Video: The Who's Tommy Star Ali Louis Bourzgui Performs a 'Sensation'/'I'm Free' Mashup | Playbill

Special Features Video: The Who's Tommy Star Ali Louis Bourzgui Performs a 'Sensation'/'I'm Free' Mashup

The actor is proud to represent Arab Americans and baritones on Broadway.

When Ali Louis Bourzgui got the offer to play the title role in the revival of The Who's Tommy, he was excited to be leading a musical for the first time. But he was also nervous. The casting notice for the show specified a high tenor for the role of Tommy Walker. Bourzgui is a baritone. 

"I equate it to working out, where in the beginning, it was pretty hard for me," he admits to Playbill. Bourzgui originally played Tommy in the show's tryout run in Chicago, before taking it to Broadway. But with the help of a good voice teacher, Bourzgui has been able to train his voice so he can sing the rock score comfortably eight times a week. "Now, we've been doing this for a year, and it actually strengthened my voice and gave me more stamina. And I've now brought my voice up to a new level that I didn't used to have." 

You can see what he means in the exclusive Playbill video above, filmed at Alchemical Studios, where the newly minted Broadway star sings an original mash-up of two songs from The Who's Tommy: "Sensation" and "I'm Free" while accompanying himself on guitar (Tommy's associate conductor/guitarist Kevin Ramessar provided additional backing). As the video shows, Bourzgui sure plays a mean pinball guitar.

Ali Louis Bourzgui Heather Gershonowitz

The Who's Tommy follows a young boy who witnesses a traumatic event that forces him to retreat inside himself, where he does not speak or interact with the world. But he also develops a knack for pinball. Its score has been sung by the likes of rock star Roger Daltrey and Michael Cerveris (in the original Broadway production). 

For Bourzgui, being able to sing The Who's Tommy in its original key has been a vindication. When he was studying musical theatre in college, he remembered wondering if there was a place in the industry for his vocal type. 

"In college, I had a hard time finding repertoire that I could sing, that wasn't, like, Golden Age stuff," he says. "And it really bothered me. And every single year, I would just see the new songs coming out being higher and higher and higher and higher. And I was like, 'Where am I going to fit in all this?'" 

How does he feel like he fits now? Bourzgui smiles, before playfully adding: "I'm still bringing the baritone sound. I'm just saying, baritones can take the place of tenors and sometimes sound better." 

It is that deep, resonant voice that has led to Bourzgui, at just 24, playing characters that are older than he is. He was barely out of college when he was cast as a middle-aged Paul in the Company national tour. He also played the womanizer Haled in the national tour of The Band's Visit. Perhaps it is the youthful, yet wise, quality that's led Who's Tommy composer Pete Townshend to call Bourzgui "the best [Tommy] we've had."

Ali Louis Bourzgui Heather Gershonowitz

Besides his low voice, Bourzgui sets himself apart from the other actors who've played Tommy in another significant respect: The actor is Arab American. His father was an immigrant from Morocco. Bourzgui grew up Muslim. Though he's played North African and Middle Eastern characters before, playing Tommy has been special because the character's race is not prescribed. Tommy represents anyone who's gone through trauma and persevered.

"It was really cool that I could come into this piece that has a legacy to it, and has a big status in pop culture," Bourzgui explains. "For me playing that character, to be's just creating that humanization. And to see an actor playing this role and having the name Ali, that would have been huge for me as a kid. And just in general, the story is about war, and it's about how war can affect generations and entire family lines. And if that's not the Arab story, I don't know what is." 

Bourzgui has been able to stay in touch with his heritage while playing the role. One way has been through Ramadan, which this year fell during the preview process and opening night for Tommy. Though Bourzgui chose not to fast this time around, he still observed another central Muslin tenant: Feed the hungry. "I donated parts of my paycheck through the entire preview section to people that were starving in Gaza," he says.

And Tommy has convinced Bourzgui's dad, who was skeptical of his acting career, that the arts are a viable path. The elder Bourzgui has now seen the show multiple times. "He is fully on board, and he loves Tommy so much," says the actor. "If I had listened to him and gone through with being an engineer, there'd be a really bad wind turbine somewhere in Illinois just falling apart." 

And where would Broadway be without this exciting new baritone?

Ali Louis Bourzgui Heather Gershonowitz
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