By Mark Kennedy
The intimate, funny-sad musical “Kimberly Akimbo” nudged aside splashier rivals on Sunday to win the musical crown at the Tony Awards on a night when Broadway flexed its creative muscle amid the Hollywood writers’ strike and made history with laurels for nonbinary actors J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell.
“Kimberly Akimbo,” with songs by Jeanine Tesori and a book by David Lindsay-Abaire, follows a teen with a rare genetic disorder that gives her a life expectancy of 16 navigating a dysfunctional family and a high school romance. Victoria Clark, as the lead in the show, added a second Tony to her trophy case, having previously won one in 2005 for “The Light in the Piazza.”
Producer David Stone credited the musical's writers for penning a magic trick, calling “Kimberly Akimbo” a “musical comedy about the fragility of life, so healing and so profound and joyous that is almost impossible.” The musical took home a leading five awards, including best book and score.
Earlier, Tony Awards history was made when Newell and Ghee became the first nonbinary people to win Tonys for acting. Last year, composer and writer Toby Marlow of “Six” became the first nonbinary Tony winner.
“Thank you for the humanity. Thank you for my incredible company who raised me up every single day,” said leading actor in a musical winner Ghee, who stars in “Some Like It Hot,” the adaptation of the classic cross-dressing comedy film. The soulful Ghee stunned audiences with their voice and dance skills, playing a musician — on the run from gangsters — who tries on a dress and is transformed.
Newell, who plays Lulu — an independent, don’t-need-no-man whiskey distiller in “Shucked” — has been blowing audiences away with their signature number, “Independently Owned.” They won for best featured actor in a musical.
“Thank you for seeing me, Broadway. I should not be up here as a queer, nonbinary, fat, Black little baby from Massachusetts. And to 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 said to an ovation.
Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” which explores Jewish identity with an intergenerational story, won best play, also earning wins for director Patrick Marber, featured actor Brandon Uranowitz and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes.
The British-Czech playwright, who now has five best play Tony Awards, joked he won his first in 1968 and noted that playwrights were “getting progressively devalued in the food chain” despite being “the sharp ends of the inverted pyramid.”
Second-time Tony Awards host Ariana DeBose opened a blank script backstage before dancing and leaping her way to open the main show with a hectic opening number that gave a jolt of electricity to what is usually an upbeat, safe and chummy night. The writers' strike left the storied awards show honoring the best of musical theater and plays without a script.
Before the pre-show began, DeBose revealed to the audience the only words that would be seen on the teleprompter: “Please wrap up.” Later in the evening, virtually out of breath after her wordless opening performance, she thanked the labor organizers for allowing a compromise.
“I'm live and unscripted. You're welcome,” she said. “So to anyone who may have thought that last year was a bit unhinged, to them, I say, ‘Darlings, buckle up.’”
Winners demonstrated their support for the striking writers either at the podium or on the red carpet with pins. Miriam Silverman, who won the Tony for best featured actress in a play for “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” ended her speech with: “My parents raised me to believe in the power of labor and workers being compensated and treated fairly. We stand with the WGA in solidarity!”
Jodie Comer, the three-time Emmy nominated star of “Killing Eve” won leading actress in a play for her Broadway debut, the one-woman play “Prima Facie,” which illustrates how current laws fail terribly when it comes to sexual assault cases.
Sean Hayes won lead actor in a play for “Good Night, Oscar,” which dramatizes a long night’s journey into the scarred psyche of pianist Oscar Levant, now obscure but once a TV star.
“This has got to be the first time an Oscar won a Tony,” Hayes cracked.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about sibling rivalry, inequality and society’s false promises, won the Tony for best play revival. She thanked director Kenny Leon and stars Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: “They showed up to be large in a world that often does not much want the likes of us living at all.”
Bonnie Milligan, who won for best featured actress in a musical for “Kimberly Akimbo,” also had a message to the audience: “I want to tell everybody that doesn’t maybe look like what the world is telling you what you should look like — whether you’re not pretty enough, you’re not fit enough, your identity is not right, who you love isn’t right — that doesn’t matter.”
“’Cause just guess what?” she continued, brandishing her award. “It’s right, and you belong.”
Many of the technical awards — for things like costumes, sound, lighting and scenic design — were handed out at a breakneck pace during a pre-show hosted by Skylar Astin and Julianne Hough, allowing winners plenty of airtime for acceptance speeches but little humor.
The pre-show telecast on Pluto featured some awkwardly composed shots and some presenters slipped up on certain words. The tempo was so rapid, it ended more than 10 minutes before the main CBS broadcast was slated to start.
John Kander, the 96-year-old composer behind such landmark shows as “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” was honored with a special lifetime award. He thanked his parents; his husband, Albert Stephenson; and music, which “has stayed my friend through my entire life and has promised to stick with me until the end.”
Jennifer Grey handed her father, “Cabaret” star Joel Grey, the other lifetime achievement Tony. “Being recognized by the theater community is such a gift because it’s always been, next to my children, my greatest, most enduring love,” the actor said.
Echoing the there of antisemitism, “Parade” — a doomed musical love story set against the real backdrop of a murder and lynching in pre-World War I Georgia that won Tonys as a new musical in 1999 — won for best musical revival, with Michael Arden winning for best musical director.
“'Parade' tells the story of a life that was cut short at the hands of the belief that one group of people is more valuable than another and that they might be more deserving of justice,” Arden said. "This is a belief that is the core of antisemitism, white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia and intolerance of any kind. We must come together. We must battle this.”
The telecast featured performances from all the nominated musicals and Will Swenson — starring on Broadway in a Neil Diamond musical — led the audience in a vigorous rendition of "Sweet Caroline." Lea Michele of “Glee” and now “Funny Girl” fame also performed a soaring version of “Don't Rain on My Parade.”
It all took place at the United Palace Theatre, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan — a new venue for the ceremony, many miles from Times Square and the theater district.
“Thank you all for coming uptown. Never in my wildest dreams, truly,” Lin-Manuel Miranda joked onstage. He, of course, wrote the musical “In the Heights,” set in Washington Heights.
AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.