or some such thing....this building was unmistakably a School of the Arts. And the crowd milling outside was a good sign, too: a man wearing a "Keith Moon Lives" t-shirt, a photographer trying to talk his way into the no-photos-no-voice-recorders show; a young dude with pink hair standing next to a woman who must have been his mother. And you could tell his mother had been to Woodstock. She had the halter tap, the long hippie skirt, and most of all that look--a look that says I was there. Her son kept addressing her as "Dude" and she didn't care.
Anyway, my dog seemed to be on a mission. English Setters are always on a mission of course, but mine seemed to have caught a very special scent trail. Pete’s perhaps? Was she determined to go sniff out Pete and get his autograph? “He’s not here,” I told her, sadly. “But that guy from ‘Sex and the City’ is. He's a total babe.”
She howled when I told her it was show time and I had to put her back in the car.
And now, on with the show.
The Boy Who Heard Music was described in the program as a "hallucinatory tale about the rise and fall of a band made up of three teenagers from different ethnic backgrounds as seen through the eyes of an aging rock star." I knew that the aging rock star was Ray High (I’m not that out of the loop) and I knew Ray High pretty well from Psychoderelict. What stuck in my mind most about that concept album was the little S&M scene between Ruth and Rastus Knight (which to me is one of the best names a fictional character has every received. I want to ask Pete some day if I can steal that and name one of my own characters Rastus). Anyway, as I sat waiting for the show to begin, I wondered just how much of Ray, and/or Psychoderelict, would be in this play. I wondered if there would be any underage sex and or whipping scenes. But the program did not allude to this whatsoever. It was a delightfully humble program--no photographs, black and white type, stapled; so humble I knew I could sell it on ebay someday for like eight hundred bucks (but I'd never!)
I sat in the front row between two Little Old Ladies—both of them seasoned theatergoers who had subscribed to the Powerhouse Theater for many years. We chatted before the show and I asked them, with a straight, kind face, if they knew anything about the show, or the playwright, because I could tell they didn’t. They spoke of a “Peter Townshend” who lived in
And sure enough, when the first bass note hit after a lovely piano prelude, and the drums smashed, and the band’s keyboardist, drummer, bassist, and two guitarists ripped into “Pick up the Peace,” the little old lady at my right literally jumped in her seat. We happened to be sitting right in front of a triple stack of speakers, and I was psyched to discover that I could feel each bass note in my heart—kind of a pounding in my chest, like those machines they use to jolt a heart-attack victim back to life---
What are they called? I’m no medic. Just a big-ass Who fan who felt the bass bringing me back to life.
But my neighbor had her ears blocked. I smiled at her, nodded at the stage and gave her kind of a “check it out” look. She smiled back and unplugged her ears. I told her I’d hold her hand if she’d like, and she laughed, and I told myself to remember this moment if I ever got to that age when I decided rock and roll was just “too loud.” :)
Once, when I was seventeen, my father literally kicked me out of the house because I wouldn't turn the music down. I must remind myself of that one too.....
Anyway, The first act consisted of thirteen songs, and begins with Ray High delivering a short monologue about, um, I’m not really sure. He exists in the future, and—as the lovely, lovely director Ethan Silverman pointed out before the curtain was drawn—is living in an insane asylum in
But I have to confess here that, from the get-go, the plot of this play, and its myriad story lines, were almost totally lost on me. This, I gather, is because I did not read the novella and came into this totally blind. I really tried to follow the story, and latch onto at least some of the plot points, but most of it was over my head. I will take full blame for this, of course. I don’t consider myself a great intellect, and Pete clearly is. But as a writer and an editor, it is programmed in me to always try to find a very clear story in a theatrical piece, and its forward motion. So again, take me with a grain of salt. I actually started to take notes, writing down the areas where I felt confused, making notes of the dialogue that was effective, and the dialogue that was less so, thinking all the while that my input would somehow help the director and the author, until finally, my nice Little Old Lady neighbor asked me what on earth I was doing. “Are you a journalist?” she asked. “Well yes,” I told her, "but not officially tonight. I’m just here to see the show.” Her eyes flickered down to my notepad and she smiled, and I caught her meaning (Check it out, sister!) and put the pad away.
