For Tommy McDowell, March 12, 2021 marked one year. One year since he’d been on a Broadway tour stage. One year since he’d been amongst the camaraderie of fellow performers. One year since he’d known his friends in the industry were working. One year since he’d experienced the dynamics you can only find in live theatre.
“When you are seeing a live show, the actors and the audience are so invested I feel like you almost start breathing together,” Tommy shared with us from the other side of Zoom call earlier this year. “You are feeling these things together. There’s something about the fact that you have that moment and then it’s gone. It’s an experience that really sticks with you, and it can change your mind and heart about things.”
For the past 15 years Tommy toured the country with productions like American Idiot and Roundabout Theatre Company’s iconic revival of Cabaret. With New York City as his home base, he’d performed on cruise ships bound for Tahiti and Alaska, played a Duck Dynasty role in Las Vegas and reprised his Cabaret roles in a coastal town in Maine. Most recently he’d landed the role of Peter in the 50th Anniversary Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar when a new virus that had hardly been on his radar shut down a show in Cleveland—and then the whole tour.
“I’ll never forget we were sitting around in a company meeting, and they said there’s this virus that’s going around and it affects your lungs,” Tommy recalls. “We were going to be careful and not sign autographs at the stage door and wash our hands and sanitize. And then the mayor of Cleveland came on TV and said they’d limit gatherings of 500 or more, and that’s when we knew we were getting the rug pulled from under us. And we all assumed that it wouldn’t last more than a couple of months.”
That’s also how Tommy found himself back in Vestavia Hills for more than just a few days since his years growing up and studying vocal performance at Birmingham-Southern College.
“It’s been nice in a way,” he told us. “I’ll get Timehop alerts on my phone, and I’ll pull up pictures from the past 11 years. There are days where I say, ‘I did all this in one day?’ You are constantly running around, and it does wear you thin. So it’s been nice to relax here and focus on family and friends and myself rather than do everything I can just to stay afloat.”
Tommy also counts himself fortunate knowing that he has a job to go back to when theatre starts back up again. Jesus Christ Superstar is tentatively scheduled to go back on tour in the fall of 2021, and in the meantime he’s taken on a new skillset learning to tune pianos while living in the same house he’d lived in when in for his first musical theater performance of Fiddler on the Roof at Vestavia Hills High School. In those years, though, he’d mostly been focused on music itself: voice lessons, choral performances, playing trumpet in the school band, and guitar and piano too.
It was ties to his high school friends that drew him into the music world professionally one step at a time though. After graduating from college, his best friend from Vestavia Hills, Ahmad Farzad, who had gone to Berklee College of Music, invited Tommy to move to Boston to play bass in his band. A couple of years after that another Vestavia Hills friend Melissa Morgan helped him get a job singing at Busch Gardens in Virginia in a show called Holiday in Roma in the Italy section of the park. It was at Busch Gardens that Tommy now says that he could see how people could make a living in the arts for the first time. By 2008 he’d hit the ground running with auditions in New York.
First came two tours of children’s productions, playing Flat Stanley and then Snail in A Year with Frog and Toad, which led to his most challenging role to date as a “swing” in a national tour of American Idiot. “What’s a swing?” you might be wondering. We had the same question. “The swing has to be ready to cover all the ensemble tracks (if they were out of the show or got called up to serve in their understudy role for a principal actor),” Tommy explains, “so you have to know their staging/blocking, their specific choreography and their vocal track at any given moment. I had copious notes for every track, and I had to go on for each male ensemble track at some point. It was baptism by fire. They say being a swing is the hardest job on Broadway, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”
Right after that he got to work on a production called LMNOP with Rebecca Luker, a Broadway actress who also called Birmingham home and who tragically passed away from ALS complications in December 2020. “Watching her in that rehearsal process was a master class,” Tommy recalls. “She had such a depth of emotion, and she was so kind and giving even outside of the work.”
And then after that production, nothing. Tommy didn’t book a job for three years, save a couple of new musical readings at the Eugene O’Neill Musical Theatre Conference—totaling about four weeks worth of work. After that long period of waiting came a role in The Duck Commander Musical in Las Vegas that was based on the TV show Duck Dynasty, but it ended four weeks into its run due to low ticket sales. (The silver lining there was that Willie Robertson told Tommy, who played Willie’s brother Jase, “I was watching you up there and didn’t know if I was watching my own brother Jase or you.”) Needless to say, talking to an actor about the play by play of their career shows you how resilient they have to be, and how better prepared for a pandemic they were after hearing “no” time and time again as they try to book jobs.
But still, as he awaits the return of post-pandemic theatre, Tommy says he misses not only the camaraderie of each cast member bringing something different to life on stage and off with their personalities and quirks but also seeing his friends perform. He has stacks upon stacks of playbills in his New York apartment from shows he’s been to over the years, including roles his closest friend from the American Idiot tour Kelvin Moon Loh has played in The King and I, SpongeBob and Beetlejuice.
Tommy’s theatre friends who aren’t in New York right now are now scattered across the country, many of them living with their parents. One friend who had been in Wicked when everything shut down started a music therapy degree. One of his castmates from Jesus Christ Superstar moved to Portland, Oregon, just because he’d always wanted to live there. “It’s difficult, but we’ll make it through,” Tommy notes. “We are all pretty resilient.”
And it’s that resilience that will no doubt carry him until he picks up his guitar on stage as Peter again.
The first time Tommy saw this production of Jesus Christ Superstar was in London when a friend of his from American Idiot was playing Jesus. “I was blown away by the show. I was in tears,” he recalls. “They stayed true to the brown album that was released in 1970, and I really respected that. I loved how modern yet muted the costumes and set were.”
And so when he auditioned for the role of Peter in 2019, it felt like a good fit in more ways than one. “He’s this subdued character,” Tommy says. “He’s not lavish. He’s a loyal follower of Jesus except for that one time when he’s like, ‘I don’t know that guy.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been afforded the opportunity to play a part that was as well-suited to my personal abilities as this.”
And come this fall—or sometime hopefully not too long after that—that’s just what Tommy will be doing again.
A Career Snapshot
IMD Tommy McDowell, and here’s the roles you’ll find:
- Jesus Christ Superstar (50th Anniversary Tour): Peter
- Cabaret: Max, Herman
- American Idiot: Swing
- The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley: Flat Stanley
- A Year with Frog and Toad: Snail
- Jersey Boys: Nick Massi
- The Duck Commander Musical: Jase
- Once: Earmon/Guitar, Mandolin, Piano
- Urinetown: Bobby Strong
- Hairspray: Link Larkin
- Grey Gardens: Joe Kennedy Jr./Jerry
- The Who’s Tommy: Tommy
- Joseph & The Technicolor Dreamcoat: Rueben