Broadway interview

How Ali Louis Bourzgui of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ became Broadway’s breakout star

The Daily Beast

April 1, 2024

Ali Louis Bourzgui, 24, is making a star-making Broadway debut in “The Who’s Tommy.” He talks rocking out, Tonys, being Muslim, diversity, and why he loves to take the subway home.

The Who’s Tommy on Broadway ends with a “huge burst of energy,” both from the performers and also radiating right back at them from ecstatic-seeming audiences, Ali Louis Bourzgui said.

The 24-year-old actor—playing the title character, making his critically acclaimed Broadway debut—told The Daily Beast that after every show he leaves the stage, then cools down in his dressing room for around 15 minutes, shedding that night’s performance energies. After this, there is no chauffeured car home for theater’s breakout star of the season. Bourzgui (his name is pronounced “Ah-lee Lewis Borz-gee,” with a hard “g”) tucks his tumbling mop of curly hair (“My identifier!”) under a baseball cap, puts on a mask, and heads, extremely anonymously, into the night. On his subway ride home to East Harlem he listens to music.

“I don’t mind it,” Bourzgui, a graduate of Ithaca College’s B.F.A. Musical Theatre program, said. “I don’t think of myself as any higher than anyone else. And I like the hustle and bustle of New York, that collective feeling of being part of a group of people doing their passions, working really hard at what we do. We’re all sharing it. Everyone’s going home at night, burnt out, but collectively, we have that feeling of ‘We all worked hard today.’ Being around that at the end of every day means I never feel alone in my feelings, that we’re all feeling this way.”

We were speaking on a Sunday, Bourzgui’s day off; he had done his laundry, grocery shopping, and cooked—a day of peace to be savored after performing this high-energy show (Nederlander Theatre, booking to Nov. 24) eight times a week. The musical—a revival of Pete Townshend’s 1992 musical, based on The Who’s seminal 1969 rock opera—is as spectacular as it is bonkers; a dizzying array of songs, surreal storytelling, pulsing lighting and choreography (by Lorin Latarro), directed by Des McAnuff who wrote the book with Townshend. And, of course, it features iconic songs like “Pinball Wizard” that will absolutely satisfy The Who fans—and others—who are clearly having the time of their lives watching all the loud and colorful craziness unfold in front of them.

“It gives me lot of energy while doing it,” Bourzgui told The Daily Beast. “You have no choice. It forces you to pull out all your energy in an exciting way, even days when you feel tired. The way the show flows it almost puts you in a meditative state in the first act, then you get a runner’s high in the second act. Then I usually crash afterwards.”

Stage door reactions have been “pretty good” so far, the modest, quietly spoken Bourzgui said. “The audiences are loving it. I came into the show knowing how iconic the show and character were. It was all on my mind, and a lot of pressure, along with needing to prove myself being a relatively unknown character. I wanted to live up to the legacy of what The Who created, and what the character had become in pop culture.”

When Bourzgui first performed the show at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, prior to its Broadway run, he started with a “deep level of respect and humility,” before doing what he could to make the part his own.

“I watched every single performance of the show I could get my hands on, as well as documentaries,” he said, alongside the classic Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter (1970), “to get a real feel of the time and period. I wanted to have it in my bones. When I had that foundation, entering the room, I had the information inside me, and felt like I could bring my own self into the picture.”

For Bourzgui, what Tommy shows most emphatically is how much The Who “made their own rules, and created so many things, rather than living up to people’s expectations—even when it came down to inventing the rock opera, rather than making albums of hits.”

“I feel a hundred different things at once,” Bourzgui said of his sudden rise to Broadway stardom. “It is a dream come true. I always wanted to be on Broadway. I was lucky enough to grow up pretty close to New York, so my mom took me to a couple of Broadway shows a year. Once I got the theater bug, I dived deep into it. But it was definitely not on my five-year plan in college that this would happen so quickly. I really try to focus on the gratitude of that. It feels really big, and I could get sucked up in it. There is a lot of pressure being in the leading role, because so many people love this show and have certain expectations of it.”

The responsibility of staying healthy means not going out much (“not that I do, I’m a homebody”), and wearing a mask wherever he goes.

