Recap: The Unscripted 2023 Tony Awards

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story

“We don’t have a script, you guys,” Ariana DeBose announced on Sunday night, still sweaty and panting from her wordless opening number at the seventy-sixth annual Tony Awards. DeBose was hosting for the second time in a row, but the task that lay before her was novel: there were no pre-written zingers, no teleprompters. “So, to anyone who may have thought that last year was a bit unhinged,” DeBose continued, “to them I say, ‘Darlings, buckle up!’ ”

The telecast’s existence was the result of an eleventh-hour show-must-go-on miracle. Broadway is struggling to regain its pre-pandemic attendance, and the Tonys are its most important marketing pitch to audiences around the world. But the ceremony is typically written by members of the Writers Guild of America, which is on strike. Last month, the Tonys asked the guild for a waiver to broadcast on CBS, one of the companies being picketed. The guild said no, and the Tonys were left with a number of bad options: go on untelevised (a blow to the nominated shows, which need their musical numbers on TV for exposure) or delay the awards until the strike ends (by which time some of the shows may have closed). Then, as the Times reported, a group of playwrights intervened, arguing that solidarity with film and TV writers shouldn’t come at such a heavy cost to a fragile sister industry. The guild agreed not to picket the ceremony—on the condition that the telecast go scriptless.

And so DeBose opened the show in her dressing room, closing a binder of blank script pages. What would happen next? Were we ready for the unbridled buoyancy of her viral rap at the BAFTAs, with the immortal line “Angela Bassett did the thing,” but without the eloquence of those words—or any others? As it turns out, the dance number that followed beautifully conveyed the evening’s limitations and its promise, as DeBose, without singing, glided through the theatre hallways, leaping into a dancer’s arms and boogying through the aisles. This year’s ceremony was held not at the Tonys’ frequent location, Radio City Music Hall, but at the United Palace, an opulent former movie house in Washington Heights, and the immersive dance number showed off its gilded cherubs and scalloped archways.

The writing ban played out in less poetic ways during the evening. As you’d expect, there were winners who voiced solidarity in their speeches. Miriam Silverman, who won a featured-actress award, for “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” stated, “We are a staunchly pro-union household.” The playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who won for writing the book of “Kimberly Akimbo,” the musical version of his play, wore a solidarity pin and promised to be back on the picket line the next day. But the drollest commentary—and the night’s cleverest speech—came from Tom Stoppard, accepting Best Play, for “Leopoldstadt.” “I’m teeming with emotions, which chatbots wouldn’t begin to understand,” he deadpanned. “Writers are the sharp end of the inverted pyramid,” he went on. “With the possible exception of ballet and . . . award evenings, without a script we’re all basically flummoxed.”

He had a point. The presenters, short on prepared banter, were reduced to bare-bones introductions. “Hello, I’m Uzo Aduba,” said Uzo Aduba. “Peace! I’m Common,” said Common. (Both presented Best Revival of a Play to Suzan-Lori Parks, for “Topdog/Underdog.”) Embellishments were few. “I am Marcia—and no matter what state we’re in we can always say ‘Gay’—Harden,” Marcia Gay Harden said, before she and Utkarsh Ambudkar handed Jodie Comer a lead-actress Tony, for “Prima Facie.” Only two presenters really made their mark. Nathan Lane, irrepressible with or without a script, said, of the Baroque digs, “It’s so delightfully over the top. It looks like Beyoncé’s screening room!” And the actress Denée Benton presented the yearly honor given to a theatre educator: the recipient was a teacher who works with the deaf at a school in Plantation, Florida. The town’s unfortunate name prompted Benton, like Harden, to take a swipe at Ron DeSantis, whom she called “the current Grand Wizard—I’m sorry, excuse me, governor—of my home state of Florida.” It was just as blunt, though far slyer, than the time Robert De Niro walked onto the Tony stage, in 2018, and declared, “Fuck Trump.”

