Home » NYC Sensations from the Cast and Crew of The Who’s TOMMY

NYC Sensations from the Cast and Crew of The Who’s TOMMY

"See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me"

by Jeff Heilman
Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy) and ensemble of THE WHO’S TOMMY CREDIT Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy) and ensemble of The Who's TOMMY (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Back on Broadway after 30 years, the Tony-nominated revival of The Who’s TOMMY is an electrifying sensation that gives a vibrant new voice to the central themes of the original 1969 Tommy album. Partnering again as they did for the 1993 production, Pete Townshend, The Who’s legendary guitarist and composer, and two-time Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff created an updated book that speaks to today’s generation while amping up the musical heat and excitement of this profound work.

Staged at the historic 1,235-seat Nederlander Theatre, the production also represents the latest chapter in Tommy’s illustrious history in New York City. Dating to their NYC debut in 1967 at the former RKO 58th Street Theatre, The Who came to call the city a home away from home, with a long track record of tours and shows that includes command performances of Tommy in different incarnations.

To celebrate this bond and the new production, Passport looks back on Tommy’s amazing journey—and hears from company members about the vibes they get from performing and living in the world’s most “rhythmic” city.

Company of The Who’s TOMMY (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

In 1968, after four years of breakneck recording and touring, The Who found themselves at a creative and philosophical impasse. As Townshend recounts in his 2012 memoir “Who I Am”, it was time for a “real shake-up.”

Seeing an audience shift to “spiritual searching” and inspired by the “God-realization” teachings of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, he started sketching out a concept album based on a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who awakens from his sensory deprivation and spiritual isolation after seven journeys of rebirth.

Evolving over six arduous months in the studio, Tommy, originally set in WW1, revolves around little Tommy Walker, who shuts down after witnessing a murder by his parents in a mirror. With “See me, feel me, touch me, hear me” as his inner voice, Tommy experiences life as musical vibrations and can only see his illusory self in the mirror. Breaking free as a pinball champion, he becomes a messiah, only to be rejected by his disciples.

Released in May 1969 as a double album, their seminal “rock opera” changed everything. “Our rehearsals were a revelation,” recalled Townshend in his memoir. “The music of Tommy, when played live, even in an empty hall, generated an extraordinary, building energy, and seemed to possess an explicable power that none of us had expected or planned. We had triumphed. The music worked.”

With Tommy, The Who smashed the mirror and were freed, each member playing lead while locked together in new-found unity as they took the album on the road. Daltrey found his voice and image as a rock god with his gorgeous hair and open shirt. Townshend stormed the stage in his white boiler suit and Doc Martens as Entwistle, thundering his bass in his skeleton suit, and Moon, a whirling dervish on the sticks, kept a torrential tempo.

Acing the test of time on its amazing 55-year journey, Tommy became a cultural touchstone, with NYC among its chief temples.

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Tommy) and ensemble of The Who’s TOMMY (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

In October 1969, three months after playing a transcendent pre-dawn Tommy set at Woodstock, The Who delivered Tommy full-scale, boosted by 45 speakers, at NYC’s legendary Fillmore East. In June 1970, they played Tommy as the centerpiece of a 29-song show at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera House.

Directed by Ken Russell, the 1975 film version, with an Oscar-nominated score by Townshend, premiered at NYC’s fabled Ziegfield Theater. The star-studded after party, attended by The Who, cast members Elton John, Tina Turner, and Ann-Margret, and celebs including Halston and Anjelica Houston, was famously held in the sealed-off mezzanine level of the nearby 57 Street and 6th Avenue subway station.

“Pinball Wizard” and other Tommy standards were setlist regulars at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, the late Shea Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and other NYC venues through the decades.

Pete Townshend — Music, Lyrics, Book (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

In 1993, Townshend and McAnuff brought The Who’s TOMMY to Broadway for a triumphant two-year, 899-performance run at the St. James Theatre. Garnering 11 TONY nominations, TOMMY won Best Score for Townshend and Best Direction for McAnuff, plus Best Choreography, Lighting, and Scenic Design.

Last summer, Townshend and McAnuff revived The Who’s TOMMY with a run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Becoming the highest grossing production in the 99-year-old venue’s history and receiving nine Joseph Jefferson Awards, the 30th anniversary reboot generated major buzz ahead of its March 2024 debut at NYC’s Nederlander Theatre.

TOMMY has been a personal sonic and spiritual touchstone since childhood. On the highest high for months after seeing the 1993 production, I was thrilled to answer the call again. And what a jet-propelled supersonic ride it is.

From the opening “Overture”, Townshend’s instrumental introduction to Tommy’s musical themes, to the emotional finale of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, “See Me, Feel Me” and “Listening To You” that had the audience dancing in a sustained standing ovation, The Who’s brilliance rocked the house.

The revamped book catches up to present times to find a generation grappling with the same issues as in 1969. Finding more people than ever dealing with trauma from abuse and bullying, disappearing into the mirror of today’s technology to escape the world’s harsh realities, and rebelling, Townshend and McAnuff recast Tommy’s re-awakening as a warning against idolatry (read influencer and celebrity culture) and blindly following false messiahs.

