The 2023 Tony Awards brought with them the return of Broadway and some historic recognitions along the way. Having first been held at the iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City in 1947, the ceremony has since grown to be a significant milestone in the annual theatrical calendar.
Artists of all trades – from composers, dancers and actors to producers, designers and librettists – have the chance of a lifetime to be recognised for their work in that year on the notoriously tough plains of Broadway. To receive a nod is to have stood out among many eligible peers, something that Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee did for the assessors. As non-binary performers – identifying as neither men nor women, they were met with the quandary of sitting within a gendered category system.
Newell, who portrays Lulu in the country-themed musical, “Shucked,” stated that their nomination in the ‘Best Featured Actor in a Musical’ was “a recognition of the work I do, as an actor, which is act”, further painting that while terms like actor and actress exist, the binarism of awards was because “before actresses were recognised for their work, it was always the same white men winning everything.” Alluding to the fact that “no one ever says they’re hiring a plumberess or doctoress”, the nascent neutrality of the term actor opened their imagination to the possibility of being nominated anywhere.
Forty new productions opened in the season running from 23 May 2022 to 21 May 2023. These featured 24 plays, one special engagement, and – most instinctively related to Broadway – 15 musicals. For their contribution to the 11,506 performances delivered over the year, the two non-binary performers were nominated for embodiments of their characters making them the first in history to do so. The fact that they are Black thespians makes the moment more poignant as white supremacist and anti-trans rhetoric continues to permeate through the political spheres of the United States of America. Newell’s Lulu, a high-note belting whiskey distiller, earned them their trophy, while Ghee’s Jerry/Daphne – a character whose gender identity transforms throughout the musical, “Some Like It Hot”, earned them the “Best Lead Actor in a Musical” trophy.
In their published annual season-in-review report, the Broadway League has revealed that the 2022-2023 Broadway season generated USD 1,577,586,897 in total gross revenue. Breaching the billion-dollar mark was the work of the total attendance of 12,283,399 audience members across all shows. As the sister theatre constituency across the pond, the West End theatre attendance also experiences a 7.21 percent increase in audience in 2022 compares to 2019 statistics, attracting and entertaining at 16.4 million people in total. These numbers serve stark reminders that theatre remains a valuable facet to economic growth and better quality of life.
Speaking to Adam Odsess-Rubin, founding Artistic Director of the National Queer Theatre in New York, he shares: “I’m optimistic about the changes we’re seeing. I think 10 years ago, having two openly non-binary Black Queer actors winning Tony Awards would have been hard to imagine.” Odsess-Rubin adds that while the two historic wins are commendable, his curiosity lies in “how we provide access to quality arts education for marginalised youth? How do we ensure young people can afford to see professional theatre, and that they’re welcome in these spaces? When we can figure that out, I think we’ll see changes trickle up.”
The National Queer Theatre has carved its role in the theatre industry by advocating for platforms for people experiencing marginality. Under initiatives such as the Criminal Queerness Festival – which stages works by artists whose gender or sexual identities are criminalised in their home countries; and the Staging Pride: Queer Youth Theatre programme, the cultural producers provide opportunities to follow in Newell and Ghee’s footsteps.
The 2023 Tony Awards took place under a shroud of controversy as the Writers Guild of America has mounted a strike for equitable treatment of writers by producers. Therefore, the show ran under conditions that no writers would participate in its production. Acknowledging the dual labour that marginalised artists are faced with, “performing at the highest level while also advocating for change in an inequitable system”, Odsess-Rubin remarks that “for true change to happen, we need to embrace the kind of community organising we saw in the Black Lives Matter movement. We need to get political.”
Newell and Ghee join a legacy of Tony Award winners who may have thought the honour too far from their reach. The path they have etched lights the way for producers, performers, writers, composers and the like to imagine characters beyond the gender binary. If art imitates life, the expanse of gender and sexual identities in the world at large certainly has a place on the stage too.