Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2003
By James Verini
Stomping and strutting like a peacock around a rehearsal space on a shabby corner in Burbank, Roger Daltrey looks like nothing less than the eternal youth of rock ‘n’ roll embodied. The once and future frontman for the Who and a bona fide rock demigod, Daltrey seems only slightly dulled from that summer 34 years ago when he belted out “I Can See for Miles” at a little concert called Woodstock and permanently redefined the way rock singers were supposed to work.
In Burbank, Daltrey still is wearing his tight jeans and a dirty shirt (or at least a shirt made to look dirty) and cursing like a London metalworker, which is what he happened to be before he became a rock star in the mid-1960s. He’s still every inch the musician, giddy one moment, sullen the next, though he never appears ready to ram a snare drum through the wall. His neck muscles still bulge and his blue eyes scream. And at 59, Daltrey, who in the era-making Who anthem “My Generation” once stuttered “Ho-ho-hope I die before I get old,” seems in better physical shape than most of the men in their 20s dancing behind him. That he happens to be rehearsing “Get Me to the Church on Time,” a number from “My Fair Lady,” is, Daltrey insists, nothing to be surprised about. And no, the song’s lyrics — “There’s just a few more hours / That’s all the time you’ve got” — don’t strike him as particularly weighty, given his age.
“The rehearsal period is 10 … days! That’s dangerous! That’s when you’re most alive,” he says, during a break from rehearsal last Saturday. Of the musical itself he adds, “I love the music and I love the writing.”
Daltrey will play Alfred P. Doolittle, the drunken London dustman and moralist, in a one-night-only performance Sunday of Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical at the Hollywood Bowl. His agent suggested him for the part in late May — Daltrey says he auditioned; the Bowl people say the part was his for the taking — and before he knew it, Daltrey was aboard, only eight weeks prior to show time.
To participate, he took a break from “Extreme History,” a History Channel series he’s hosting in which he and a camera crew revisit the exploits of adventurers through the ages. In the latest segment, they paddle up the Colorado River in a 19th century-style wooden boat a la John Wesley Powell. “In a … wooden boat!” says Daltrey, who splits his time between Los Angeles and England, where his wife and eight children and eight grandchildren live. “They were extraordinary people, these explorers.”
Is he a history buff?
“No,” he says, adding nothing.
But Daltrey is just being modest or, as he would put it, unpretentious. For an unwillingness to show off or speak too much about himself has always marked this Hammersmith laborer’s personal style. Although he puffed out his chest and swung his microphone in sync with guitarist Pete Townshend’s string-breaking windmills, although he still wears that knowing smirk when, during “Baba O’Reilly,” he looks out on the crowd and pronounces it a “teenage wasteland,” Daltrey always was unpretentious. He and bassist John Entwistle, who died a year ago last month, left the Who’s preening and higher artistic ambitions to Townshend and drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978).
In fact, Daltrey is a part of history himself — the Who, numerous breakups and reunions notwithstanding, will turn 40 next year. And he does know a lot about history. He’s smart and, for the man who once snarled at an English talk show host, “Rock ‘n’ roll don’t got no future!” is shamefully well spoken when he chooses to be. It’s just that he’s reluctant to dwell on history. The working-class lad from the Who, he just wants to keep working.
“My Fair Lady” is based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” about a wealthy London gentleman, professor Henry Higgins, and his efforts to improve Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl, and her father, Alfred. The play caused a sensation when it premiered in London in 1916.
“It’s a great study of Edwardian morality,” Daltrey says. “[Alfred] is quite happy to be poor. Americans find it very difficult to understand the English class system, but money doesn’t buy you out of it. You’re either upper class, middle class or working class. Now I might be a multimillionaire, but I’m still working class. Whereas America is classless. You’re either rich or you’re poor.”
John Lithgow, who will play Henry Higgins to Daltrey’s Doolittle on Sunday, says the singer is a “diamond in the rough.”