The mesmerizing staging, including set design from Broadway veteran David Korins, blends magic realism, such as sci-fi helmets that stand for mirrors and pinballs, with authentically transporting depictions of Britain in the WW2 years.

One of 16 players making their Broadway debut, 24-year-old Moroccan American actor Ali Louis Bourzgui’s breakout performance exemplifies the talent and passion of the entire company.

Evoking the opening line from the show’s signature “Christmas” number, “Did you ever see the faces of the children? They get so excited”, the cast’s emotion-packed vocal workouts and mastery of Lorin Latarro’s complex, physical, acrobatic choreography are true gifts. Cycling between coiled and explosive energy, they electrify the show with the live-wire tension of being trapped and breaking free throughout.

I exited the show with newfound emotional fever for Tommy. Pete Townshend, 23 when he wrote Tommy, now 79, is still making sparks fly, with this magnetic company bringing his vision to life eight times a week. Which had me wondering: what vibes did they get performing this iconic work on the world’s greatest stage and one of TOMMY’s true spiritual homes? McAnuff, Bourzgui, and other principal cast members and creative leads shared how their senses come alive and where they find the “music” in Broadway’s hometown, New York City.

 

Des McAnuff — Director, Book (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

DES MCANUFF (Director, Book)

Friends warned me when I first moved to New York that it would take three months for any kind of normalization and that I would walk around slack-jawed for much of that time. It was truly overwhelming and while I had grown up in a big city, nothing prepared me for the sensory onslaught of Gotham. The surprise came after those first three months, though. I realized that nothing else would ever seem normal to me again and that somehow New York had become my standard for reality.

In terms of disciplining one’s senses, it seems to me that New Yorkers learn to shut out as much as they take in. You stop staring up from the bed of the artificial canyons at the looming edifices searching for fissures of sky. You find yourself automatically pausing mid-conversation as the firetruck goes streaking by. You stop grasping the handrail in the subway when it’s smothered with anonymous sticky stuff. Your senses master the advanced skill of coexistence with the perpetual machine that rages.

On the other hand, the music of the city is everywhere. New Yorkers don’t stand back to watch and listen. They enter the fray. On the amazing musical journey that is The Who’s TOMMY, “Sensation” best captures the spirit of the five boroughs. It’s a vibration that goes beyond the five senses, one per borough, to a kind of sixth. Anyone who loves New York fully understands that and cannot find it anywhere else. The music goes beyond the symphony and the rock n’ roll and jazz clubs and the theatre and opera houses. It goes even beyond the cars shrieking at blocked intersections and the foghorns of the ships on the Hudson. It’s all music, and there is a joy in immersing oneself in it. The cacophony of beautiful melodies and jarring dissonance creates the overture for every single day in the big city.

 

Ali Louis Bourzgui (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

ALI LOUIS BOURZGUI (Tommy)

I’ve only called New York home for about a year, although I’ve had an apartment here for two. How do I see, feel and touch the city? I can definitely smell it—all the time. Growing up in the forested valleys and mountains of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, I often find myself getting bogged down in the concrete jungle of NYC. But it’s the energy here, the constantly interesting people, and the non-stop opportunities that keep me loving it.

Millions of people are here working tirelessly to achieve their dreams. You must be passionate to live here—and to continue living here. I feed off that collective energy. It keeps me motivated. I spend most of my time outside of the show in Central Park. I put music on and walk around observing the serene nature and trying to capture a semblance of home. I also love the many opportunities in NYC to hear music outdoors. I love stumbling upon park concerts, free performances on the riverfront, or making music with my roommate and jamming with our guitars in the park. As a jazz lover, NYC is the perfect place for finding a perfect jazz club moment.

Tasting NYC might be my favorite part. With the incredible cultural diversity here, I’m always eating well. From amazing Yemeni food at Yemen Cafe in Brooklyn to a classic NYC slice anywhere in the city to an everything bagel at the Bagel Shop on the Upper East Side and everything in between, I love the celebration of eating here. Should all else fail, my favorite activity is truly just looking around at my fellow humans and being entertained by all the curiosities and beauties of New York life.

 

Christina Sajous (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

CHRISTINA SAJOUS (Acid Queen)

As a native New Yorker, you feel the life of New York City pulsing through your mind, body and spirit. My family, my friends, my education, my culture, my creativity, and my entire identity have been built on the foundation of the beautiful complexities of this city.

Walking the streets often fills me with a sense of comfort and safety. How? With nostalgia holding the memories of my childhood, this ever-changing, ever-growing city continues to inspire the evolution of my current self.

The city has many quirks that can ignite the senses. I hear impatient drivers honking their horns. I see the end of an old restaurant and the beginning of a new one. I feel the rumble of trains pulsating on the pavement. I taste the smell of roasted nuts from the “Nuts for Nuts” stand. I can accidentally touch or brush against a stranger on a crowded street. The energy of this city keeps you feeling alive because the heartbeat is so loud. It’s what I love most about performing in NYC. This city trains you to be alert, sharp and present, since everyone and everything in it is unpredictable. It also reminds me why I love to perform, because every day fills me with something new just by existing in this city which informs who and what I bring to the stage.

