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After ‘Tommy’ Comes Pete Townshend’s ‘Iron Man’

December 21, 1993

LONDON (AP) _ For his first musical since ″The Who’s Tommy″ blazed its way to Broadway, composer Pete Townshend is aiming high even as he sets his budgets low.

″The Iron Man,″ the songwriter’s new rock opera at the Young Vic Theater through Feb. 12, inevitably draws comparisons to ″Tommy.″ The composer, however, says he is reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 masterwork, ″Sweeney Todd,″ which also drew on the theme of man surviving the machine age.

″It has those pretensions,″ said Townshend, 48. ″I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea of pretentiousness; it seems to me that’s what art most aggressively is about.″

Townshend was talking about the show shortly before it opened Nov. 25 to mixed-to-negative reviews.

Based on the 1968 children’s poem by poet laureate Ted Hughes, ″The Iron Man″ pits an earnest troupe of urban dwellers against the machine-chewing Iron Man and the voracious Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon.

(A sequel, ″The Iron Woman,″ was published in Britain in September.)

Anthony Barclay, a young alumnus of the Sondheim musicals ″Assassins″ and ″Follies″ in London, leads the 12-person cast as the peace-loving Hogarth.

David Thacker, whose nine-year run as artistic director at the Young Vic ended on Aug. 2, staged and co-adapted the production. A 17-foot-high scrap metal contraption, with truck headlights for eyes, appears as the iron man, with performer Trevor Michael Georges concealed inside.

While ″Tommy″ cost $4 million, ″The Iron Man″ came in at $180,000 - less than the weekly break-even for Townshend’s Tony-winning Broadway extravaganza.

‴Tommy’ is very much based on effects and all the technical wizardry of big musical theater,″ Thacker, 43, said in an interview during a rehearsal break. ″This is like a chamber music piece ... a purer form.″

Townshend came upon Hughes’ poem during a stint in the late 1970s as an editor at Faber and Faber, the noted British publishers of Hughes, T.S. Eliot and Philip Larkin, among many others.

″They treated me like a student,″ recalled Townshend, looking every bit the schoolboy in his untucked plaid shirt and baseball cap worn backwards. ″I wasn’t earning more than the publishing secretaries straight out of college.″

With the slim salary he was earning, Townshend told Faber chairman Matthew Evans, ″I can’t live on this; can I do something that will keep me in the fold?″

By 1986, the rights to ″The Iron Man″ were his. A concept album followed in 1989 which, Townshend says, was ″kind of sat on.″

Townshend initially envisioned the stage version as a conventional book musical, but Thacker persuaded him to ditch a libretto and compose the entire show, as he did with ″Tommy.″

″I convinced Pete that if we rethought the lyrics, we could approach the whole narrative through recitative and songs; we wouldn’t need playwrights,″ Thacker said.

Fifteen drafts later, the show is up and running through Feb. 12 in the 400-seat theater - a venue that once housed one small musical that has since stormed the world, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s ″Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.″

But if the musical theater has embraced Townshend, the composer admits he was slow to reciprocate the affection.

″As a child, I didn’t like the music of musicals,″ he said. His west London boyhood was spent listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, not ″Oklahoma 3/8″ and ″Seven Brides for Seven Brothers″ - two shows, he says, ″I hated.″

Since then, with his own Tony Award for ″Tommy,″ Townshend has done an about face.

″Cameron took me to see ‘Carousel’ the other day, and I wept all the way through it,″ he said of producer Cameron Mackintosh’s acclaimed revival of the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

″Now, I let my heart speak; it’s taken many years for that to happen.″

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