“At the end of the day, being on Broadway doesn’t feel so different from what I was doing in touring or regional productions,” Bourzgui said. “In fact, it’s nicer for me being at home. But the Broadway name and expectations are big. It also helps that 16 of us are doing our Broadway debuts, and it’s a hard, taxing show physically and emotionally for all of us. We’re all looking out for each other’s safety and sanity. It’s really nice.”


“I’m me, and this is my version”

To get into character, Bourzgui watches the first 20 minutes of the show unfold off-stage. Along with two younger actors, Bourzgui plays Tommy as the victim of trauma as a kid (witnessing a murder, then being sexually abused by his uncle), before becoming a rock star who commands a cult of devotees. First, he shuts out of the world, and is physically moved around the stage, before he is jolted out of his static delirium into vivid life—what Bourzgui calls “present-tense Tommy.”

The show passes by in a blur of doolally storytelling, and dazzling visuals and music on stage.

“I imagine what it must be like entering the social world after not having had any experience of that,” Bourzgui said, of the way he navigates his way through the narrative craziness. “I also have an understanding of this as a folk-tale with a magic realism about it. So, when he comes alive, Tommy doesn’t know most social cues. When people start following him, he recognizes that as a form of love. He doesn’t realize how dangerous the fandom he commands is, or that is a falsified form of love. He has an air of vengeance and anger about being forced into this by his family. He gets lost in the distraction of being placed on a pedestal by his followers, which leads to its own violence and trauma, which wakes him up again.”

The show’s design notes of futurism, German expressionism, and mod culture have helped Bourzgui too, he said. The character of Tommy is so “abstract” as the initially traumatized “deaf, dumb, and blind kid,” Bourzgui came to imagine him “as a figure of eternalism, the idea we exist at all times,” he said.

When Tommy’s adult character sees his younger versions in the mirror for long stretches of the show, it makes Tommy “omniscient,” knowing the nature and trajectory of events before we see them at all ages. With his body near-catatonic in the early parts of the show, Bourzgui tries to convey what he can with his face and slight tilts of the head. His body jerks in little spasmodic movements. His blinks in the mirror to his younger selves are little “acts of comfort.”

Eventually, that mirror is quite literally smashed, and so it is that the adult Tommy is finally freed of the trauma he first saw in its reflection as a small child. Bourzgui has come to see the mirror as the distraction so many of us find in the “black mirror” of our mobile phones in 2024. The mirror, for Tommy, says Bourzgui is both a repository of trauma and comfort. Forced out of its all-consuming embrace, Tommy must engage with the world.

The childhood sexual abuse Tommy experiences is a fictionalized version of the physical abuse Townshend suffered at the hands of his grandmother, and the sexual abuse he endured by two leaders on a Sea Scouts trip.

“Pete has said he wrote the musical at a time when people were distracting themselves, like ‘Don’t talk about the war,’” Bourzgui said. “They didn’t want to face pain, or talk about their feelings. No one was talking about abuse, bullying, and trauma as being real, valid things. With the album, Pete wanted to address these topics. Terrible things happen to Tommy, but they do not ultimately define him. When people want to worship and follow him as a rock star, he feels they are doing so without knowing who he is and what he has been through. He knows he is a false Messiah.”

After all the torment and internal acting of much of the first act, Bourzgui loves to “let rip” on songs like “Pinball Wizard” and “I’m Free.” With voice training he has attained the “gravelly” rock star timbre of Roger Daltrey, mixed with a more traditional Broadway sound.

“As much as I would love to sing the entire score like Daltrey, I have to sing this eight times a week and protect my voice,” he said. Before Tommy, Bourzgui had done Spring Awakening. “I was always able to do punky, Green Day-ish sound. I felt comfortable in it—not with the distortion and gravel of what I am doing with Tommy. I was worried about it. That tone of voice is integral to the score, but I didn’t want to push my voice so far. But without it, you lose a little bit of grit and honesty of the show. A singing teacher has helped give me the tools to do it safely. I also wanted to honor past versions of Tommy, including the past Broadway version in which Michael Cerveris found a great mix of rock and Broadway. In ‘I’m Free’ I do three different riffs Roger (Daltrey) has done in different recordings which I hope The Who fans will recognize.”

