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6 takeaways from the 2023 Tony Awards

J. Harrison Ghee accepts the award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for "Some Like It Hot" onstage during The 76th Annual Tony Awards at United Palace Theater on June 11, 2023 in New York City.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for Tony Awards Pro
J. Harrison Ghee accepts the award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for "Some Like It Hot" onstage during The 76th Annual Tony Awards at United Palace Theater on June 11, 2023 in New York City.

NEW YORK — This was an unusual year for the 76th Annual Tony Awards. It was almost canceled because of the Writers Guild of America strike. There was no script. It was held for the first time at the United Palace, an old, extravagant movie theater in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, where a previous Tony-winning musical was set — and which seemed to be sweltering. ("It's so hot in there," Sean Hayes said, when he came into the media room after winning Best Actor for Leading Role in a Play for Goodnight, Oscar.) There was no big, sweeping winner. And yet, it was a surprisingly entertaining show.

Let's get to it. If you just want the list of major winners, they're here. But these are the six things that struck me as I watched the Tony Awards Sunday night:

1. History was made. Alex Newell, in a sparkling gold dress, won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for their role in Shucked. They were the first nonbinary actor to win a Tony.

"I have wanted this my entire life," they said. "Thank you for seeing me, Broadway. I should not be up here as a queer, nonbinary, fat, Black little baby from Massachusetts."

And then, not long after, J. Harrison Ghee became the second actor to win, for Best Leading Actor for their role as a jazz musician in Some Like It Hot. They came out as nonbinary just over a year ago and in the media room, surrounded by a standing room-only crowd of journalists, they said it was important for others to live as their authentic selves.

"You may think you're afraid — afraid of what? Of whose opinion? If it brings you joy, do it," they said.

2. If you need someone to improviseyou can find them on Broadway. The producers of the Tony Awards made a deal with the Writers Guild of America, currently on strike: the WGA would not picket, and the Tonys would go on without a script, because those broadcast scripts are usually written by members of the WGA.

The show started with host Ariana DeBose flipping through a binder that said "script," but was filled with blank pages. What followed was an innovative dance montage, with DeBose leading an ensemble that twirled and strutted throughout the gilded, ornate United Palace.

As DeBose said, "Every presenter is unscripted — we're making it up as we go along." She added: "So to anyone who may have thought that last year was a bit unhinged, to them, I say, darlings, buckle up."

3. Two plays about antisemitism won big. Parade, a revival of a 1998 musical about the trial, imprisonment and 1915 lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia starring Ben Platt, and Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard's chilling drama about the Nazis' effect on one large Viennese family, both won their categories.

In the media room, multiple people made a point of saying that those shows are resonating now because of increased open hatred against minority groups. "We are seeing a lot of those tiny seemingly little inconsequential things [that happen in the play] happening right now," said Brandon Uranowitz, who won a Tony for Best Featured Actor for Leopoldstadt. "It's a clarion call to pay attention to those seemingly inconsequential things that accumulate and lead to mass devastation."

4. Winners showed a lot of support for the WGA strike. Over and over, on stage and in the media room, winners said that they supported the striking writers, even though it left the awards without a script.

Miriam Silverman, who won for featured actress in the Lorraine Hansberry play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, said, "We are a staunchly pro-union household. And I have to say my parents raised me to believe in the power of labor and workers being compensated and treated fairly. And we stand with the WGA in solidarity."

5. Identities were celebrated. This was a year when winners were reclaiming their power and urged the audience to do it, too. Michael Arden, who won for his direction of Parade, was bleeped by CBS when he used a slur for gay men: "Growing up, I was called the f-word more times than I can remember, and now all I can say is that I'm a f**** with a Tony." He also said, "When you hide in shame you are uncounted."

6. No script means ... a swift show. Performances and well-produced videos filled the space where chit-chat and comedic bits usually go, and the celebrity presenters just ad-libbed. There were no cringe-producing moments, no dragging scenes trying to make the audience laugh. Instead, the show was warm and welcoming, like a bear hug. Even the big winner was satisfying: though nothing swept many categories like in previous years, the funny, touching Kimberly Akimbo took home best musical and four other awards. But best of all ... the show ended on time. And when's the last time you remember an award show doing that?

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Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.