Tony winner Alex Newell didn't get home from the Tony Awards until 7 AM. But they could have partied for much longer. "The last Tonys night that I did, I got home at 10 AM." But after making history as the first non-binary actor to receive a Tony Award for acting (along with J. Harrison Ghee), Newell has earned their right to party—they're even planning on partying tonight after they finish performing in Shucked. "I'm on the celebration tour. I'm Evita!" Newell says with well-earned diva flair.
Newell has wanted this moment for a long time. Ever since they were young, like many theatre kids, Newell would watch and rewatch past Tony Awards. But they didn't watch just the performances, they watched the acceptance speeches—particularly compilations of Audra McDonald's many wins. "My favorite Tony acceptance speeches are ones where they're completely shocked and surprised, and they're speaking just from their heart. And I think that that's the best way to accept something: genuinely and openly and living in that one moment, because it's one that we'll never get back."
So when their name was called June 11, Newell says they hadn't prepared any remarks. But what they said at the United Palace was both charming in its sincerity and staggering in its power. After stopping onstage to process the moment and hold back their tears, they said: "I'm not gonna hold y'all, because it's hot in here." The air conditioning was not working properly that evening. "I have wanted this my entire life and I thank each and every one of you in this room right now. And Mommy, I love you. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for loving me unconditionally. Thank you for teaching me what strength is. To my entire building and cast and crew of Shucked, you are my rock. I love you all. Thank you for seeing me. Broadway, I should not be up here as a queer, non-binary, fat, Black little baby from Massachusetts. Anyone that thinks that they can't do it, I'm going to look you dead in your face that you can do anything you put your mind to."
Newell has spoken previously to Playbill about being overlooked for the Tony when they played Asaka in Once On This Island in 2017, with Tony nominators telling them that they didn't know what category—meaning actor or actress—to put them in. This year, the Tony Awards asked nominees to choose the category to be considered in, and Newell chose "Featured Actor in a Musical," using the term "actor" in the gender neutral sense.
In Shucked, Newell plays a no-nonsense businesswoman named Lulu, who owns a whiskey distillery. And in the show, they sing a rollicking anthem called "Independently Owned" about how they do not need a man. That song is so powerful that nightly, it earns Newell a mid-show standing ovaration. Below, Newell speaks with Playbill as they prepare to perform Shucked for the first time as a Tony winner (they plan on napping before that performance).
They spoke about what they hope their Tony win means for future non-binary actors on Broadway, how "Independently Owned" was tailor made for them, and what they think the Tonys should do now about gendered acting categories.
Have you processed your win yet?
Alex Newell: No! Why would I do that? It just happened. I haven't even processed the nomination.
What was going through your mind when they called your name?
Everyone's like, "You knew it was going to happen." I was like, "No! Anything can happen at the Tonys." It was very strange to hear that I won, because my category was stacked with some amazing talent. Everyone in that category was brilliant this season. I would have been just as happy and proud for them, as well.
What was it like arriving at the Tonys after parties as a winner? Did the seas part like in the Bible?
The quote of the day that everyone's now saying back to me is, "Cold, dead hands." Because I was carrying around my Tony everywhere I went. Everyone asked me if they could hold it and my response was, "You'd have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands!"
I know that at those parties, they have a table where you can place your Tony but you did not want to do that.
Why would I do that? Why would I let someone watch my Tony Award? Also, my name is not on it yet. So like, I could have anybody's Tony. I do know my Tony's serial number. I have to relinquish it for a couple of weeks. I'm very upset about that. The Oscars and the Emmys, they do it right there! Put me on the board, I'll make that happen for future Tony winners. As soon as you win, you get your Tony engraved and then you go to the press room.
You ended your acceptance speech with that really important statement for inclusion. Why was it important for you to say that?
Because it shows that there is power in telling stories like mine, there's power in showing that I'm just as talented as anybody else. And I think that as soon as we open those doors and realize that we're all just the same, then we can really move forward. Because we've all heard in our careers that we're too this or too that, we're not enough. And that this is solidifying that we are just enough, is brilliant. I hope that makes other people feel that they are also just enough.
I also felt like it was a message to the industry to stop putting people in boxes.
