Austin is a music city. But do you want to know its best kept secret? The theater.
Yes, we live in “The Live Music Capital of the World,” but many only include traditional concerts in this category. I want to open your eyes to the amazing artists and musicians in local theater.
The best time to start your exploration into Austin’s theater world? Now. At Zach Theatre. With The Who’s TOMMY.
I’m guessing you’re not quite seeing what I’m seeing. So let me say that again. The Who’s TOMMY. You know, The Who. The group that was considered to be one of the most influential bands of the 60’s and 70’s. The one with singer/songwriter Pete Townshend, who wrote over 100 songs for The Who.
Did you know Townshend also wrote a rock opera? The stage performance of The Who’s TOMMY is based off the band’s rock opera album titled Tommy, released in 1969.
I’ll be honest. I’ve always considered myself to be a Beatles fan, but I have sung a The Who karaoke song or two, such as the famous “Pinball Wizard.” So when I heard The Who’s TOMMY was being performed at the Zach Theater through August 17th, I had to see it for myself. And WOW.
The Zach Theatre
If you’re new to theater and just starting your exploration into this art form, The Who’s TOMMY is a great introduction to Austin theater, and the Zach is the perfect venue for your initiation.
Located at 1510 Toomey Rd on the south end of the Lamar bridge, Zach Theatre is one of the oldest continuously run theaters in Texas, founded in 1933. Pairing its history with an updated look and central location, the Zach is setting the bar for the future of Austin theater.
For those who believe theater is too stuffy, Zach Theatre will change your mind. There, drinks with lids are allowed in the theater, and you can even pre-order your alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage at the bar before the performance and have it waiting for you at intermission. And, if you come early to the show, you can play pinball for free!
For my very brief synopsis, The Who’s TOMMY is about a boy who suffers a trauma as a young child and later becomes famous through playing pinball. Many interpretations of the rock opera have been realized over the years, but Artistic Director Dave Steakley’s vision is by far one of the most unique I’ve seen. He combines the musical genius of Townshend with the literary genius of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Just take a moment to think about that. Alice in Wonderland meets rock opera. It’s as good as you can imagine.
Originally performed in 1998, The Who’s TOMMY returns to the stage 16 years later with the same unique interpretation and is brought together by amazing set design, lighting, choreography and technology. The performers even creatively use iPads to project real time images onto a screen during the performance.
One of the highlights of the performance is the cast. Many are from the Austin community, but that doesn’t mean their talent is less than Broadway caliber. After the show, I had a chance to speak with Scott Swanson (the Lover), who was also cast in the 1998 production. We spoke about his experience, the show, and Austin in general.
When Swanson first moved to Austin, he didn’t immediately jump into the theater scene, even though he had been involved in theater as a child. But after scoring the role of Cousin Kevin in the ‘98 performance of The Who’s TOMMY, he was catapulted back into theater and hasn’t looked back since.
After he spoke fondly of his experiences with Artistic Director Dave Streakley, the show and the original cast, I asked him which he preferred: today’s production or the one from 1998. He replied that, while the first production will always hold a special place in his heart, today’s show offers a talented cast, amazing sets, clear sound and new technology which wasn’t available in 1998.
When talking with Swanson about his passion for the arts, his love for the city of Austin naturally came out. So I asked him my favorite question to ask people who have been here 15+ years, “How do you feel about Austin’s growth?” Without skipping a beat, he responded, “I love it.”
I know many people have mixed feelings about our city’s expansion, but Swanson explained it perfectly. Your relationship with a city is like a marriage. In a marriage, you grow and change and expand, and so does the relationship alongside it. So as Austin grows and changes and expands, you must also change with it. Otherwise, you’re headed for a divorce…or in this case, you’re moving.
So from someone who doesn’t consider himself an actor, but rather an artist, what advice would he give to new Austinites? Get involved. Whether it’s in theater or simply in the community, it’s the best way to grow alongside the city.
So if you live in Austin and you like live music, expand your horizons and check out The Who’s TOMMY at Zach Theatre, Wednesday-Sunday through August 17, 2014. I guarantee you’ll be standing in your seat, glow sticks in hand, singing along to the show.
How are you growing alongside the expanding city?