So let’s get back to the music. There I was worrying about the LOLs and how they would react to the volume, but as the show progressed and I surveyed the crowd behind me, I saw that all the Little Old Ladies in the audience were rocking out. Feet tapping, chins nodding, bodies swaying to the rhythm. And smiles everywhere. Some of them looked almost beatific, as if they were being carried to a far-off time, when they were young, and wore bobby socks and poodle skirts, and liked to turn the car radio as far up as it would go and dance on the hood.
This is a real tribute to Pete, of course, and the band. I made notes about the music too—which songs I loved the most, which ones sounded the most “Pete,” which ones fell more into the category of musical theater—but alas, I have misplaced those notes. (Because I did actually pack it all up and move back to
The audience seemed to respond most to the “Townsend moments”: “Fragments” with its echoes of both Quadrophenia and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” ; “We Got A Hit,” with its classic Townshend guitar solo; and the kick-ass “Sound Round.” One must keep in mind that most of the audience was wearing old Who concert T-shirts from the 70s and 80s. I’d say the audience once one-eighth little old ladies and 7/8 Who fans, with a
But I also recognized, in Pete’s opera, moments of pure musical theater—which as we know is its own unique genre with its own rules—which made me realize Pete really is branching into new territory with this piece. To hear both elements of rock and “musical theater” in a single song, or (in Act II) in a sequence was delightful. Truly progressive artists will bridge gaps. Kind of like me and my little old lady friend, who’s name, I learned, was (bless her) Gertie. Anyway, the most “Broadway-ish” songs (and the ones that seemed to get the most positive response from the LOLs), were “He Said She Said” (narrated by a couple trying to understand one another); and the lovely, light, and romantic “Tea and Theater.”
Just the line “Will you have some tea/after theater with me” is one of the most romantic things I have heard all year. I love the way Roger sings it on the album and I loved it on the stage. Gertie and I shared a tissue when that song was over. Would that someone would ask that of me!
My favorite song from the show, and from the album ENDLESS WIRE, is “In The Ether,” and I’d have to say it’s because of the lyrics. I’m Buddhist, and we Buddhists are all about that Ether (what we call “Emptiness”) and it just seems like such a nice place to be. We’re all there, actually, ‘tho most of us humans are too ignorant to realize it. Myself included. This is one of those songs that reminds me that there is more to life that what “meets the eye.” We were treated to it three times in TBWHM. Thanks, Pete
I had a writing professor tell me once that, if you want to get a true critique of your play script, don’t turn to Frank Rich of the New York Times; no, you should hide in the ladies’ room during intermission. There, you will find your true critics—the earnest, hapless theater goers who sincerely want to be enlivened, enriched, and entertained.
These are the subscribers—the little old ladies, the retired English professors and librarians—who see virtually every single play every single day. They do not speak through the warped sieve of an ego, or of a failed playwright; no, as I said, they just want to see Good Theater.
This is what they had to say about The Boy Who Heard Music (remember these opinions do not reflect my own:
“It sure is loud.”
“They should turn the music down.”
“It’s a rock concert, Hettie, it’s supposed to be loud.”
“That girl (Bree Sharp) is weak. She does not have a stage voice. Where did they find her?”
“I think she’s supposed to look like a Muslim.”
“Well she can’t sing. Those boys can though.”
“I’ve seen that other young man (Jon Patrick Walker) on Sex and the City. He’s very good.”
“Yes very good.
“Good looking, too.”
"Can anyone tell me what's going on?"
Then they got onto the topic of the story line:
“What year is this set in though? Are we in the future or in the past? What’s taking place in real time?” No one seemed clear on this. At the beginning Ray High mentions something about living in the future, but we weren’t sure if he was flashing back to memories of the Band, or if the Band’s story took place in real time, or what. But the band’s story couldn’t be in real time, someone pointed out from inside the stall, because they are presenting it as a reminiscence. “And you simply can’t expect to have true forward motion in a play set up as a reminiscence.” I never got to see the owner of this disembodied voice. But she sounded like my writing professor.
But the general consensus seemed to be that the plot, if any, was hard to follow, but that was all right because it was a “rock concert.” And remember, dear readers, this was only Act I. Act II was much more clear. The audience was much more engaged during Act II, I thought. The songs were just phenomenal, and dear Bree Sharp finally came into her own and delivered some of her notes with real authority. We were treated to: We Got A Hit, Heart Condition, He Said, In the Ether (again!) and Mirror Door.