It is. You see somebody one type of way, and then you never see anything else they can do. And sometimes, you have to open and widen your horizon to see people for what they offer truly. And not just the one thing that you think they can do.
You are performing "Independently Owned" as part of the Playbill Pride 2023 celebration. How are you planning on celebrating Pride this year?
I was looking at the streams of "Independently Owned" and I said, "Dear God, for only being out for two months, three months now..." How I'm celebrating Pride, it's hard to get to celebrate Pride one month out of the year. So I celebrate Pride every day, just like I celebrate being Black every day. And I've never really gotten to celebrate Pride or do anything because I've always been working, I've always been this part of the celebration. So I haven't been able to do it. When you're always singing at Pride. You don't get to do much. I might, who knows? I mean, I'm drinking every day so celebrating is always with me.
I feel like this year, you should be in the parade because you've opened doors for the non-binary community on Broadway. And I feel like people want to celebrate that.
Well, yes. Between me and J., it's a time to lift that up. I hope we get to see more of this, and we continue this. It's always hard to be "the first" because then everything is compared to "the first." And then we leave things at the first and then we don't get to have the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth for years down the line.
How do we prevent that?
Child, I don't know! We just have to keep it at the forefront of things, rather than the back burner of things.
Do you think it's time for different acting categories, so it's no longer gendered between actor and actress?
Who's to say? That's also not my job, I'm not the end-all be-all decision maker, Great and Powerful Oz of everything. I think it's time that we actually do an actual deep dive and look at things, and look at what we're doing and how we're changing things and making things more inclusive.
You winning is such a big leap forward for the Broadway community. And at the same time, trans and non-binary rights are being violated around the country. As you're celebrating, how are you holding both realities inside of you at once?
I hope that J. and I are a reflection of what the future could look like and what it can exist as. We are two wildly talented human beings, who were just decorated with one of the highest honors in theatre in America. And if we were so bold enough to be able to contribute our gifts and our talent and our lives and our hearts and our souls and our mind to American theatre and get the highest honor, what is so bad about our existence? I hope that people can see that for what it is, and then take that in their lives. And then spread that message that we are all the actual same.
I feel like if Shucked goes on tour, that's also an opportunity.
It is. It really is. Shucked, in general, is a good piece to show what love actually is, to show what community at its base can be and should be—which is acceptance. Because we are just people on stage. We are a community. We pull the mirror up, and we tell the truth, and we come from a truthful place. And we keep going until we rise.
Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally told me that after they wrote "Independently Owned," music director Jason Howland orchestrated it to fit your voice. Can you talk about that process?
I was at the liberty of our phenomenal orchestrator and music director, Jason Howland. And Jason, literally, was the person who said, "Hey, do you want to be on Broadway in the spring?" And I said, "Yes." And then we got here. And Jason crafted this song to all the things that I can do. And it's tailor-made, which is a brilliant thing to have. Because people ask me all the time, how I can sing the song eight shows a week? And I'm just like, it was crafted for everything that I can do. When something is made for you, you can sing it until the cows come home. There's nothing stopping you from singing it, because it's made for you. So I thank them for that.
Jason did a brilliant job of crafting it. I would say no to ideas, because he'll just throw things out. There's the patter at the end of the song ["Operating, modulating, celebrating/Liberated, calculated, educated/Underrated, motivated, advocated, intimidating/Independently"] it was just so fast. And there were so many words, I couldn't find time to breathe in front of them. And so I was just like, "Jason, fix it. Now." And he was like, "How about three and then one?" And that was a whole world of difference. I think that's why it's my song. It's just like when Loretta Devine made "Ain't No Party" for Dreamgirls, she kept taking it higher and higher and higher until she was happy with how it was. Now, she made it worse for every other person that came after her to try to sing that song. But she wasn't thinking about them at that time. She was just singing by herself!
And now you'll get to perform it at cabaret concerts for the rest of your life.
You see how that is? Me, like Jennifer Holliday, just singing songs for the rest of our lives. Someone looked at me at the Tonys, they said, "You have two songs now: 'Mama Will Provide' [from Once On This Island] and 'Independently Owned.'" I'm just gonna start racking it up until I have full-length album. I have to do 12 shows to have a full length album. And then record it and then retire. [Editor's Note: We'd argue they actually have three songs, counting "Kill the Lights."]