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J. Harrison Ghee, Alex Newell become first openly nonbinary Tony winners for acting

Nonbinary actors make Tony Awards history
Nonbinary actors make Tony Awards history as show goes on without script 00:43

Tony Awards history was made Sunday when Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee became the first nonbinary people to win Tonys for acting as the Broadway community seized the moment amid a Hollywood writers' strike that left theater's biggest night without a script.

"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 Chicago musician, on the run from gangsters, who tries on a dress and is transformed.

The 76th Annual Tony Awards - Show
J. Harrison Ghee accepts the award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for "Some Like It Hot" onstage during The 76th Annual Tony Awards at United Palace Theater on June 11, 2023 in New York City. Theo Wargo

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."

"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 upon winning best featured actor in a musical.

The 76th Annual Tony Awards
Alex Newell at the 76th Annual Tony Awards. Michele Crowe/CBS via Getty Images

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."

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 to rely on spontaneity in a new venue far from the theater district.

Before the pre-show began, DeBose revealed to the audience the only words that will be seen on the teleprompter: "Please wrap up." Later in the evening, virtually out of breath after her wordless 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.'"

The 76th Annual Tony Awards - Show
Host Ariana DeBose speaks onstage during The 76th Annual Tony Awards at United Palace Theater on June 11, 2023 in New York City. Kevin Mazur

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!"

There had initially been concerns the WGA may picket the award show, but an agreement between the writers union and Tony Awards Productions, which hosts the award show, was reached in mid-May.

"Tony Awards Productions (a joint venture of the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing) has communicated with us that they are altering this year's show to conform with specific requests from the WGA, and therefore the WGA will not be picketing the show," the union told CBS News in a statement last month.   

Jodie Comer, the three-time Emmy-nominated star of "Killing Eve" won the leading actress in a play trophy for her Broadway debut, the one-woman play "Prima Facie," which illustrates how current laws fail terribly when it comes to sexual assault cases.

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," 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 on a Pluto TV pre-show hosted by Skylar Astin and Julianne Hough, allowing winners plenty of airtime for acceptance speeches but little humor.

The pre-show featured some awkwardly composed shots and some presenters slipped up on certain words. The tempo was so rapid, the Pluto telecast ended more than 10 minutes before the 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 during it.

"This is a very big deal," he said. "When your own community honors you, it's very humbling and a little bit scary."

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.

Tony Awards: Act One, Live Pre-Show Of Exclusive Content On PLUTO TV
Joel Grey accepts the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre from Jennifer Grey. Kevin Mazur

Grey said earlier on "CBS Sunday Morning" that it was "fitting" he and Kander were both being honored together 56 years after the Tony Awards were first aired. 

"John has been one of the great collaborators of my life, and collaboration is what the theater is all about", he said. "Teamwork. Building something together that none of us could have created alone."

Director Jerry Mitchell won the Isabelle Stevenson Award in recognition of his dedication and contributions to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

"Parade" — a doomed musical love story set against the real backdrop of a murder and lynching in Georgia in pre-World War I that won Tonys as a new musical in 1999 — won for best musical revival on Sunday, with Michael Arden winning for best director of a musical.

"'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."

Performances from all the nominated musicals were on tap and Will Swenson — starring on Broadway in a Neil Diamond musical — led the audience in a vigorous rendition of "Sweet Caroline."

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.

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