In fact, the Phantom of the Opera's "music of the night" looks much hipper, much smoother, and far more inventive. But since we are a society that readily accepts the Emperor's New Clothes if enough publicists convince us of the illusion, and since Lloyd Webber is considered middle-of-the-road and Townshend has been crowned the theatrical equivalent of way-cool, everyone pronounces Tommy as a progressive work when it isn't. Never mind that old Pete hasn't written many good tunes since the early Seventies, and Lloyd Webber is a brilliant composer. Forget that Phantom's orchestration has bite and force, while Tommy relies on too much choral singing and wimpy orchestration. Forget that Phantom has a strong story, while Tommy is just a bunch of music video-like images flashing (but not fleshing) out the hackneyed premise that people abuse other people but nevertheless must be forgiven.
Well, maybe everyone else can ignore these inadequacies. But I can't.
The only kudos I'm willing to offer Tommy is that its presence represents a seminal step toward integrating more contemporary music into the theater. After all, no one remembers the work of George Edwardes, whose first show in the 1890s, In Town, formally marks A according to The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre A the birth of the musical as a form. Similarly, Tommy owns a few good moments, a few nice technological tricks, and of course, some memorable rock tunes like "Pinball Wizard" and "See Me, Feel Me." There's a glimmer of hope here, but a truly inspired composer and director need to take the form into a new realm, using true creativity if young people are going to re-enter the theater in droves, as producers pray they will.
When rock and hip-hop and cutting-edge music finally become wedded to a strong, interesting plot line, fascinating characters, and a consistently excellent score, the marriage will produce grand new theater. Then I bet Tommy will become no more than a small item in reference books, just like Edwardes's work.
And I'll also wager one more thing: the first true rock musical will be born when it has the same generational impact that rock and roll itself once had. It will happen when a show opens on Broadway that prompts traditional audiences to flee and critics to express shocked disapproval, but creates a word of mouth among young audiences that leads to frantic lines at the box office. Meanwhile, judging by Tommy's financial success among baby boomers and the old bourgeoisie, I suppose we're now in for a flood of these rocksicles. As for me, I won't get fooled again.