Has it ever been a burden, performing Tommy in the shadow of so many other recordings and interpretations?

“There was for sure—I had to let it go,” Bourzgui said. “All I have control of is that I know I have done my homework. I have found moments to honor past iterations, but at the end of day I’m me, and this is my version. The creative team trusted and chose me. I can only do as much as I can do. If people don’t like it, that’s fine. I get it. I’ve done the work I needed to do.”

When Bourzgui finally met Townshend in Chicago, although he had watched so many videos and done “so much homework” to perform the role, he wanted to ask Townshend something “very specific, because, as I know from the fans at the stage door, it’s always the hyper-detailed, specific questions that are the most interesting. So I asked him what this ukulele The Who song I love, ‘Blue, Red and Grey,’ was about, and he said it was just him being facetious. He also told me how supportive he was with what I was doing with the character of Tommy, which was a huge relief.”

Townshend and Bourzgui spoke at greater length when Bourzgui treated himself to a trip to the U.K. to see Jacob Collier in concert last August. He also took in a The Who concert, and then talked to Townshend about music more generally. Bourzgui writes “folk lullaby music, soft vocal harmonies, guitar calming music” himself. “Truly, beyond everything else, music is my favorite thing in the world.”

He and Townshend talked about music production, gadgets, synthesizers. We talked about the idea of trauma in Tommy, and how excited he was for the show to enter my generation.” Bourzgui laughed. “He feels that Generation Zed, as he calls it, really reminds him of his generation—defying parents, governments. My generation wants choice and self-determination on topics like gender and sexuality—no one should decide what you get to do with your body and what you get to do with your life. Pete is excited how this show captures the energy of those who shake things up and create change. Tommy is an anthem of that.”

The pair also talked about while that change is being fought for, social media influencers have also risen in influence—and how Tommy himself, raised so quickly to rock icon status, is a precursor of that idolatry. “The fact so many people follow these influencers, and their views on fashion or politics or whatever they profess to know about while not really knowing anything about them—their history, and who they actually are—seems strange and dangerous.”


“I could hide behind playing characters”

Bourzgui’s journey to Broadway has been emotional and meaningful. He was born in Massachusetts, and grew up in the Berkshires. “My mom, Rita Giovanetti, was Italian-Irish American. She was born and raised in the hometown I grew up in, Pittsfield. My dad, Abdelali Bourzgui, was an immigrant from Morocco who moved here when he was my age with his brother. They had some friends who had already come here. I loved my upbringing. It gave me such a diverse view of the world—two different cultures brought together. I didn’t feel as if I was sheltered at all.”

His parents met in a Boston bar. “The story is my dad accidentally tripped my mom, but my mom doesn’t think it was accidental.”

Performing of all kinds was embedded in family life, Bourzgui said. “I had great aunts who would sit around at family reunions and harmonize with each other. My grandma did all the community theater in town and she always wanted to be an actor, and I have an aunt, Mary Davidson, who’s a painter and another aunt, Rose Giovanetti, who’s a tap dancer. My uncle, Tom Giovanetti, is also a pianist and local musician in my hometown. My mom dabbled in performance things and was interested in all kinds of art. We are a very artistic family.”

The first performing Bourzgui did as a kid was putting on magic shows. This would involve putting a stuffed animal down on the floor, then a blanket in front of it. He would throw it across the room, lift the blanket, and enjoy everyone going “Woo!” at the suddenly-vanished toy. He would re-enact scenes from Disney movies with his brother Driss, which his mom would tape. He performed in school and community theater, and attended productions at the Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage Company, Shakespeare & Company, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. His career began in sixth grade when he played a Munchkin in a production of The Wizard of Oz.

“I loved, and still love, putting on a costume and truly becoming a character and finding a different physicality,” Bourzgui said. “In middle and high school I didn’t make friends too easily, I had a hard time finding a group. I was shy. It was easier to click with the kids who did theater programs. I could be my weirder, fuller authentic self with them, and being someone else on stage gave me confidence. I could hide behind playing characters. As a kid, getting the approval of the audience felt good too. I love acting because I love exploring all branches of how people see and think about the world. Playing Tommy is a crazy example of that.” He laughed.

