The 76th Tony Awards lived up to the theater’s famous old adage, “the show must go on.”
May 2, the day the Tony Award nominations were announced, was the same day that the members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike. Writers across all television—streaming and network, alike—put down their pens in demand of fair pay. For the Tony Awards, this meant anything that was normally written by WGA members, like the opening musical number or presenter banter, was not permitted. Though the Tony Awards Productions applied for a waiver to be exempt from the strike, meaning the broadcast could proceed as planned without being disrupted by the strike, the WGA declined the proposal. Both parties came to an agreement that the show could go on, but with one adjustment—there could be no script written by any WGA members.
Theater people are absolutely used to saying, “Yes and,” so they rolled up their sleeves and tightened their LaDucas to make the best of an unscripted show. Following the tradition established with the 2020 ceremony, the award show was split up into two parts. During “Act One,” the first section which aired on PlutoTV from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m., the design, creative, and special awards were given out. The full broadcast on CBS revealed the rest of the award winners and offered musical performances from all of the Tony Award-nominated musicals, plus a special performance from Funny Girland 2022 Tony Award winner Joaquina Kalukango. This was also a unique year as it was held uptown at the United Palace Theatre in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.
Here are the highlights from the 2023 Tony Awards.
When composer, drummer, and arranger Bryan Carter won the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations with Charlie Rosen for Some Like It Hot, his time at the mic included a thank you to “the entire aristocracy of Black American music.” With the musical’s 17-piece orchestra sonically honoring the big band sound of the mid-century, Carter referenced jazz legend Duke Ellington being denied the Pulitzer Prize of Music in 1965. The Pulitzer board decided to not give out the award that year despite Pulitzer juries wanting to give Ellington a special citation for his entire body of work.
Two-time Tony Award winner Beowulf Boritt dedicated part of his acceptance speech for Scenic Design of a Musical to address the inequity for women in the country and in the industry. Giving a specific shout out to the director and producer of New York, New York—Susan Stroman and Sonia Friedman—he said, “We must remember all women.”
There’s no denying that composer John Kander is a living legend of musical theater. At 96 years old, he strutted out with a smile on his face to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. One half of the famous songwriting duo, Kander and Ebb, Kander is responsible for the catchy melodies for dozens of musicals over the last six decades, including Cabaret, Chicago, and The Scottsboro Boys. His sustainability in the industry was noted in his pre-entrance video package, bestowing him with the title of “longest-working Broadway composer.” In his speech, with Lin-Manuel Miranda looking on lovingly like the true theater kid he is, Kander gave three major thank-yous: “I’m very grateful to my parents, who somehow urged me to consider the possibility of happiness; Albert Stevenson, my home and has been for 46 years; and last, but certainly not least, I’m grateful to music, which invaded me early on—from the time I was a baby—and has stayed my friend through my entire life and has promised to stick with me ‘til end.”
Tony Award nominee, The Gilded Age star, and Carnegie Mellon University alum Denée Benton presented the Excellence in Theatre Education Award from the Tony Awards and CMU to Jason Zembuch Young from South Plantation High School in Plantation, Florida. After a reference to home state Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis as the “Grand Wizard” that received roaring applause from the audience, she shared the contributions of recipient Jason Zembuch Young. When Young received his award during “Act One,” he signed his speech as he spoke. As he reflected on his time as a teacher and his inspirational students, he said, “When we focus on what people can do rather than what they can’t, the possibilities are endless.”
Tony Award-winning director Jerry Mitchell was the recipient of the 2023 Isabelle Stevenson Award, which recognizes philanthropic efforts in the community. He gave a heartfelt and powerful speech about his creation of Broadway Bares in 1991 as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. He tearfully referenced how he lost eight friends from college before he reached the age of 30, a harsh reality that propelled him to gather a group of friends to dance and strip on the bar of NYC’s Splash as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. He left with “a bag soaking in beer and sweat that had $8,000 in it.” Over the 30 years since, the striptease spectacular has raised $25 million.
