Remembering Thommie Walsh

Ethical human beings who pass through your life deserve to be remembered, and it is in your interest to  give them that lasting gift. Sometimes they are like strings tied around your finger (does anyone still do that?) reminding you to do the right thing.

Thommie Walsh was like that for me today.

March 15 is his birthday, you see—I only knew that because the man who introduced us almost 20 years ago tagged me on a Facebook post.  Maybe you remember Thommie, who died in 2007, too. Here’s part of that post, by my friend and Thommie’s, playwright, author, and theater historian Chip Defaa:

He was an original member of the cast of “A Chorus Line”–which was THE musical of that era. That show was created, in unique fashion, from taped comments about their lives by actual performers. Thommie was one of that original group. And the character he originated in “A Chorus Line,” “Bobby,” was based on him. As an actor, Thommie was saying on stage lines that rang true because they were true; he was saying things (as “Bobby”) he’d been saying before anyone thought up the idea of doing “A Chorus Line.”

He moved into choreographing and directing. He was ALWAYS working–Broadway, Off-Broadway, TV commercials, you name it. He staged friends’ cabaret shows–most notably the cabaret show of Tony Award-winner Donna McKechnie, his former castmate in “A Chorus Line” and a lifelong friend. She did that show, to great acclaim, for years afterwards in many venues. (I was delighted to be an invited guest at the performance that was taped for an album.) He also worked on the cabaret and concert shows of Chita Rivera and Joel Grey. Broadway royalty.

Among Broadway and Off-Broadway shows Thommie worked on, as a director and/or choreographer, were: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” “Nine,” “My One and Only,” and “My Favorite Year.”

Thommie won two Tony Awards for choreography: that’s how I knew his name when Chip told me that he was going to direct “Danny and Sylvia,” the two-person musical about Danny Kaye and his wife Sylvia Fine I had originally developed for my theater company, as part of a New York City, Off-Broadway festival. Both cast members were friends, so I got periodic updates on how rehearsals were going. Thommie, like any good director, was making changes, adding his feel for the characters and material as he went along. Continue reading

An Act Of Kindness, Danny Kaye And Me : An Ethics Case Study

Brian Childers

This isn’t a Christmas tale exactly, but it is a deeply personal one that will always make a big difference in how I make decisions in my life. It is episode that taught me, once and for all, that when you do the right thing, the amount of good that can come from it is unpredictable and sometimes unimaginable.

Maybe it will inspire you too.

In 2001, my friend Bob McElwaine handed me a script and a CD of a musical he had been working on about his long-time friends and clients, entertainer Danny Kaye and his wife, song writer Sylvia Fine. Bob was in his 70s, retired, a former Hollywood publicist and later an association executive who had taken up writing musicals with his childhood buddy, legendary movie score bassist Bob Bain (that’s Bain you hear playing the famous bass instrumental on the “Bonanza” theme, and the melody line in “The Munsters” intro too.)

McElwaine knew I was a long-time Danny Kaye admirer. He had been a wealth of information for me about Kaye when I was directing “Lady in the Dark,” the Broadway show that had made Danny a star in 1941, for the American Century Theater years before. One day, Bob asked me, as a favor, if I would agree to workshop the new piece, direct it, and see how it turned out in front of an audience.

I was not enthusiastic about the project, not at all. I had my ethics business as well as the theater to oversee; I had just finished directing a show, requiring me to be out of the house every weekday night and all day Saturday, and I thought the piece itself was too old-fashioned and formulaic to work. Mostly, however, I didn’t see how anyone could be a credible Danny Kaye, since Kaye was a unique performer—he wasn’t exactly a comedian, or a singer, or a dancer, yet  all of these and more—that has never had a close equivalent since. I was trying to find a way to turn Bob down nicely when I watched a performance of the show I had just gotten up and running. A young man named Brian Childers who was only in his second professional role played the romantic lead, and that night, for some reason, he handled a scene differently than I had ever seen him do it before—and for maybe three seconds, probably because Bob had just put the late performer’s image in my short term memory, reminded me of Danny Kaye.

After the performance I asked Brian if he would be interested in playing Kaye in this new musical, and he enthusiastically agreed, saying he was a huge Danny Kaye fan. (Later I learned that he barely knew who he was). Continue reading