Listening to NYC, I get the music from the restaurant culture. My favorite time of year is the summer, when folks from all walks of life are sitting outside talking in different languages and engaging in conversations. There is a rhythm to how each table communicates, the clinking of the utensils against their plates, and the joy of laughter coming from their souls. The area around Lincoln Center is my favorite dining neighborhood because the art and culture tend to attract a diverse community.

 

Adam Jacobs (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

ADAM JACOBS (Captain Walker)

For me, it’s hard to beat the sensory experience of Times Square, the heart of NYC’s Theatre District. Continuously erupting with color and teeming with street performers and tourists from around the world, it’s a place where crisscrossing theatre-goers brandish their Playbills and latest merch, and actors like me walk briskly between the traffic and the sidewalk (the gutter basically) to make their half hour calls.

On the southern boundary of Times Square lies a stretch of 41st Street where I’ve spent much of the last 10 years, performing in Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre and now in TOMMY at the Nederlander. I know it’s foolish to feel any kind of ownership of a street where the titles and names on the marquees are ever-changing, but I do here, always tending to feel those cosmic vibrations where the past and present come together.

The other location that taps into the essence of NYC for me is Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, especially on a warm weekend. People of all ages and creeds spread out on the lawn picnicking, tossing a frisbee, sunbathing, and enjoying other activities. It offers me a glint of hopeful equilibrium, an egalitarian place where New Yorkers take a collective breath before individually storming the castle again.

 

Alison Luff (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

ALISON LUFF (Mrs. Walker)

I now see NYC through the curious eyes of my baby boy. Everything is new and everything is a bit more beautiful or interesting. I feel the city through the energy of the audiences we perform for every night and the energy and appreciation they bring to the stage door. I would rather not touch the city; when I do, I always wash my hands immediately after.

I hear the city as just another sound machine that could put me to sleep. I taste the city through the bagel I get across the street from my apartment and the brownie I buy from the local health food store that lasts me a week.

I get the music from epic walk days in the city. My husband and fellow bandmate/writing partner and I will walk for hours. Without a doubt, inspiration always strikes. It’s amazing what you can accomplish while walking in NYC.

 

David Korins (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

DAVID KORINS (Set Designer)

Having lived and worked in New York for over 25 years, all my senses have been woven into the very fabric of this amazing place in some way. When I first came here, I started out in the East Village. Now, when I return to that neighborhood, I feel like a kid who is going home again—those streets are always welcoming, always familiar, but still slightly strange.

Over in SoHo, I find myself craving the taste of late-night french fries at Balthazar on a Saturday, and reading the Sunday papers. If I had to pick one thing to see, I’d be in Riverside Park watching the sunset over the Hudson, getting lost in the moment. What do I hear? That would be the sounds of Times Square, the people and the noise, before dashing into a theater where it’s suddenly quiet as the lights dim and another show begins. Touch? That’s the best of all. I’m on the Upper West Side with my kids on a spring morning, walking them to school. One on my shoulders, one holding my hand, that’s the ultimate touch of New York to me. Those are just five of the five million sensations that have made up my life in this place and I see, feel, touch, hear and taste the electricity that I get from every square inch of New York City.

It’s funny, but I don’t get the real music of the city in any of the clubs, theaters, or studios where it’s up front, loud, and clear. No, I get the true music when I’m walking quietly in Central or Riverside Park. That’s when it comes to me.

 

John Ambrosino (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

JOHN AMBROSINO (Uncle Ernie)

I am incredibly fortunate to reside in New York City where there are so many ways to see, feel, touch, hear, and taste the human experience.

I see this great city out my window from my home in Hell’s Kitchen. My windows face south and I can see the Empire State Building. I love to sit by that window with a coffee and let the sight of the skyline both inspire and humble me. I feel in the theaters of Broadway and Off-Broadway where my colleagues and friends are enacting incredible performances. I taste New York in the city’s innumerable restaurants. I especially love Elea on the Upper West Side, a fantastic Greek restaurant where you can often find me at the bar with a collaborator eating fried zucchini chips and talking about a theater project.

Nothing is better to me than sitting at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel and listening to the jazz trio with a smart cocktail. That’s where I get the music in New York City.

 

Lorin Latarro (Photo courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

LORIN LATARRO (Choreographer)

New York is all around me. The rhythms of this city and the people are now part of me. My favorite parts are the small human personal relationships inside this giant metropolis. In my Greenwich Village neighborhood, these connections include my favorite baker at Sicilian Pane Pasta on Eighth Street; our friend Ms. Dorothy, who lets the kids help her rake leaves in Washington Square Park; and the chef at Shmoné, our favorite restaurant in all of NYC. All are within two blocks of our apartment.

Washington Square Park is outside our doorstep. The music never stops. We dance on our way to work and to school and it even helps lull us to sleep. Rain or shine, musicians are out there busking for a buck or two, and their need to play music for others is what makes this city so special.


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