The opening number is always highly anticipated when it comes to the Tony Awards, and many were wondering what exactly would happen without a WGA member-written song. In a stunning response to no script, the “dance-forward, music-forward” opening began with a binder titled “Tony Awards Script” as the first frame. After host Ariana DeBose flipped it open to reveal a blank page, she danced her way through the United Palace Theatre, even flying down staircases into the arms of a fellow dancer. With musical homages to famous songs such as “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “On Broadway” thanks to an arrangement from Benjamin Rauhala and Macy Schmidt, the Tony Awards truly kicked off with stage performers doing what they do best—communicating through music and dance.
Bonnie Milligan’s performance in Kimberly Akimbo is laugh-out-loud funny, but her moving acceptance speech for her win as Best Featured Actress in a Musical showed the audience her earnest side. Acknowledging that the Tony Awards is televised and seen across the country, she said, “This is what is important because this is what’s going to America: I want to tell everybody that doesn’t maybe look like the world is telling you you should look like; whether you’re not pretty enough, you’re not thin enough, your identity isn’t right, who you love isn’t right—it doesn’t matter, because guess what? It’s right and you belong somewhere.”
“Your queerness is what makes you beautiful,” said newly minted Tony Award winner Michael Arden from the stage during his acceptance speech for Best Direction of a Musical. The Paradedirector spoke against the anti-Semitism that plagues America, saying, “We must come together, we must battle this. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the horrors of our history.” He referenced his own experience with homophobia, pointing to how he was bullied when he was younger. He used the opportunity to reclaim a slur: “I was called the f-word more times than I can remember, and all I can say is now I’m a f-ggot with a Tony Award.”
In tribute to Lifetime Achievement Award recipient John Kander and Joel Grey, DeBose and “Act One” co-host Julianne Hough put on chic Chicago outfits and performed a rendition of Hot Honey Rag. Their arms swished, their hips swayed, and their hair whipped them across the stage in the high-octane choreography by Karla Puno Garcia. Could they be a future Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly pairing?
Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee’s Tony Award nominations already made history as the first nonbinary actors to ever be nominated. They both further made history by winning their respective Tony Awards: Best Featured Actor in a Musical and Best Lead Actor in a Musical. Both gave nods in their acceptance speeches about what it meant to be a milestone of representation. Newell stated in their speech, “I should not be up here, as a queer, non-binary, fat, Black little baby from Massachusetts. To anyone who thinks they can’t do it: you can do anything you put your mind to.”
In Ghee’s speech, a special dedication was made. “For every trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming human who ever was told you couldn’t be, you couldn’t be seen, this is for you.”
Anna Uzele brought the house down during her New York, New York performance. Singing the titular anthem against a skyline backdrop featuring the Empire State Building, she put her own stamp on it, just like Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra before her. Flanked by the company dancing and accompanied by Tony Award nominee Colton Ryan on the piano and saxophone, Angela Sigala on bongos, Jesse Clay III on trumpet, and the musical’s orchestra, Uzele gave an exhilarating ode to the beloved city that Broadway calls home.
The company of Some Like It Hotperformed their titular tune, showing off their Tony Award-winning choreography, Tony Award-winning orchestrations, and Tony Award-winning costumes. The sumptuous score soared through the air thanks to the vocals of Tony Award winner J. Harrison Ghee, along with Tony Award nominees Christian Borle, Kevin del Aguila, NaTasha Yvette Williams, and Adrianna Hicks. Full of high-kicks, turns, jumps, and partnering, the dance break let the dazzling ensemble show off their impressive athleticism and fancy footwork.
2022 Tony Award winner Joaquina Kalukango returned to the Tonys stage to sing for this year’s In Memoriam. In honor of The Phantom of the Opera’s April closing after its historic run as the longest running Broadway show, Kalukango sang “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” The beautiful tribute allowed the community to acknowledge those who had passed away over the last year, with six-time Tony Award winner Angela Lansbury as the final slide.
To see what was happening behind-the-scenes, head here for backstage moments at the Tony Awards.
Last updated and effective as of January 14, 2019
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