Tony Awards 2023: ‘Kimberly Akimbo’ and ‘Leopoldstadt’ take top honors

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NEW YORK — “Kimberly Akimbo,” the melodically bright, tenderhearted account of a New Jersey teen who ages at five times the normal rate, was the major winner at the 76th Tony Awards on Sunday night, earning the top honor of best musical and four other prizes, including best book, score, and leading and featured actress in a musical.

As widely expected, the Tony for best play went to “Leopoldstadt” by 85-year-old Tom Stoppard, a Holocaust drama inspired by the playwright’s discovery late in life of his own Jewish roots. It collected four trophies, including best director of a play, costumes and featured actor, winning over “Ain’t No Mo’,” “The Cost of Living,” “Between Riverside and Crazy” and “Fat Ham.”

Other trophies in the play categories were divided among other shows, with Jodie Comer voted best actress for her portrayal of a highflying lawyer turned assault victim in “Prima Facie” and Sean Hayes named best actor in a play for his impersonation of actor-pianist Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar.” The visually vibrant “Life of Pi” dominated the design awards for plays, as it was recognized for sets, sound design and lighting.

In other contests, lead actor in a musical went to J. Harrison Ghee, who won over their co-star Christian Borle and five other actors for “Some Like It Hot,” and best lead actress was won by Victoria Clark, as the fast-aging 16-year-old in “Kimberly Akimbo.” Bonnie Milligan took home the Tony for best featured actress in a musical for her portrayal of a lovable scam artist in “Kimberly Akimbo.”

These Broadway actors are finally getting the spotlight they deserve

The win for Ghee made history, as the first time an actor who identifies as nonbinary has won a Tony in the leading actor category. That achievement was doubled by Alex Newell, who also identifies as nonbinary and won the award for best featured, or supporting, actor in a musical, for “Shucked.” An overcome Newell told the crowd, “I have waited for this my entire life, and I thank every one of you.” Turning to their mother, Newell said: “I thank you for loving me unconditionally.”

It was a night, in fact, when works challenging intolerance head-on were celebrated again and again. Tony voters opted for seriousness over serendipity in picking Broadway’s best musical revival, giving the award to “Parade,” the fact-based story of the lynching of an innocent Jewish man, Leo Frank, in Georgia in the early 1900s over its chief rival, “Into the Woods.” (Both shows originated off-Broadway, as concert productions in New York City Center’s Encores! series.)

In winning best director of a musical for “Parade,” Michael Arden cited the prejudice he faced in his youth as a gay man. “Keep loving and uplifting each other,” he said. “And vote every chance you can.” (His counterpart winner as best director of a play was Patrick Marber, for “Leopoldstadt.”)

The presentations in 26 categories, chosen by a voting academy of more than 700 theater producers, actors, designers and others, occurred during a ceremony that lacked a key ingredient from previous telecasts: writers. The Writers Guild of America, whose strike against TV and film studios is in its second month, agreed not to picket the Tonys only if the show proceeded without the contributions of writers.

That required the broadcast from the United Palace in Manhattan’s Washington Heights — the first 90 minutes on Pluto TV, a free streaming service, and three more hours on CBS — to rely not on pre-written banter, but on the drama of the Tony races and the pizazz of musical performances.

“We don’t have a script, you guys. Live and unscripted. You’re welcome!” an out-of-breath Ariana DeBose, host of the CBS telecast for the second year in a row, said after the opening number — performed smartly (and wordlessly) by a cadre of dancers in the lobby and aisles. Telling the audience that the script-less event was necessitated by writers “in pursuit of a fair deal,” she explained that there were no teleprompters, only countdown clocks for the speeches.

“Darlings, buckle up!” the delightful DeBose added.

No such note of caution was needed. The entire ceremony — hosted for the first 90 streaming minutes by Julianne Hough and Skylar Astin — felt sleek and spontaneous, and proceeded at a gratifyingly swift pace. Despite (or because of?) its special challenges, it was one of the best Tony shows in memory. The evening included such notable presenters as Common, Uzo Aduba, Barry Manilow, Melissa Etheridge and Lupita Nyong’o, and even a notable burn by actress Denée Benton, who referred to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida as that state’s “grand wizard.”

One of the high points was the appearance of Lea Michele, star of the revival of “Funny Girl,” triumphantly singing a joyful “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” She sang the same number on the Tony telecast in 2012, when the sequence was perceived as an audition for a role she would win a decade later, as the replacement for the revival’s original Fanny Brice, Beanie Feldstein. (The cameras caught her walking offstage and into the arms of DeBose.)

There were also numbers from all of the best-musical nominees, “Some Like It Hot,” “Kimberly Akimbo,” “Shucked,” “& Juliet” and “New York, New York.” The musical revival nominees — “Camelot,” “Parade,” “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — also performed, in what amounted to live infomercials for their shows.

For best revival of a play, the voters singled out Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog,” her 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner about a pair of down-on-their-luck brothers whose attempt to mastermind a street hustle ends in tragedy. “Theater is the cure!” Parks exclaimed in her exuberant remarks.

The urgent mandate to be both quick and quick on one’s feet seemed to inspire many of the Tony winners, including Brandon Uranowitz, who won as best featured actor in a play for his dual roles in “Leopoldstadt.” Addressing his parents in the audience, Uranowitz said he wanted to repay them for their sacrifices. “But I work in the theater, so I can’t do that!” he declared.

The Tonys gave out special honors to two Broadway mainstays, 91-year-old actor Joel Grey and 96-year-old composer John Kander, who with his lyricist partner, the late Fred Ebb, wrote “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and a slew of other shows. Early in the evening, Kander accepted his award with a special tribute of his own.

“I am grateful to music,” he said, “which stayed my friend for my entire life and has promised to stay with me to the very end.”

Thomas Floyd contributed to this report.

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