The Boy Who Heard a Musical
On Friday July 13, Pete Townshend debuted his new rock opera The Boy Who Heard Music “in workshop” at Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater. Posie and I joined iJamming! Pubber Jimmy ‘B’ and his wife Terri at this presumably prestigious presentation, held in Jimmy’s home-town of Poughkeepsie… And I’ve spent the last ten days wondering what to write about it.
Why? For one thing, I don’t know that I’ve ever previously experienced a workshop debut with which to compare this purposefully understated, no-frills performance. For another, I’ve spent my life switching from devotion to frustration and back again as regards Pete Townshend, whom I will always hold in higher regard than anyone else in popular music, and I’ve never absorbed even his greatest failings with anything but respect for his intent. And for a third thing, I’m wary that, given my own modest contribution to the growing library of Who literature, any less-than-positive review may be taken out of context.
Perhaps it’s best, then, to begin my observations with my conclusion, discussed over our long drive home: that while I personally prefer (most of) Pete Townshend’s music to be delivered in recorded song form, without narration or visuals or movie or stage performance, Townshend himself seems to see the studio album as but a middle step that his song cycles take on their path towards fully-blown stage production. In other words, I could take Endless Wire as a Who studio album and leave it there; Townshend prefers that this album, which started as an online novella The Boy Who Heard Music, end as a Broadway or West End musical by the same name. Our viewpoints are not mutually exclusive, but I can’t help but feel that Endless Wire, a satisfying though not truly classic Who album, does not demand, perhaps does not even merit, the full rock opera treatment.
I then need to acknowledge that while I may “view” Endless Wire as a Who project, the stage musical The Boy Who Heard Music is really a continuation of Townshend’s 1993 solo album Psychoderelict, both being partly narrated and performed by Townshend’s alter ego, the ageing rock star Ray High. Pyschoderelict, should you be among the few who remember it, was a commercial and critical disaster, in part because of its radio play format, though also because of its mediocre material, and so one’s reaction to The Boy Who Heard Music stage show depends on whether one feels the need for him to compensate for that folly or let dead dogs lie. I fall into the latter camp, even as I admire how Townshend has successfully, if belatedly, turned the “aborted” Lifehouse project of 1970-71 into an ongoing creative fictionalization of his own real life and the modern world around him.
In this casually-clothed “demo” version of a musical (just three performances, in a 250-seater hall), the Ray High character mostly narrated from off to the side and behind the three key performers, Josh, Gabriel and Leila, a love triangle of kids who conveniently represent each of the major three religions, and who connect to Ray High’s life through Leila’s father. Act 1 was clearly constructed, notably optimistic, and made use not just of the Endless Wire album’s song cycle (‘Pick Up The Peace,’ ‘Trilby’s Piano,’ ‘Unholy Trinity’) but also of ‘God Predicts Marty Robbins,’ ‘Fragments’ and ‘In The Ether,’ along with, quite effectively, ‘Real Good Looking Boy’ and (Townshend’s partner) Rachel Fuller’s song ‘I Can Fly.’ We took our intermission feeling highly positive about it all.
Unfortunately, Act 2 served to confuse us all over again, as it tried to cram the rise and fall of a supersonic, cosmically powerful rock band, replete with aforementioned love triangle, adultery, bastard offspring, power struggles between lyricist and composer, amusingly autobiographical references to alcoholism and internet porn addiction and general decadence (“I like having my arse licked: I’m a rock star, that’s what we like!”) and, as far as we could tell, at least one key member’s death and possible resurrection – not to mention the arrival of the potentially life-altering internet in the shape of ‘The Grid’ or ‘Ether Net’ – into barely 45 minutes. The more Ray High narrated, and the more Josh, Leila and Gabriel swapped stilted dialogue to provide clues, the more disjointed it all felt. By my own limited reckoning, the less conversation that takes place in a musical, the better.
And what of the new Townshend compositions? ‘She Said He Said’ (a reversal of an old Beatles song) was a ballad; ‘Uncertain Girl’ and ‘Heart Condition’ were more up-tempo. In this subdued setting, none set the house ablaze, especially as two were mainly sung by Bree Sharp as Leila, whose hesitant delivery and featureless singing undid all the good work carried out alongside her by Matt McGrath as Gabriel, Jon Patrick Walker as Josh and, especially, the highly experienced John Hickok as Ray High. I wish to sympathize: Sharp was the only female on stage and thus expected to carry a significant amount of artistic weight, but be it workshop, musical or live show, there can be no room for passengers, and I doubt very much that she will have made it past the weekend’s initial performances. In fact, we cringed as the musical reached a crescendo with ‘Mirror Door’ and Sharp flung her hair in Janis Joplin-like moves, the better to hide her face and likely insecurity; in the process, the Gabriel character’s apparent nonchalance at the reformation of their band The Glass Household could easily have been interpreted as actor McGrath’s own hesitancy, and it was left to Hickok to come up front and bring some true stagecraft and vocal prowess to rescue the intended highlight.
To be fair, Sharp was the only – albeit crucial – disappointment, and special mention must be made of pianist and musical director Ted Baker, guitarist Kevin Kuhn and drummer David Van Tieghem, each of whom handled Townshend’s compositional complexities with admirable comfort, especially as they were officially introducing three of his new songs to the world. (Second guitarist John Putnam and bassist Steve Beskrone appeared less burdened but performed with equal ease.) That this performance was pulled off after just eight days of rehearsals may have been evident by the young lead characters’ occasional mistakes but not by the musicians’ professionalism.
The Boy Who Heard Music ended, unsurprisingly, with ‘Tea & Theatre,’ though the company returned for an encore of ‘Mirror Door.’ We left the theater furiously discussing it all, but far from exalted. Where it all goes from here is anyone’s guess; I would love to have a crystal ball show The Boy Who Heard Music transported to Broadway, complete with expensive stage set, simplified storyline, a stronger female lead and perhaps even more new material. But I won’t hold my breath. And in the meantime, I’ll rest in peace that if it all ends tomorrow, the Endless Wire album was a perfectly good way to say goodbye.
Previously at iJamming!
The Who Re-Viewed (Endless Wire album and Who stage show)
Pete Townshend Jamming! magazine interview manuscript from 1985
Index of Keith Moon/Who posts at iJamming!
Tony Fletcher’s Keith Moon biography