At a young age, Bourzgui was inspired by the composer, lyricist, and playwright Joe Iconis, Mark Ruffalo, and it dawned on him after seeing Kimberly Akimbo (the play, before it became a musical) that he could act for a living.

However, initially, Bourzgui’s father (among others) was not supportive. “He was scared about it. In Morocco, there is so much beautiful art and amazing music, but theater isn’t a huge thing. Film is—especially American movies. One reason my dad came here was that he loved westerns and John Wayne movies. Theater was not something my dad could grasp as a career. When I told him I wanted to do it as a job, he said, ‘You’re not going to make a living.’ He was worried for me.”

His dad and others said he needed a back-up plan; Bourzgui loved environmental science, so contemplated becoming an environmental engineer (and briefly, an ornithologist).

At Ithaca, Bourzgui said, the classes he took where he and his fellow students did exercises like pretending to be amoeba evolving through existence seemed at first ridiculous. But these and other exercises encouraged him “to get out of my own way, break down walls, and learn how to truly listen.” Actors including Raul Julia, Norm Lewis, and Brian d’Arcy James showed how versatile a deep voice could be. (A “huge admirer” of Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli, Bourzgui hopes to find time to see them in the Circle in the Square revival of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.)

Bourzgui’s mom was supportive of his acting ambitions from the get-go—she drove Bourzgui to every college audition, and has attended “every first night, last night, and between nights of every show I have ever been in.”

“It was hard to explain to my dad what this was, and why I wanted to do it,” Bourzgui recalled. “I had to tell him, ‘If I don’t do this I’m going to be unhappy. I need to try to do this.’ We compromised on me going to a liberal arts school (Ithaca).”

When Bourzgui’s father understood acting was his son’s passion, “he really did understand it. He loved photography when he was young, and music as well, but he never learned an instrument. I give my dad the upmost respect and love. I can only imagine what it was like coming to this country. He had no choice. He had to climb the corporate ladder and find a stable job. He met my mom and had a family pretty quickly. He didn’t have a college education. He had to provide for us. He sacrificed so much for me and my brother. For me to say, ‘I’m going to go do art’ was scary for him.”

As his dad saw Bourzgui working and making money from his chosen career he “got more and more on board. He came to all my shows.” Bourzgui laughed. “Now he has the ‘Tommy’ logo as his lockscreen. He was at the first preview performance and our opening night. It’s been a great journey.”


“It’s been a wonderful re-acceptance of being Muslim”

Bourzgui has also made his own complex cultural journey. “I grew up, raised Muslim,” he said. “We kept a lot of cultural things, like doing Ramadan every year, and we spoke in Arabic—little phrases, I didn’t learn it completely. ‘Good morning,’ ‘good night,’ ‘thank you, ‘how are you.’ We visited Morocco, we have tons of family there, we’re citizens there. Being Muslim was always a little part of my life. But growing up in a post 9/11 world, being Muslim was definitely something I hid for a few years. I didn’t understand it. It wasn’t something I was proud of.

“The few times we learned about religion in elementary school or middle school, I’d say, ‘I’m Muslim.’ And kids wouldn’t understand. There was such a terrible lack of education, and also the news and media in general painted such a terrible picture of Islam and Arab Americans when I was growing up—kids equated the word ‘Muslim’ with terrorists.

“When kids heard I was Muslim it’s hard to call what they did to me ‘bullying’ because it came from a place of a state of ignorance. They were being honest. They’d say, ‘Oh wait, that means you’re a terrorist, your dad’s a terrorist.’ So, it was something I very quickly hid.”

Bourzgui realizes he was “privileged in the aspect my dad was from Morocco, my mom was from here, so I have a certain mixed look and can pretend not to be of a certain culture. I lived with that, but I always felt I was hiding something about myself. As I got older things got better.”

Performing in two shows had a huge impact. Playing a character in the touring production of The Band’s Visit meant playing a character “in my culture, playing Arabic music, in a cast of Arab and Jewish people. It was wonderful. I had some cast mates who spoke Arabic, and who fasted with me during Ramadan.”

In Chicago, Bourzgui starred in another play, Layalina (which means “Our Nights” in Arabic) about an Iraqi family that emigrates to America.

