The 76th Annual Tony Awards were held June 11 at United Palace in Washington Heights, and per usual, the evening was filled with fabulous performances, a host of Broadway favorites, and pretty much everything that makes a theatre fan's heart feel full (get the full list of winners here). More unusually, the ceremony also went forward completely unscripted due to the current WGA Strike, which made this year's edition of Broadway's Biggest Night one of the more memorable.
Take a look at nine of the most memorable moments from the 2023 Tony Awards.
Actor Bias Put on Blast
It’s a truth within entertainment that in addition to finding out the winners, audiences tune in to the Tony Awards for two things: the performances, and to see what their favorite actor is wearing. Last night, some creators took to the Tony stage to point out the industry bias favoring actors. Patrick Marber, in his acceptance speech for directing Leopoldstadt, started off with, “I hate to complain. But did you notice how when the actors’ names were mentioned for their prizes, this little camera went to them, and they smiled and they said, ‘Hello, Mom.’ And they got a little private moment of glory? Not so, the directors. No one wants to see our ugly faces. Not even the director of this show.”
Later, Tom Stoppard, when accepting his history-making award for Best Play for Leopoldstadt, began by remarking how an AI “chat bot” can’t understand the depth of a writer's emotions, then added, “During those 55 years, I have witnessed the theatre writer getting progressively devalued in the food chain…I find it a bit strange because writers are the sharp ends of the inverted pyramid, and without a script…we all are basically flummoxed.” In an evening that was spent in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America, these comments were a welcome reminder to all of us that theatre is not just the people onstage. It’s the hundreds of people working backstage, as well.
Alex Newell Takes Their Trophy With Tears
“I have wanted this my entire life,” Newell said in their acceptance speech after winning Best Featured Actor in a Musical for their work in Shucked. It was quite a moment as Newell made Broadway history as the first openly gender-nonconforming actor to win a performance Tony. When the cameras first turned to Newell after their name was announced as the winner, the Glee alum was emotional with tears in their eyes, the wonder of the moment clearly conveyed on their face. And when they reached the podium, they seemed to mouth “I can’t” while looking away from their peers to collect themself. But a moment later, Newell thanked everyone for seeing them for who they are. “Broadway, I should not be up here as a queer, non-binary, fat, Black little baby from Massachusetts.”
It’s a historic win that emphasizes Newell’s last message that anyone can accomplish what they put their mind to. Later in the night, Newell’s message was echoed and supported by another historic win as non-binary actor J. Harrison Ghee took Best Leading Actor in a Musical for their performance in Some Like It Hot.
Writers Get the Spotlight on CBS
It didn't go unnoticed that the Tony for Best Score (congratulations, Kimberly Akimbo) was presented during the first half of the evening, streamed on PlutoTV, while the award for Best Book of a Musical was given a spot on the main CBS broadcast. This was likely a thank you to the striking Writers Guild of America for allowing the 2023 Tony Awards to proceed as scheduled, with the realization that broadcasting the Best Book Tony on CBS would give the winning writer a larger viewing audience to discuss the importance of the strike.
And, Kimberly Akimbo's David Lindsay-Abaire—who won in a category that also featured fellow writers David West Read, David Thompson and Sharon Washington, Robert Horn, and Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin—did just that, saying, "I want to first say what an honor it is to be in a category with all of these amazing writers and also how special it is that we're all here tonight, supporting the theatre community, which we adore so much. And that tomorrow we're going to be on the picket line supporting the beloved other industry, TV and film. Please support the WGA. We just want to be treated fairly. Thank you so much."
It should be noted that Lindsay-Abaire was just one of many who acknowledged the current strike. In accepting the Tony that made him the most-winning playwright in Tony Awards history, Leopoldstadt's Tom Stoppard joked about being familiar with not having a script when he won his 1976 Tony for Travesties, adding, "I am feeling emotions right now that a chat bot wouldn't understand." And, Kimberly Akimbo's Victoria Clark also referenced the strike in her acceptance speech, explaining, "We are nothing without our writers. Support the WGA and their struggle for the contract they deserve."
Everybody Went Unscripted—And You Could Tell
Going forward with this year's Tony Awards meant that the ceremony had to be completely unscripted, with no other artists doing work that would normally be done by a WGA writer. One of the clearest signs: there were no off-screen voiceovers introducing presenters or telling viewers what was next after the commercial break.