“He’s a little hesitant as an actor, although completely confident as a musical actor,” Lithgow says.
For Daltrey, it’s not a matter of choosing between acting and singing. “I don’t think about it. It’s my life, it’s what I do.”
How do being a rock star and performing in a musical differ?
“Rock ‘n’ roll is jazz,” he says. “It’s free, especially the way the Who play. In a musical like this you can’t go free form — it would be a train wreck.”
How are they the same?
“I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t know,” he says.
But he has. In 1969-70, he toured in “Tommy,” the rock opera (“Billing ‘Tommy’ as a rock opera was terribly pretentious of us”) about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard. He took the production, which Townshend revived in 1993, all the way to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1975, he starred in Ken Russell’s film version of the musical. After “Tommy,” Daltrey says, he received a lot of adulation in Hollywood and elsewhere. He didn’t want it, he says. “I never wanted to be a star.”
He appeared in a 1998 production of “A Christmas Carol” at Madison Square Garden and a 1995 Lincoln Center production of “The Wizard of Oz,” whose eclectic cast included Nathan Lane, Jackson Browne and Jewel. He played the Tin Man.
Although he says the Who “will always be the most important thing in my life,” Daltrey spends far more time acting these days than singing. He has nearly 60 film and television credits, ranging from BBC productions of “Beggar’s Opera” and “Comedy of Errors” to episodes of the show “Highlander” and a straight-to-video horror film called “.com for Murder,” in which he starred alongside pop singer Huey Lewis. He even made an appearance as a teacher on “That ’70s Show.”
“I can earn a living as an actor,” he says. “Every year I can make a living at it. Not many people can say that. It’s had its ups and downs, its painful moments. I’ve made a lot of bloopers. You’ve got to remember I was an extremely famous young man in the rock world — I couldn’t make my mistakes in private. But I got through it, and I’ve learned the craft, and I’ve now become a good actor.”
Still, when asked about rock stars becoming actors, he says, “I don’t think it’s a natural progression. It’s very difficult for people to accept rock artists in the acting world. It’s really difficult, especially for someone like Mick [Jagger], whose stage persona in a rock band is almost caricaturish. It’s so huge — and rock demands that. It demands this incredibly large image. As an actor you just have to lose that.”
He’s been offered a role in a West End production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in London, but he says, “I think I’d get bored. I’m very much a gypsy. I’ve always been moving. That’s the great thing about rock ‘n’ roll, you’re always moving. The longest run the Who ever did was a five-day stint at Madison Square Garden.”
That Daltrey would want to appear in “My Fair Lady” at first seems as incongruous as the fact that he has eight grandchildren. But on closer inspection, the role of Alfred Doolittle is oddly well-suited to him. “This is my grandfather,” as Daltrey puts it. Doolittle begins as a soused-up London laborer and ne’er-do-well — as Daltrey did — who can’t “afford morality.” But unlike Daltrey in his youth (and perhaps still), Doolittle bears no grudge against the upper classes as long as they keep him in drink. That is, until the Henry Higginses of the world — the intellectuals, the critics — find him fascinating and proclaim him “a philosophical genius of the first order” for his resigned attitude. Doolittle comes to seek admiration, and then money and marriage. And then it’s all over for him.
“Alfie Doolittle got a lot of money, and it [messed] him up,” Daltrey says. “That kind of pedestal adulation of the Beatles — the Who have never had that. Or we had it for a few years, but we fought against it. We’re a blue-collar people’s band, and I’m glad we’ve maintained it.”
But the question has to be asked: Wasn’t it in part against grandiose musicals such as “My Fair Lady,” and its stodgy best-picture-winning film (released in 1964, the year the Who was formed) that rock ‘n’ roll and the Who were reacting? “It’s about what we were reacting to,” Daltrey says. “The British class structure. Saying, ‘We’re not going to take it’ to these upper-class twits. But it was so much easier to kick it down then.”
But then he adds: “As I never saw the movie, I guess I couldn’t rebel against it.”