The band were phenomenal, too. Ted Baker, the pianist/keyboardist and also musical director of the show, seemed to have a complete and full grasp of the inner workings of Pete Townshend. I heard, in his work, traces of Quadrophenia and Psychoderlict and even, unless I imagined it, a whisper of Tommy. And yet I heard him, too. That’s a true artistic collaboration—both musicians meeting at a higher place than either could have taken alone. And the way Baker translated Townshend large concepts to this small, intimate stage were astonishing. Bravo.
The best sign of a show’s success is, of course, how long the audience lingers after the close. TBWHM closed with, as already noted, Tea and Theater. It made us all want to go out and have tea together, out on the one of those wide green Vassar lawns, perhaps, with a picnic basket and a nip of champagne. The moon that night was inviting and gentle—the perfect moon under which to discuss a play. We all wanted to linger and discuss. Sure, we had our questions (about plot, etc), but the most important point is we knew we had been in most capable hands. I, for one, was honored to have been able to witness this work-in-progress. The cast and crew had had only eight rehearsals, and yet you could feel the moment they stepped on the stage that they trusted us. They could, to put it in sixties terms, feel the love. It was really quite a lovely and precious experience.
AND NOW HERE’S ANOTHER PARAGRAPH IN WHICH I REPEAT MYSELF. BUT I DON’T HAVE TIME TO CONDENSE THE TWO PARS RIGHT NOW:
Back outside, after the show, it was one of those warm summer nights you fantasize about all winter long: soft, balmy, with a smattering of light stars. There was just enough breeze to ruffle up your skirt and make you feel feminine; but not enough to make your skirt goes flying up around your waist and make you wonder why you bother to wear skirts at all. I made my way through the post-theater crowd, too shy to talk to anyone but not afraid to listen. Most of the audience, it seemed, felt that the music was great but the story was hard to follow. The better act, they said, was Act II because “at least it had some real story, and some real humor.” Most of them seemed to have read the novella online, and were using that as a reference point for the things about the play they did understand. I felt so left out, so behind anything that mattered. I felt—good grief—as alienated as I did when I was sixteen.
So I went to the parking lot and let my dog out of the car. Nothing like a dog to bring you back to earth. She immediately ran back toward the theater, seemingly on that same mission to find Pete, leap on him, cover him with slathery kisses, and tell him, in her unique doggie way, how much she loved loved loved him. Dogs can say all the things we can't, without fear of rejection.
I reminded her that he wasn’t here, “But he was in spirit,” I think. I told her it was a terrific show.
But she wasn’t listening. I don’t think she ever does. But that doesn’t stop me from speaking to her, in a baby voice, in public. She was following a possum, or some such thing. The possum disappeared under a dumpster and stayed there. My dog bent over, poked her nose underneath the dumpster and barked and barked, demanding that it come out and surrender itself. Some of the Pete fans laughed. I admire how when my dog sees something she wants and goes after it. Who cares if the whole world is now looking straight up her butt.
I wondered if that’s what it felt like to be on stage.
Eventually I convinced my dog that no possum in his right mind was going to surrender. So she ran up to a middle-aged woman wearing a very cool “Who Came First” t-shirt and gave her some love. The woman told me she’d made the t-shirt herself. "But don't tell Pete that becuase ain't this copyrighted?"
“What did you think of the show?” I asked, hoping to get into a nuanced discussion about story line and forward motion and the disadvantages of flashbacks in a stage play. But all she did was light a cigarette, blow out some smoke, and said, “Hey, it’s Pete being Pete. What’s to say? It’s all good.” And I realized she was absolutely right.
Then we saw Gertie. She hugged me goodbye and I saw that her hands were shaking. “I have arthritis,” she told me. “And Parkinson’s.” I told her, in response, that I’d send her a copy of “Who By Numbers.” This wasn’t meant to be a reaction to her unfortunate ailments; it’s just what came out. She seemed to understand. In fact, she took the slip of paper on which I had written my address as one might a prescription. Albeit with shaking hands. “We'll have tea one of these days, dear,” she told me. “After theater.”
PS – For a clear summary of what TBWHM is about, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Boy_Who_Heard_Music
Whoever wrote this entry knows a heck of a lot more than me!