Without the canned badinage that usually gums up awards shows, the Tonys could turn the night over to musical numbers and the winners’ speeches, both of which flaunted the industry’s wares. The first few numbers, admittedly, had a wearing peppiness, among them the title song of “New York, New York” (boosterism for the show and its city); Katy Perry’s “Roar,” as sung by Shakespeare’s Juliet, from the pop-tastic “& Juliet”; and an Art Deco whirligig from “Some Like It Hot.” When the late Stephen Sondheim arrived, via revivals of “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” it was nice to be reminded that musicals can convey more ambiguous emotions than “Hi!” The same goes for Ben Platt’s performance of a jailhouse ballad by Jason Robert Brown, from “Parade,” which won Best Revival of a Musical. And Victoria Clark, who won a lead-actress award, brought a winsome sadness to “Anagram,” a sweet, strange ditty from “Kimberly Akimbo.” In the song, by Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori (who won for their score), Clark, as a teen-ager who has prematurely aged into a sixtysomething’s body, sings to her geeky crush, “I like the way you think / A little weird, a little wise / A little out of synch.” Nothing could better encapsulate the off-kilter appeal of “Kimberly Akimbo,” which ended the night with five awards, including Best Musical.

Then there were the speeches, which started out strong in the pre-show, if you could find it. Theatregoers are a hardy bunch, in their way, and it’s one thing to trudge through Times Square to make an eight-o’clock curtain. But it’s another to seek out Pluto TV Celebrity, the alleged channel that broadcast “Act One” of the Tonys, as it was euphemistically called, before CBS aired the main show. Act I was hosted, with unscripted zest, by Julianne Hough and Skylar Astin, the latter of whom—I can’t stress this enough—plays the title role on a new CBS legal drama called “So Help Me Todd.” Viewers who made the trek were rewarded with designers, orchestrators, and, yes, writers, thanking everyone from “the state of New Jersey” to “the entire aristocracy of Black American music.” The scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, accepting for “New York, New York,” spoke passionately about the gender imbalance on Broadway and closed with the “Handmaid’s Tale” dictum “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (“Don’t let the bastards wear you down”). And there were wonderful speeches from the two Lifetime Achievement recipients, John Kander, ninety-six, and Joel Grey, ninety-one. Think those two would merit speaking roles in the main telecast? Think again.

Kander thanked his partner of forty-six years, Albert Stephenson, in one of the evening’s many moments of L.G.B.T.Q. pride. This was, after all, a DeSantis-free zone. During the main telecast, Michael Arden, who won for directing “Parade,” said, “Growing up, I was called the F-word more times than I can remember. And all I can say now is, ‘I’m a faggot with a Tony!’ ” The crowd at the United Palace roared, but they were the only ones to hear that second sentence, because CBS misguidedly muted it. Can Marcia Gay Harden please have a word with the censors?

Alex Newell, who brings down the house in the musical comedy “Shucked,” won Best Featured Actor in a Musical, becoming the first openly nonbinary performer to win a Tony. (Last year, Toby Marlow was the first nonbinary person to win in any category, for co-writing the score of “Six,” and the transgender actor L Morgan Lee was nominated, for “A Strange Loop.”) Newell, in a gold dress, said, “I should not be up here, as a queer, nonbinary, fat, Black, little baby from Massachusetts.” Sometime later, J. Harrison Ghee, in a stunning blue gown and crystal chokers, won in the lead-actor category, for “Some Like It Hot,” bringing the number of Black nonbinary winners to two in one night. How long until the wall between “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” collapses? The questioning of gendered categories in awards shows has become louder in recent years, and it’s clear that the Tonys are leading the way; earlier this season, Justin David Sullivan, a nonbinary performer in “& Juliet,” abstained from Tony consideration, refusing to conform to either category.

Toward the end of the night, Lea Michele came out to sing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from “Funny Girl.” If you thought the New York sky turning red with ash last week was an end-of-days scenario, this was really something. Michele was not eligible for a Tony, since she took over the role from Beanie Feldstein, who was not nominated (neither was the revival) last year and didn’t perform at the 2022 Tonys. But here was Michele, who has been training to play Fanny Brice since conception, hitting the big showstopper out of the park. When ambition and talent are so clearly aligned, all you can really do is duck. The 2023 Tony Awards were bursting with that try-hard musical-theatre-kid energy, tempered somewhat by Stoppard’s bemused scowl. At one point, DeBose was in the aisle, taking a selfie with a group including Kelli O’Hara and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Then she checked the notes she’d scribbled on her forearm—but they were smudged. “I don’t know what these notes stand for, so please welcome whoever walks out onstage next,” DeBose ad-libbed. It was a reminder that gameness and gusto aren’t enough in the theatre. At some point, you need writers putting words to paper, telling you what the hell happens next. ♦


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *