In 1970, The Who staged two groundbreaking concerts in New York City’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.
Promoting its then recent and wildly popular rock opera Tommy, the band saw these shows as a means of elevating rock and roll to a level that would finally make the genre taken more seriously, as a legitimate form of music, much like opera or classical music.
Almost 50 years later, The Who returns to Lincoln Center, but in a radically different fashion.
During those 50 years, the band was faced with the challenges of carrying on after the deaths of founding members Keith Moon and John Entwistle in 1978 and 2002 respectively.
The band’s follow-up opera, 1973’s Quadrophenia, gained even more critical acclaim than Tommy.
Centered around a wayward teenager, Jimmy, in 1960s London, many would claim this album to not only be the superior rock opera, but arguably The Who’s best album overall.
After the band finished a tour commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the record in 2013, guitarist and primary songwriter Pete Townshend went into the studio to revisit Quadrophenia.
Teaming up with musician Rachel Fuller and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, Townshend transformed an album that was originally recorded by a four-piece band, into a massive orchestral work that dwarfed even his wildest expectations.
Two years after the release of the new orchestral Quadrophenia, Townshend finally decided to take the show on the road in the United States with a quick three-city tour, including two nights at Lincoln Center, as part of The Who’s annual Teen Cancer America charity concerts.
Compared to the massive stadiums and arenas that The Who have presented Quadrophenia in over the years, Lincoln Center is a much more intimate setting for The Who.
But, that did not mean that the audience was any less enthusiastic than usual, if the two sold-out nights were any indication.
If the Classic Quadrophenia studio album was already a musical powerhouse, it completely comes alive during the live performances. Bringing together the same orchestra and choir that originally played on the album, the rearrangements are given the perfect chance to shine.
On the original record, it was a brief guitar and synthesizer prelude that had singer Roger Daltrey give brief vocal teases of what was to unfold in the main storyline. In translating the album from rock to classical, the overall idea of the song is still there, but now arranged as a traditional orchestral overture that flows seamlessly into the first vocal track “The Real Me.”
The rest of the songs are arranged almost note to note from the original album. It is amazing as to how an album, originally recorded with a four-piece rock band, could lend itself to classical music without losing all that made it a unique listening experience to begin with.
With the exception of actor Phil Daniels, who played Jimmy’s father in the new recording, all of the singers from Classic Quadrophenia reprise their roles for the live shows. Punk rock legend Billy Idol plays the dual role of the swaggering Ace Face and the pathetic Bell Boy.
Without diving too much into the routine that made him a global star, Idol does the character justice and pays respect to Keith Moon’s original vocal performance of the character.
Townshend himself appears throughout the show, playing both the rock star godfather and Daniels’ role of Jimmy’s father.
While his vocals are great for a singer his age, it was admittedly amusing to see him move around the stage as a frontman rather than a guitarist.
The singer that really ties the whole production together is tenor Alfie Boe, playing the crucial role of Jimmy.
While he is well-known for his work in the opera and musical theater, including a gig playing Jean Valjean in the Broadway production of Les Misérables, Boe comes off as a natural rock and roll frontman.
Rather than imitate the original Daltrey vocals, Boe brings his own unique take to the songs and really gets himself involved with his character. This is especially evident with his emotional performance on the closing song, “Love, Reign o’er Me.”
The sole encore of the show was a reprise of “The Real Me,” but with all three singers taking turns on lead vocals during the verses.
It may be a very unorthodox type of production to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera, but Classic Quadrophenia shows that rock music is more than worthy of standing alongside classical and opera as a high form of music.