It also meant we got some especially fun and indelibly live moments, such as when host Ariana DeBose forgot the names of two presenters. DeBose brought us out of commercials pulling an Ellen and grabbing an audience selfie with some nearby Broadway favorites—including Kelli O'Hara, Victoria Clark, Lea Michele, and Lin-Manuel Miranda—before saying, "I was blown away by [Best Featured Actress in a Musical winner] Bonnie Milligan. My God. Love to see it. And I'm going to stop gushing and tell you that Best Featured Actress in a Play is up next, and also I don't know what these notes stand for, so please welcome whoever walks out on stage next."
DeBose showed the camera some inscrutable scribbles on her inner wrist, and then, nonplussed, Kenny Leon and David Henry Hwang came out to present the category, with The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Miriam Silverman taking the prize. Later in the evening, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson director and star (respectively) LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson took the stage to present Best Play. Without a prompter, LaTanya struggled a bit with what to say. "We're here to present the American Theatre Wing Award... Tony... to...," she said, as husband Samuel L. looked at her playfully, saying, "No, no!" He had, of course, realized they had to announce the nominees first, suddenly taking over the mic with a campy "And the nominees are!" It was a cute, unscripted moment between one of theatre's favorite couples, and we were here for it! The Tony Awards are, after all, just as live as theatre itself.
Broadway Favorites Keep it Real
The other part of going unscripted is that Tony winners and presenters clearly felt they had even more permission than usual to say whatever was on their mind onstage at United Palace. The two comments from presenters/winners that got the loudest reaction June 11 were: 1. Denée Benton calling Governor Ron DeSantis the “Grand Wizard” of Florida (and smiling cheekily while the room gasped and applauded) and 2. Tony winner Michael Arden, director of Parade, saying, “Growing up, I was called the 'f' word more times than I can remember, and all I can say is,” and this part was bleeped out completely by CBS, “Now I’m a faggot with a Tony.” If no one said anything that was worthy of a standing ovation or a CBS bleep, we would have been disappointed.
Enough Love for a Lifetime
Both Joel Grey and John Kander received Lifetime Achievement Awards, and it was an emotional affair, from a near-minute-long standing ovation that Kander had to quiet himself, to a visibly moved Jennifer Grey presenting her father with his statue through tears. Both Kander and Grey delivered speeches filled to the brim with gratitude: If you missed the broadcast, you can read them in their entirety here!
Ariana DeBose and Julianne Hough Became Chicago’s Velma and Roxie
With words becoming problematic with the WGA Strike, dance got a spotlight at this year's Tonys, including an all-dancing, no-singing opening number starring Ariana DeBose. Later in the broadcast, DeBose and The Tony Awards: Act One co-host Julianne Hough changed into little black dresses to perform a rendition of Chicago’s “Hot Honey Rag.” Rather than directly recreating Fosse's original choreography from the Broadway musical or Rob Marshall's version from the film adaptation, the pair gave a nod to Fosse’s style with a new, fun take on the Chicago number. You can watch the performance here.
How "Sweet" It Was
One of the most heartwarming musical performances of the evening turned out to be a sing-along of the Neil Diamond classic "Sweet Caroline." Will Swenson, who plays the music legend in the new musical A Beautiful Noise (which went unnoticed by Tony nominators), led the performance, accompanying himself on guitar while other members of the company danced through the aisles, eventually joining him on stage. The audience happily joined along, clapping, swaying, and singing the 1969 hit. At one point, Broadway favorite Swenson said, "This must be the greatest 'Sweet Caroline' sing-along in history. Look at this—Melissa Etheridge, Common, Barry Manilow, Samuel L. Jackson!" Also seen enjoying the performance were Jessica Chastain, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Wilson Cruz, and many more. Good times never seemed so good, indeed.
It’s a Moosical!
After a year of delighting audiences young and old, Into the Woods’ Milky White had one more screen-stealing moment hidden up puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa’s sleeve. After a delightful performance of “It Takes Two” by Sara Bareilles, Brian d’Arcy James, and Kanagawa, the company frolicked offstage to a waiting crowd. Right before the broadcast cut to commercial, the endearing puppet could be seen surrounded by celebrities who all wanted their chance to pet the "perfect friend." And they say stars shouldn’t work with animals!
Visit Playbill.com/Tonys to get caught up with all our coverage of the 2023 Tony Awards.