Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Remembering Thommie Walsh
(6/25/2007)

Thommie Walsh died of lymphoma this week; he was only 56. You may not remember him unless you are a Broadway musical buff, but he was a respected and successful author, actor, dancer, choreographer and director, one of the original cast members of "A Chorus Line" and a Tony winner (along with his frequent and more famous collaborator, Tommie Tune) for the musical "My One and Only."

I will always remember Thommie Walsh for something else: a display of ethical instincts that completely surprised me, because it was so alien to his world---and, sporadically, mine---the world of show business.

Several years ago I directed the first production of a little musical called "Danny and Sylvia," about the relationship between lyricist Sylvia Fine and performer Danny Kaye. Right from the start it was a runaway hit, and the limited-run production in Bethesda, Maryland became another in Arlington, Virginia, then another in Rockville, and yet another in Alexandria. Suddenly we had an offer to do the show for a couple of weeks in a small theater in Manhattan's Times Square; not Broadway, but awfully close.

My work with ProEthics made staging and rehearsing the new production and new cast impossible for me, but the New York producer engaged Thommie for the task, a real coup for the show. It is always wrenching to hand over one's artistic work to another artist for renovation; in this case, it was intimidating. I do my directing in the ramshackle setting of small, broke, mostly anonymous regional theaters. Thommie Walsh was big time all the way, and I had nightmares that he would feel that the show handed over to him was the amateurish work of an earnest hack.

I made it to New York to see the finished production mid-run, and was both gratified and surprised at how little of the original production Thommie had changed, though his personal style was certainly in evidence. But what really shocked me was after the performance, when I encountered Tony-winner, Broadway star Thommie Walsh pacing fretfully outside the theater. He rushed up to me, looking both anxious and fearful, and blurted out, "Please, be honest! What did you think?" I told him that, of course I thought the production was terrific and that he had done a great job. Thommie gave me a hug and said, "God, I am so relieved! I was terrified that you would be mad at me for changing some of your staging! The most important thing for me was that you liked what I did. Thank you."

And, actor that Thommie was, I could tell that he was sincere.

This was a shining example of the ethical value of respect that I never dreamed I would see…not in the world of professional theater, where egos run amuck and complimenting the work of a colleague is often seen as personal sacrifice. I barely knew Thommie Walsh, and many with his credentials and reputation would have treated a part-time professional director like me with condescension or worse. Instead, he treated me as a colleague and peer, and not only made me feel that he cared about getting my respect, he actually did care. Respect gets facile lip-service in our culture; too often, what we call "respect" is simply the good manners of not letting people we don't respect at all know that we think we're superior to them. Thommie Walsh showed me how humility, empathy, kindness and caring were essential elements of true respect, the kind that can't be faked or manufactured. Later, at a cast party, I talked to him about it. "This is a business filled with self-centered, mean-spirited, miserable human beings," he said. "A while back, I realized that I was turning into one of them. I decided that I wouldn't let that happen."

Thommie Walsh entertained thousands of people with his performing and artistic talents, and he earned a permanent place in musical theater history. But I will remember him as the Broadway star who demonstrated the power of genuine respect to bind strangers together, and make all of us feel that we matter.

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