Tony Nominations Suggest Broadway Is Becoming More Progressive06/10/2023
The 2023 Tony nominations aren’t just a portrait of theatrical excellence. They’re also a snapshot of Broadway in progress.
After the events of 2020 prompted a wave of public pledges and new initiatives aiming to expand equity and diversity across all sectors of the business, this year’s nominations give theatermakers a chance to check on the change. No nominations list can render a complete picture of an industry and no one would argue that Broadway is done with the work, but all of this year’s nominees say they’re conscious of the ways the nominations reflect a larger, industry-wide shift.
“I think this year shows we are gradually getting better,” says Bonnie Milligan, a 2023 nominee (and, for many, the frontrunner) for featured actress in a musical. The plus-sized actor finds herself in the Tony conversation for “Kimberly Akimbo” after what she describes as years of “getting typed out of so many rooms because of my size.”
“You look at the nominees across the board and it’s such a beautiful, diverse group of humans in every way possible,” she says. “That’s thrilling to me, that the season that I get to be here is a really important one.”
Following last year’s historic first nomination for an out trans performer (L Morgan Lee in “A Strange Loop”), the 2023 nominees include the Tonys’ first nominations for openly nonbinary performers, in addition to a nod for the nonbinary co-songwriter of “KPOP,” Max Vernon.
“It’s definitely not something I take lightly,” says J. Harrison Ghee, who uses they/he pronouns and is nominated for leading actor in a musical. In “Some Like It Hot,” Ghee plays Jerry (Jack Lemmon’s role in the movie), a jazz musician who, in the new musical adaptation, discovers an essential inner truth when hijinks force the character to live as a woman.
“The fact of my work being honored, and the human that I am and the journey of my character being honored, that’s so important right now,” Ghee continues. “It’s necessary in this time to show the humanity of queer existence, and the love and the purity.”
Alex Newell, the performer who uses they/he/she pronouns and is currently nominated for featured actor in a musical for their work in “Shucked,” also sees their nomination as an important step for representation. “It’s the legitimacy of it all, and the acceptance of change that’s happening onstage,” they explain. “And being plus-size and being the ‘sexpot’ of the musical is something you wouldn’t see 40 years ago. To be Black and doing that is just so amazing.”
Both nominations seem certain to spur a formal rethink of the Tony Awards’ gendered acting categories. Both Newell and Ghee chose to be considered in their respective categories for actor (as opposed to actress), but critics argue that those categories fail to acknowledge the more expansive identities of both the performers and the roles they play. One trans nonbinary performer, Justin David Sullivan of “& Juliet,” withdrew their name from Tony consideration entirely as a formal objection to gendered categories. This year many of the industry’s other annual theater awards, including the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle Awards, eliminated gendered performance categories in a trend that adds further pressure on the Tonys to follow suit.
The 2023 nominations also include the differently abled actress Katie Sullivan, nominated for supporting actress in a play for her work in “Cost of Living.” For her, the Tony attention — the first for a disabled performer since 2019, when Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award for performance — further expands the perception of the kinds of bodies that can thrive on Broadway. “I was born without my legs, and for so long I had no one to point to that said to me that this was possible,” she says of her nomination. “I am so honored and privileged to be a part of this change that we are seeing.”
Such shifts are enabled not only by inclusive casting but also by an evolution in the kinds of stories playwrights are telling, and about whom.
“When I started writing plays I thought I was just writing about my friends and family, and it was only after I started sharing those plays that people told me I was writing about ‘underrepresented communities’ or ‘marginalized communities,’” says Martyna Majok, the writer behind best play nominee “Cost of Living.” “That realization then revealed to me a responsibility of not perpetuating dishonesties that have been heaped upon certain identities, including my own as an immigrant and as a woman.”
The creators of another nominee for best play, “Fat Ham,” see the awards recognition as a mark of an overall change in the kinds of stories that resonate with today’s theatergoers. “After everything we’ve been through with the pandemic and George Floyd, there are certain types of stories that all of a sudden we were ready for in a way that we weren’t ready for before,” says “Fat Ham” director Saheem Ali. “I don’t think a play like ‘Fat Ham’” — a reimagining of “Hamlet” set at a Black family’s BBQ in the South, and touching on queer identities and legacies of violence — “could have happened on Broadway five or 10 years ago.”
James Ijames, the writer of “Fat Ham,” views the whole category as indicative of progress. “All of the plays in this category are highlighting stories and lived experiences that we don’t see a lot of onstage, Broadway or otherwise,” he notes.
His fellow nominee Jordan E. Cooper, doubled nominated as the writer of best play contender “Ain’t No Mo’” and as featured actor in a play, echoes the sentiment. “I’m so grateful that we could be a part of that narrative and grab the baton and run with it,” he says of the show, a biting comedy that follows Black Americans weighing an offer by the U.S. government to provide free one-way tickets to Africa to the descendants of enslaved people. Despite strong reviews, “Ain’t No Mo’” had difficulty attracting the sales that would sustain it, even after a high-profile effort to save the show. The production closed three weeks after it opened.
“Our show was a step forward,” Cooper acknowledges. “But there’s still so, so much work to do, not only onstage but backstage and in the audience.”
To that end, a cadre of new producers have stepped up with an eye toward further expanding the kind of work that appears on Broadway. One of them is a familiar face: LaChanze, the Tony-winning actor (“The Color Purple”) who this year earned nominations as a member of the producing teams of both “Topdog/Underdog” and “Kimberly Akimbo.”
“Audience development is what motivated me to get involved in producing,” she explains. “I want to help bring in shows that will broaden our audiences and bring in people who might not necessarily feel like they belong in the theater. Diverse faces, older faces, younger faces.”
It’s not just the right thing to do, she adds. It’s also good business for a precarious industry in need of new audiences to sustain it. “The future of Broadway demands inclusivity,” she says.
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