“In those two shows I was surrounded by people from my culture,” Bourzgui said. “I didn’t have that growing up. In Pittsfield, it was just me, my dad, and brother, and some cousins. We didn’t have a community. So, all of a sudden these past few years, I have met Arab actors and have circles of friends of people my age from the same culture. It’s been such a wonderful re-acceptance of being Muslim—of being proud of it, trying to learn Arabic, bake cookies, learn recipes, and actively listen to Moroccan music. For something I pushed away for so long, it’s been wonderful. It’s a big part of me—half of me—and I haven’t lived with it for most of my life, so it feels like a fulfillment. It’s been wonderful.”

Bourzgui is passionate about “telling stories with all kinds of cultures, so to be able to be Arab American, to do both those shows playing characters from our culture and telling stories about humanity, was so important. It’s about humanization. For years, and still now, there has been a dehumanization of my culture, and all we can do as artists is tell stories. When I see any show, it always reminds me of my own humanity. With both those shows we were able to tell specific, beautiful stories about Arabs being humans living beautiful, complicated lives.”

For Bourzgui, the great thing about playing the lead in Tommy, in this respect, is that it has nothing to do with race. “It’s just really cool being Arab American, having the name ‘Ali,’ and playing a huge pop culture character—that in itself is humanizing. When I was a kid, struggling, feeling alone in a culture, almost ashamed—if I had seen an Arab in a huge leading role like this in a positive, public light, and his name had been ‘Ali’ that would have made me feel proud and uplifted. It would have made me feel not necessarily so alone. I hope I can be that for other kids too.”

Of Broadway’s ongoing mission to be more diverse on stage and off, Bourzgui said: “There’s definitely more to be done, but I think we’re on a good path. For such a long time the only stories told about people of color was about their trauma. It’s lovely to see shows pop up by new writers about joy, or other themes. For instance, if a show was about Arabs, it showed us as products of war. This can be true for many of us, but the wonderful thing about Layalina, was that yes we realized that aspect, but the show was also a family drama. Likewise, it’s great to see plays like Douglas Lyons’ Chicken & Biscuits on Broadway which center Black joy. Not every show has to be about trauma.”

Bourzgui laughed. “OK, with Tommy, I’m doing a show about trauma right now, but we should celebrate people for living their lives. It’s also important to have more directors and producers of color behind the table who understand our stories. I’m excited to see how it all progresses.”


“It would be wild to be nominated for a Tony so fast”

One of Bourzgui’s favorite things about performing in different shows is the variety—the first two weeks of doing Tommy he felt “weird, while I was trying to grasp its story and tone. I was asking myself, ‘How do I fit myself in here? How do I master its style?’ It’s so surreal and abstract, and yet with moments of complete realism. You have to find a through-way. The key that really helped me was looking at videos of classic rock performances, like Mick Jagger who comes to the front of stage when a guitar solo begins and just makes the craziest facial expressions. You can’t help but watch it.

“Tina Turner also performs everything. Roger (Daltrey) swings the microphone around. The Who’s first concept album (A Quick One) was about a wife cheating on her husband with a railway worker. I love that thing about classic rock is groups like The Who choosing something so obscure and going 100 percent with it. You can’t help but watch and fall in love with it. The creators are so confident in it.”

After Tommy, Bourzgui hopes to find roles in film and television, and balance musical and dramatic stage roles. He is inspired by directors including Hayao Miyazaki, Stanley Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favorite films of all time”), Mike Mills, and Poor Things’ Yórgos Lánthimos, whose films are as dedicatedly fun and wacky as the rock opera he is currently starring in. On stage he would love to play Edmund in King Lear, or any Shakespearean villain: “Shakespeare always gives a reason why they’re doing the insanely terrible things they do. It’s always great for an actor to be able to lean into that.”

Away from work, Bourzgui, who has a partner he declines to discuss, relaxes by listening to music, writing songs himself, and playing the guitar. He practices yoga. Next comes the possibility of a Tony Award nomination (set to be announced April 30).

“I would obviously be honored to be among those nominated,” Bourzgui said. “It would be a wild thing to happen so fast. This is a dream for most actors. I have to grasp that large pressure and understand it, and see what happens. It’s very exciting.” If it does happen, the guy listening to music under a baseball cap on the subway to East Harlem that night might just be smiling a little more widely than usual.