Arindam Krishna Das on the making of another smashing rock opera featuring local youth
Arindam Krishna Das is not afraid of taking risks when it comes to his theatrical productions. Since directing his first play at Little People’s Repertory Theater nearly 15 years ago, Das has developed a reputation around Santa Cruz County for his unique artistic vision, go-big-or-go-home mentality, and ability to breathe new life into classic musicals, from “Annie” to “The Rocky Horror Show.” Das plans to continue that tradition this month at San Lorenzo Valley High School, where he will unveil The Who’s “Tommy” on Feb. 15.
Thirty-two SLVHS students will help tell the story of Tommy Walker, a “deaf, dumb and blind boy” who becomes the leader of a messianic movement after discovering his inexplicable mastery of the pinball machine. The rock opera, based on Pete Townshend’s 1969 eponymous double-album which sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, features a number of chart-toppers, including “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Pinball Wizard,” and implores the audience to reflect on the social norms of the 1950s and today.
In the days leading up to opening night, we sat down with Das to discuss the art of the rock opera, what it takes to put on a production of this magnitude, and what he hopes the audience will take away from “Tommy.”
Good Times: ‘Tommy’ is known for its incredibly beautiful and complex score—were you at all worried that it might be too difficult for a high school age cast to perform?
Arindam Krishna Das: We have 32 students in our cast and all of them are extremely gifted. Ryland Gordon is playing Tommy, and I have to say, having been involved in musical theater in town since 1999, there has been maybe one other boy that has come through shows that I have been involved with that has a voice of that caliber. The sound, the tone quality, that musical theater voice; I’ve only worked with one other boy that has that kind of talent. He is now in New York City, but they have flown him in to do Cabrillo (Stage) shows like “The Full Monty.” Ryland has worked a lot with All About Theater and over the years he has just developed this wonderful voice. I don’t know if I would have even considered doing “Tommy” unless there was that caliber of voice.
How does ‘Tommy,’ which features numerous songs by The Who, compare to the film Across the Universe, which used Beatles hits to tell the story?
Across the Universe took Beatles songs and wove a story into it. With “Tommy,” the story was built into it from the beginning. It’s often referred to as the first rock opera. It is based off of the double album by Pete Townshend, released in 1969, which is just gorgeous. If you get the original album, put on the headphones and just listen to it from beginning to end.
Why do you think audiences are so responsive to operas, rock operas and musicals?
I’ve run into a person here or there who just can’t stand musicals. I think it is because it asks them to suspend too much of their disbelief; their rational mind just can’t handle it. But if you are willing to go along for the ride and suspend your disbelief a little bit … There is an expression that describes the spiritual world that says “Every word is a song and every step is a dance.” So from what I’ve seen and experienced, often the closest thing to that happening is a musical or an opera. I mean literally many of these steps are dances, and certainly in opera, every word is a song. I see that connection with theater, especially musical theater.
What do you think Pete Townshend was trying to accomplish by writing this musical?
He was trying to share the teachings of his guru, Meher Baba, and trying to put across some of the things he’s learned. In the play, Tommy becomes megalomaniacal after his success with pinball. He finds all these followers around him and he becomes kind of a cult leader. He builds up this fanatical cult following, but eventually they all revolt against him. It is a hard journey—there is violence, there is abuse, but in the end, it’s a triumph of the spirit, for Tommy, for the cult followers, and hopefully for the audience.
What is the main message that drives ‘Tommy’?
It makes you ask questions like “Why worship someone?”, “What makes something or someone worshipable?” and “What are the hazards of being worshipped?” A guru means “great teacher.” There are a lot of gurus out there, especially in Santa Cruz. Some of them are charlatans who just want to rip you off and take your money, but some of them are sincere. I think a real guru is someone who teaches that the guru is to be seen in everyone and everything you encounter. Hopefully that comes across in the finale of our show.
‘Tommy’ runs Feb. 15-March 3 at the San Lorenzo Valley High School Performing Arts Center, 7105 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $15/general, $10/students, seniors, SLV faculty and staff. All tickets are $9 on Community Night, Thursday, Feb. 21. For tickets, visit https://sites.google.com/a/slvusd.org/drama/productions.