/In The Whos Tommy, Ali Louis Bourzgui Is A Reimagined Pinball Wizard For The Ages

In The Whos Tommy, Ali Louis Bourzgui Is A Reimagined Pinball Wizard For The Ages

Audiences fortunate enough to catch Broadway’s new revival of “The Who’s Tommy” are likely to leave the theater buzzing about Ali Louis Bourzgui, whose portrayal of the title character is both deeply moving and delightfully weird.

While the role is a breakout moment for the 24-year-old actor and singer, he says he grappled with imposter syndrome during the audition process for the musical’s pre-Broadway 2023 run in Chicago.

“I started coming up with every excuse as to why I wasn’t right for the part,” Bourzgui told HuffPost in an interview. “I was like, ‘I’m not old enough. I’m not a rock star. This is too high of a role, vocally, for me to sing.’ I started that week thinking, ‘I don’t know about this.’ And by the end of the week, I was like, ‘I really hope I get this, because now I’m obsessed.’”

Fortunately, the musical’s creative team — which includes director Des McAnuff, choreographer Lorin Latarro and The Who musician Pete Townshend, who wrote most of the songs on the seminal 1969 album which spawned a 1975 film and the stage musical — never doubted Bourzgui’s thespian chops.

Ali Louis Bourzgui (left) in "The Who's Tommy," now playing on Broadway.
Ali Louis Bourzgui (left) in “The Who’s Tommy,” now playing on Broadway.

“He hasn’t needed a lecture about what makes a star, and what can cause a star to fall,” Townshend told the New York Post last week. “He just gets it.”

“The Who’s Tommy,” which opened at New York’s Nederlander Theatre last month, tells the story of Tommy Walker (played by Bourzgui as a young adult), who goes deaf, mute and blind as a child after witnessing a grisly incident firsthand. Unable to defend himself, Tommy experiences further trauma ― including sexual abuse at the hands of his Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) and cruel bullying from his Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte) ― as he matures.

Before long, Tommy’s penchant for arcade games makes him a local celebrity, as noted in “Pinball Wizard,” the musical’s centerpiece and a beloved staple of classic rock playlists. The character eventually regains his hearing, sight and ability to speak, after which he is driven by anger and a quest for revenge on his former oppressors.

While in rehearsals, Bourzgui drew on the 2001 anime film “Spirited Away” and Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller “Get Out” to offer a portrayal of Tommy that was “in a chokehold of fear and uncomfortable energy.”

“They gave me a lot of free reign to find stuff for myself,” he said.

"As someone who is in a public light, I have an obligation to speak up for Arab Americans," said Bourzgui, who is Muslim. "I’m trying to make up for lost time."
“As someone who is in a public light, I have an obligation to speak up for Arab Americans,” said Bourzgui, who is Muslim. “I’m trying to make up for lost time.”

Growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Bourzgui was exposed to theater at an early age, with the Bay State having long been a breeding ground for Broadway-bound plays and musicals.

Bourzgui’s Italian-Irish American mother, Rita Giovanetti, was supportive of his talents from the very beginning. His father, Abdelali Bourzgui, immigrated to the U.S. from Morocco, where acting isn’t traditionally viewed as a viable career pursuit, and therefore wasn’t immediately on board with his son’s professional goals.

“I explained to my dad that I needed to try this, because I won’t be happy in my life if I didn’t at least try to make this work,” Bourzgui, an Ithaca College graduate, said. “We made a compromise that I’d go to a liberal arts college so that I could get theater classes but also have a backup plan.” These days, Bourzgui describes his dad as “one of my best friends,” noting: “He has the ‘Tommy’ logo as wallpaper on his phone.”

Bourzgui is also cognizant of the fact that having been raised Muslim, he is representing a long-overlooked community on Broadway.

From left: The Who's Pete Townshend and Bourzgui at the March 28 opening of "The Who's Tommy" on Broadway.
From left: The Who’s Pete Townshend and Bourzgui at the March 28 opening of “The Who’s Tommy” on Broadway.

Bruce Glikas via Getty Images

“For a long time, I didn’t want to accept my culture, because I was scared of how people would perceive me through it,” he said. “I recognize that’s a privileged thing because I have a mixed look ― some people aren’t able to hide their ethnicity. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m realizing the need and desire I have to accept this 50% of myself. As someone who is in a public light, I have an obligation to speak up for Arab Americans. I’m trying to make up for lost time.”

Though committed to “Tommy” for the foreseeable future, Bourzgui is hoping to use his experience in the show as a springboard to film and television, naming the third season of the HBO smash “The White Lotus,” as a dream project.

As for the acclaim he’s received thus far, he’s been keeping all of it “at a distance,” and would like theatergoers to focus on the broader, highly topical themes of “Tommy” beyond his singular performance.

Watch Ali Louis Bourzgui, Pete Townshend and the cast of “The Who’s Tommy” perform songs from the musical on “The Tonight Show.”

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“There’s an issue right now with our generation feeling the need to change things, but a lot of us are following influencers on social media,” he said. “We follow everything they say. We do the fitness routines they do and follow the political ideas they have, without really understanding who they are beyond their social media presence.”

“That’s a dangerous thing,” he added. “So ‘Tommy’ really calls that out ― following people who you think have created a perfect life, and not understanding the trauma that might lie within their story or how you may be romanticizing a path you don’t know 100% about.”

"The Who's Tommy," Bourzgui said, calls out the trend of "following people who you think have created a perfect life, and not understanding the trauma that might lie within their story."
“The Who’s Tommy,” Bourzgui said, calls out the trend of “following people who you think have created a perfect life, and not understanding the trauma that might lie within their story.”
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