Inside the fervent fandom of 'The Who's Tommy' on Broadway

The musical revival has attracted a multi-generational crowd, including passionate "Wholigans" who experienced the original album and Broadway production.

Allison Considine
Allison Considine

Standing outside the Nederlander Theatre, it’s easy to spot Wholigans in line for The Who's Tommy. You can see the fans of the English rock band sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the group’s signature red, white, and blue Royal Air Force logo. You can hear them, too. On an evening in May, as theatregoers stood in line along 41st Street before a performance, someone started singing aloud: “Tommy doesn’t know what day it is, yeah!”

Jukebox musicals (those using an artist's existing music instead of an original score) have a built-in fanbase, but devotees of the 1969 Tommy rock opera album-turned-film-turned-musical are supercharged. The musical, created by The Who’s Pete Townshend and Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, first bowed on Broadway in 1993. It went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Direction for McAnuff, and Best Original Score for Townshend.

This Broadway revival, with Townshend and McAnuff back at the helm, is a 2024 Tony Award nominee for Best Revival of a Musical. It has drawn in Wholigans, repeat attendees, and stage door enthusiasts. And it even inspired new fans. A representative for the production likened the show’s devotees to Swifties; I took that to mean passionate and engaged.

“When I was 15, I bought the album, and I know all the words,” said Mona, waiting in the box office line. Despite memorizing every lyric, this marked her first time experiencing the stage adaptation. “I think it will be great.”

Mona represents a large fraction of the musical’s attendees. “Lots of people who see the show are diehard The Who fans,” an usher told me while waving people into the lobby. “A lot of them come in not knowing the plot but loving the music, and leave loving the plot and the music.”

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The Tommy album and musical follow Tommy Walker, a young boy who loses his sight, hearing, and speech after witnessing a tragic event. He later discovers he has an extraordinary talent for pinball, and the so-called “Pinball Wizard” gains an almost cultish fan base and grapples with his celebrity status.

The musical’s theme of fandom aligns well with its audience. “I love this musical; it is my absolute favorite,” said attendee Henry moments before curtain. He was there with his family and wearing a vintage The Who’s Tommy musical shirt.

Henry saw the original Broadway production five times and a 1995 production in Toronto twice. And while this was his first time seeing the Broadway revival, the material is fresh in his mind: “I just saw it last week at the Long Island High School of Performing Arts,” he said.

Inside the theatre, it was clear the crowd was mostly old enough to have been teenagers when the album was released. But there were several young people in the audience, including an excited girl in the row behind me seated with her father and two 20somethings in front of me who bopped along throughout the show, much to my amusement.

Though it's a show with a huge nostalgia factor, Tommy has also found relevance among younger folks new to the musical — proving it has staying power. In interviews, the creators compared the mirror Tommy fixates on in the show to 21st-century smartphones: "Everybody seems to be trying to escape a hostile universe by looking in a mirror," McAnuff told New York Theatre Guide in March.

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After the show, the bopping pair, named Jack and Maddie, beelined to the stage door, where audience members line up nightly in the hopes of meeting the cast. Jack and Maddie flew in from San Jose to cheer on fellow Bay Area performer Reese Levine, who plays 10-year-old Tommy. In addition to being members of the Reese Levine fan club, the friends have a soft spot for the show: They played Tommy's father and the harmonica player in a high school production.

“[Jack] told me not to sing along,” said Maddie with a laugh. “But you can’t help it, the music is so good!” Jack agreed: “There is a fire and electricity about this production that I didn’t expect. It hit me so much… I wish I could see it ten more times.”

Another audience member with a program in hand called the “Pinball Wizard” number electrifying. “I mean, did you feel that?!” he said to the small crowd gathered at the stage door.

I certainly did. The Who’s Tommy is akin to a full-blown rock concert. I’d never seen so much head-bobbing, toe-tapping, or curtain call enthusiasm at a Broadway show. This production’s followers make themselves seen, heard, and felt.

Get The Who's Tommy tickets now.

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