Quadrophenia–A Retrospective

The following is a very long-winded commentary on Quadrophenia, a musical version of The Who’s classic album currently touring the UK.  Those just wanting to read a review should check out my piece at Onstage Scotland here.  However, those who want a much more in-depth look at this production, and to know why for me this is one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year, please read on.

Quadrophenia is one of the most acclaimed albums, written by one of music’s greatest minds and originally performed by one of the most iconic bands of all time.  It regularly places on many ‘best of’ lists and was even the inspiration behind an influential film, now considered a cult classic in its own right.

The ‘story’ is about Jimmy, an angry Mod in the mid-sixties who’s angst at home and life is fuelled by the classic chant of ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’.  This angst has driven him into four separate personalities: a romantic, a hypocrite, a tough guy and a lunatic—hence the title.

Staging a much loved rock album was always going to be hard, but the source material presents many obstacles one must overcome.  Chief among these are: a) dramatising the four-way personality of Jimmy, b) making ‘the Girl’ (a part that isn’t assigned a song on the album but is considered a key component of Jimmy’s journey) into a fully realised character and c) turning songs that are commentary into a form of theatrical dialogue.

I know that these are the three biggest obstacles because, 17 years ago, Pete Townshend told me so himself.

In 1992, Townshend worked with Des McAnuff at the La Jolla Playhouse to stage his other rock opera for The Who: Tommy.  Tommy became a sensation, selling out and extending its run prior to a Broadway transfer, where it won even more acclaim.  Townshend, as a thank you to La Jolla Playhouse, held a benefit concert the following summer.

How my brother and I managed to get into the after-show party is a long tale, but our love of the stage version of Tommy had won us a few influential friends that got us through the door.  So, wandering around, I came across Townshend, nursing a drink and enjoying some quiet.  As a timid 18 year old who felt out of place, I was a bit nervous approaching one of my musical heroes.  But I had enjoyed his concert and loved his new rendition of Tommy so much I wanted to thank him.  I’m glad I did.

I won’t give a full report of the ten minute conversation I had with the man, but it was one of the most interesting conversations of my life.  He spoke candidly about fame, The Who and why Tommy had meant so much to him.  And we spoke about a possible future for Quadrophenia.  He had many concerns about the piece, mentioning the above three points as problems he couldn’t quite work out how to overcome.

So, the announcement that Townshend was working on a musical theatre version had brought me much hope, and attending the opening performance at the Festival in Edinburgh was almost surreal.  Part of me felt like the 18-year old again, eager to see a much loved project come to life.

All of this is why I felt both bliss and disappointment at the production itself.

On many levels, it is a crowning success.  To see a young, musical theatre-based company bring such energy and drive to Townshend’s work is wonderful.  And if the production proves anything, it proves the possibilities that the source material has.  But there are too many flaws in its current state to think of it as a completed work.  Ironically, many of these flaws are based on the very concerns Townshend himself had expressed nearly two decades previously.

Take the entire concept of ‘quadrophenia’.  The production uses four actors, each playing an embodiment of a different aspect of the same character.  In actual fact, this motif works far better than one would think.  If anything, the production didn’t use the motif enough.  Only in the end is there a real struggle between the different characteristics, and by that time it’s kind of hard to care which personality will win out.

As for ‘the girl’, Townshend and the production company are actually quite successful in making her important.  She’s on stage much of the time and is an obvious object of affection, not only for Jimmy but for other men.  And giving her one of the album’s great songs, Love Reign O’er Me, allows her to have some of the best moments.  But most of her character is dictated through movement, and because of this we don’t really know who ‘she’ is.  Maybe this is intentional.  After all, no ‘idealised’ fantasy matches expectation, and had she and Jimmy had an actual scene, it may not have been able to live up to the hype that Jimmy clearly has made for her.

But while these first two concepts work more than not, it is Townshend’s third fear that proves to be the production’s undoing.

As great as the songs are, most of them are not really dialogue.  Instead, they make commentary on what’s happening in Jimmy’s life.  The fact that there are four versions of Jimmy onstage makes this a little easier to deal with: one of them sings about what’s happening while another dramatises it through movement.  This actually leads to some clever interpretations of each of the songs.  What is missing, however, is a major throughline, or a full narrative flow, throughout the production.  Because of this, most of the pieces don’t quite fit.  Everything is well done, but there is little connection between what happens in one number and what happens next.

There is a fourth flaw, one that Townshend didn’t anticipate when I spoke with him but one that seems to be getting a lot of attention: the film.  The filmmakers had to solve the problem of an unclear narrative, and they did this by inventing scenes, characters and situations.  On its own, it’s quite a good story, but it has little in common with the narrative that Townshend tells in the album.  And as the musical is focused on the album, it completely ignores the changes of the film.  As many have only experienced the film, this has led to much confusion within the audience, especially with those expecting a faithful rendition of the film.

This is not an actual flaw.  Instead, it is simply a problem of expectation.  But there’s a very good lesson at play here.  The film’s story has obviously resonated with people, and as the musical’s greatest flaw is an unclear story, it begs to question why the creative team haven’t spent more time on clarifying actual narrative and choosing to focus on moments rather than an overall story arch.

A good example of this problem is seen through the supporting character of the Godfather.  The songs that he’s on for in the first act are all excellently performed, and there is an interesting character hidden somewhere.  However, what his character means to Jimmy or the overall story is well beyond me.  It is a matter of creating an intriguing moment without justifying it for the full production.

As for the quality of the production, I really cannot find fault with it.  Every voice is superb and there is some excellent direction, telling great short stories.  But again, we come to the flaw that these stories and visuals do not gel together at all.

As I walked away, I was mainly satisfied with the knowledge that Quadrophenia is in fact excellent material for musical theatre.  It is a much needed antidote to a lot of the stale new musicals now being produced that use musical styles that are all but obsolete.  But without a clear narrative, I don’t see it having much life past this tour.

When Townshend adapted Tommy for musical theatre, he made numerous changes.  Songs were moved, lyrics were changed, material was added and a book with dialogue was written.  Some music critics and purists were horrified by these changes, but by doing so Townshend ensured that the stage version of Tommy stood on its own, that one didn’t need past knowledge of the album or the film.  Maybe the stage version is a bit softer than the edgy original, but it is a potent piece of musical theatre that contains many fantastic moments, including an opening that many who saw the original still speak about and a finale that both punched you in the gut and resulted in some of the loudest standing ovations I’ve ever seen.

For Quadrophenia to stand on its own, Townshend and the creative team of this new musical experience must make the same brave choices.  Characters, scenes and songs must be justified, and the story must make linear sense.

Yes, I have waited 17 years for a theatrical version of Quadrophenia, and that’s an almost impossible expectation to meet.  And it frustrates me to no end that this might be a one-shot production, because the potential of a truly great musical is there.  The era, the setting and the themes are rife for a musical interpretation, and I cannot think of a better score than the music that Townshend wrote for Quadrophenia as the vehicle to do it.

But without a clear overall narrative, all that is left are a bunch of well-performed songs.  And while the entire company, actors and band alike, give a rousing rendition, they aren’t The Who.  And if I’m going to experience just the music, I’d rather it be through the original masters.

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2 Responses

  1. Heard about this production and thought of you. Glad you got to see it. 🙂

  2. […] Quadrophenia—Touring the UK (original review here and retrospective here) […]

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