Inside the Tony Awards: No script, but plenty of song, dance, high spirits and history
Jun 12, 2023, 4:06 AM | Updated: 11:16 am
NEW YORK (AP) — No script? No problem!
There was plenty of uncertainty in the run-up to 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 just 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, Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee, made history by winning their respective acting categories.
The ceremony also touched on the specter of antisemitism in very different places: World War II Europe, with 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:
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 uptown in Washington Heights, in the ornate, gilded United Palace, a former movie theater filled with chandeliers and carpets and majestic columns.
“Thank you for coming uptown — never in my wildest dreams,” quipped 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.
Oscar winner and Broadway luminary for the second year running, immediately addressed the elephant in the room. Speaking to the audience before the pre-show 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.
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”: “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 to touring productions around the country.
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, also joked that the thing he wanted most in life was to repay his parents for the sacrifices they made — only he couldn’t, because he works in the theater.
“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 lynched in 1915 in Georgia. In his acceptance speech for best director, Michael Arden echoed the play’s somber themes: “We must battle this. It is so, so important, or else we are doomed to repeat the horrors of our history.”
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.
It was an emotional moment when Alex Newell of “Shucked” became the first out nonbinary person to win an acting Tony, taking the prize for best featured actor in a musical. Newell, also known for “The Glee Project” and “Glee,” 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,” they said. “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.
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. They play a male musician on the run who disguises as a woman in what becomes a voyage of discovery about gender (the movie role involved disguise, but no discovery). Accepting the award, 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.
Not to mix show metaphors or anything, but Lea Michele was not about to throw away her shot. The “Funny Girl” lead was not eligible for a Tony because she didn’t originate the role last year (that would be Michele replaced in a matter of months).
But the former “Glee” star, who has turned around the fortunes of the revival, is seen by many as the ultimate Fanny Brice, and her gorgeously belted rendition of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” — 13 years after she first performed it at the Tonys — definitely did not disappoint.
Judging from faces in the crowd, neither did Neil Diamond — actually Will Swenson, who plays Diamond in the musical “A Beautiful Noise” (not nominated but currently playing). After the audience was warned during a commercial break to keep the aisles clear for a big moment, Swenson came onstage crooning “Sweet Caroline,” soon accompanied by dancers dressed in sparkly gold, filling the aisles. Among those seen singing happily along: Sara Bareilles, Jessica Chastain, Melissa Etheridge, Miranda, and countless others shouting out the lyrics: “So good! So good!”
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, where 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.”
“Our industry is shifting forward! We are erasing labels and boundaries and limits,” Ghee said when asked their main takeaway of the night. 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.
For more on the 2023 Tony Awards, visit https://apnews.com/hub/tony-awards