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Pete Townshend is planning to return to Stratford, Ont., where Des McAnuff’s production of Tommy has moved him to tears.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Pete Townshend's rock god status was established nearly 50 years ago with the formation of The Who, the iconic British rock band he co-founded with Keith Moon, John Entwistle and lead singer Roger Daltrey. An art college graduate, Townshend conceived the band as a form of anarchic artistic expression, even if his fellow bandmates were in it just to play music at deafening levels.

For Townshend, the reputation needed to be weightier. His 1969 creation, Tommy, originally a concept double album co-written with his band, is now recognized as one of the greatest achievements in rock history, spawning a ballet, a movie and a Tony Award-winning stage version revised this summer at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

But for all its artistic leanings, Tommy, said Townshend in a recent interview, was less an artistic enterprise than a way for The Who to connect more deeply with its audience. It obviously worked. Even with the passing of Moon and Entwistle, The Who is still a going concern. Townshend, 68, has been performing Quadrophenia, one of The Who's other hit productions, with Daltrey across Britain this summer, garnering standing ovations and rave reviews. It's gratifying – to a point.

Speaking during a recent tour break, Townshend said he still wants to be known as an artist and remains busy creating a new work while still performing the old. At the end of it all, he plans to return to Stratford, where director Des McAnuff's production of Tommy has moved him to tears. Townshend sat down with Deirdre Kelly to discuss the most recent evolution of his work and how Tommy may have actually saved The Who.

You collaborated with Des McAnuff on the stage musical of Tommy in the early 1990s, in advance of its Broadway debut in 1993, and have reunited with him this year for the Stratford version, which is running through October. Can you talk a bit about what Des, as a theatre artist, brought to the project and how it might have been different from your own input as composer and lyricist?

At the time, Des was the artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse [in San Diego, where Tommy, the musical version, first opened in 1992], which is a very effective, developmental creative machine. It does new work, but they would [also] do Shakespeare; they would do the normal kind of rep stuff that a reputable small regional theatre would do. But occasionally they would really stretch out and Des, by the time I had met him, had already enjoyed a hit with Big River, which was a big musical on Broadway, and he had done a lot of other stuff as well. His track record was already fairly well established, and he was very familiar with Tommy.

Were there any surprises?

What I really didn't realize was how true Des would want to be to the original simplicity of Tommy. I was used to how Tommy was regularly dismissed by, you know, serious dramatic commentators on the basis that it was somehow pretentious, it was absurd, and that it was silly.

But what did you think?

I always felt that where the story came from was a very deep, and quite dark place in the postwar English story. And Des got that, so we were able to work well together. I didn't have to apologize for any of the extreme stunts that I pulled off in Tommy, which were extreme stunts to attract attention, to sensationalize and to make a deep, dark story palatable to anybody who wasn't wanting to think too deeply about it.

Extreme stunts?

Well, for example, the treatment of making Tommy a deaf, dumb and blind kid who played pinball.

Oh, that one!

Originally in the story, pinball was not a part of the exercise. The boy was not deaf, dumb and blind except in clinical terms. He had been traumatized.

How did it evolve?

As I brought it into the studio, and presented it to The Who and various critics and to Kit Lambert, who was my producer and my mentor during the writing of it, it became clear that we needed to make it colourful, we needed parts of it to be funny or audacious, impudent, controversial, dangerous – all the things that rock 'n' roll had been for us up to that point. And so I started to introduce these much more clear-cut, kind of cartoonish, but much more vivid, iconic images of this young boy who witnesses a murder in the uneasy postwar atmosphere of the U.K.

I know you conceived The Who as art. Was Tommy part of that drive?

Maybe. But it was more a question of expediency. What had actually happened to The Who is that we'd kind of lost our mojo in a sense. We were a singles band. We were colourful. We were interesting. We were a lovely foil to the more serious blues bands of the time like Cream and Jimi Hendrix as well. We were lighter-hearted. And certainly with the acid generation, the coming of the hippies, the activism against the Vietnam War, some of the lightheartedness around The Who seemed to make us appear vapid. We were going to lose our audience as a live band, which was when we were most effective.

How did you set about addressing that?

I spoke to our manager, Kit Lambert, who was the son of Constant Lambert, and who knew about opera, who knew about music outside rock 'n' roll. And he was very encouraging of me to do something very audacious and grand that was challenging, and challenging in a way that would challenge our audience. At that time … I kind of felt I wasn't going to get what I needed from family, or get what I needed from fame. And you know? I wasn't going to get what I needed from art. To make my work ask a question, the only answer I was going to get was from the audience.

Did you get it from Tommy?

I think [Des has] turned it into the definitive rock 'n' roll theatre piece. Des understands the language, and understands that in a rock show, the only thing that is important is the audience. The only thing. And the message is from the audience to the stage, not the other way round. It's a strange mechanism, the one that underlies rock 'n' roll. The hero is not on the stage. So the hero is not Tommy. It's everybody in the audience. And I know that sounds like a pat cliché, but it happens to be true.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Tommy continues at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont., to Oct. 19.

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