There was plenty of uncertainty in the run-up to this year’s Tony Awards, which at one point seemed unlikely to happen at all due to the ongoing Hollywood writer’s strike.
But the ceremony went off without a hitch on Sunday night. The event was scriptless, to honor a compromise with striking writers, but chock full of high-spirited Broadway performances drawing raucous cheers from an audience clearly thrilled to be there at all.
It was a night of triumph for the small-scale but huge-hearted musical “Kimberly Akimbo,” about a teenager with a rare aging disease, but also a night notable for inclusion: Two nonbinary performers made history by winning their acting categories.
The ceremony also touched on the specter of anti-Semitism in very different places: World War II Europe, with best play winner “Leopoldstadt,” and early 20th-century America, with “Parade,” winner for best musical revival.
In the end, the lack of scripted banter didn’t much dampen the proceedings, and little wonder: Broadway folks are trained in improv. And of course there was more room for singing and dancing — including from current shows not in competition — and nobody was complaining about that.
Oh, and the show ended right on time.
Oscars, are you listening?
Some key moments of the night:
BROADWAY HEADS UPTOWN
It wasn’t just the writers strike that made for a different evening. The venue was new, too. It was on Broadway, yes, but miles from the theater district. The ceremony took place, for the first time, uptown in Washington Heights, in the ornate, gilded United Palace, an extravagantly decorated former movie theater filled with chandeliers and carpets and majestic columns. “Thank you for coming uptown — never in my wildest dreams,” quipped Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has helped bring events to the venue in the neighborhood where he set his “In the Heights.” The afterparty was held in tents outside the building instead of the usual festivities in the fancy food halls of the Plaza Hotel near Central Park.
A BLANK PAGE BUT A FULL NIGHT
Oscar winner and Broadway luminary Ariana DeBose, hosting for the second year running, immediately addressed the elephant in the room. Speaking to the audience before the telecast began, she explained nothing would be scripted and told winners the only words they’d see on Teleprompters would be “wrap up please.” When the main telecast began, she appeared on camera reading a Tony script, but the pages were blank. So instead of words, DeBose and others spoke with their dance moves, doing a brassy number in the theater’s grand lobby, staircases and aisles, complete with gravity-defying leaps. Afterward, DeBose warned anyone who may have thought last year was “unhinged” to “Buckle up!” DeBose, who performed in the original cast of “Hamilton” and won an Oscar for “West Side Story,” also passionately explained why the Tonys are so crucial to the economic survival of Broadway, and also to touring productions around the country.
A TIMELY REMINDER OF ANTISEMITISM IN EUROPE
An early award brought a sobering reminder of the horrors of antisemitism. Brandon Uranowitz of “Leopoldstadt,” Tom Stoppard’s sweeping play about a Jewish family in Vienna, thanked the celebrated playwright “for writing a play about Jewish identity and antisemitism and the false promise of assimilation,” and noted his ancestors, “many of whom did not make it out of Poland, also thank you.” Uranowitz, who won for featured actor in a play, added a humorous note that the thing he wanted most in life was to repay his parents for the sacrifices they made for him — only he couldn’t, because he works in the theater.
AND IN AMERICA
“Leopoldstadt” went on to win best play, while best musical revival went to another searing work about antisemitism: “Parade,” starring Ben Platt as Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in 1915 in Georgia. In his acceptance speech for best director, Michael Arden evoked the play’s somber themes, noting, “We must battle this. It is so, so important, or else we are doomed to repeat the horrors of our history.” But he added his own story of how, growing up, he often had been called the “F-word,” referring to a homophobic slur. He then earned some of the night’s loudest cheers when he triumphantly reclaimed the slur while pointing out that he now had a Tony.
“I SHOULD NOT BE UP HERE”
It was an emotional moment when Alex Newell of “Shucked” became the first out nonbinary actor to win a Tony, taking the prize for best featured actor in a musical. Newell, also known for “The Glee Project,” thanked close family for their love and support and then addressed the outside world: “Thank you for seeing me, Broadway. I should not be up here as a queer, nonbinary, fat, Black, little baby from Massachusetts. And to anyone that thinks that they can’t do it, I’m going to look you dead in your face and tell you that you can do anything you put your mind to.” Like the Oscars, the Tonys have only gendered categories for performers.
“THIS IS FOR YOU”
J. Harrison Ghee was the second nonbinary actor of the night to make history, winning best actor in a musical for their role in “Some Like It Hot,” based on the classic 1959 film, as a male musician fleeing the mob disguised as a woman in what becomes a voyage of discovery about gender. (The movie role involved disguise, but no discovery.) Ghee said they had been raised to use their gifts not for themselves, but to help others. “For every trans, non gender-conforming, nonbinary human who ever was told you couldn’t be seen, this is for you,” Ghee said, tapping the Tony for emphasis.
LEA MICHELE GETS HER TONY MOMENT
Not to mix show metaphors or anything, but Lea Michele was not about to throw away her shot. The “Funny Girl” star was not eligible for a Tony for that show because she didn’t originate the role. But Michele, who has turned around the fortunes of the 2022 production, is seen by many as the ultimate Fanny Brice, and her gorgeously belted rendition of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” — actually the second time she performed it at the Tonys, the first in 2010 — definitely did not disappoint.
Most Tony attendees spent a good five hours in the United Palace, and the room got pretty warm. So folks were happy to step outside to the afterparty. Guests munched on ceviche, mangoes on sticks and mini-Cuban sandwiches, and sipped specially designed cocktails. Ghee was a clear star of the party, towering over most guests — literally and figuratively — as they clutched their Tony and accepted well wishes or agreed to selfies. Ghee also chatted with last year’s winner of the same award, Myles Frost, who played Michael Jackson in “MJ.” Asked their main takeaway of the night, Ghee replied, “Our industry is shifting forward! We are erasing labels and boundaries and limits.” The actor wore a bright blue custom ensemble by Bronx designer Jerome LaMaar, with a choker of glistening jewels. “When you’re getting it custom made, you can really do something,” they quipped.
BC-US–Tony Awards-Moments, 2nd Ld-Writethru
Jun 12, 2023 7:50 AM – 1221 words
Eds: CORRECTS: Fixes style on some instances of “nonbinary.” UPDATES: With AP Photos.
Cover Photo: Ariana DeBose presents the award for best musical at the 76th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 11, 2023, at the United Palace theater in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)