“Kimberly Akimbo“a small, big-hearted show about a teenage girl facing a life-shortening genetic condition and a funny family, won the coveted Tony Award for best musical Sunday night.
The award came at the end of an unusual Tony Awards ceremony that almost didn’t take place due to the ongoing screenwriters’ strike. Only an intervention by a group of playwrights who also work in film and television saved the show: they persuaded the Writers Guild of America that it was a mistake to make the struggling theater industry collateral damage in a dispute centered on Hollywood, and to conclude the telecast aired without pickets, without scripted banter and without interruption.
“I’m live and unscripted,” returning ceremony host Ariana DeBose said at the start of the show, after the opening number began with her backstage, paging through a binder labeled “Script” filled with blanks. page, and then dance. without words through the theater and the stage. He then pointed to the absence of teleprompters, offered his support for the strikers’ cause, and declared, “To anyone who thought that last year was a bit unhinged, to them I say, ‘Dear , buckle up!’”
At one point, he looked at the words written on his arm, and said, “I don’t know what these notes mean, so please accept whoever walks out on stage next.”
The main elements of the awards shows — acceptance speeches by prize winners and songs performed by the casts of Broadway musicals — remained intact. But introductions to shows and performances are mostly sleekly shot videos, rather than portrayals of celebrities; the presenters kept their comments to a minimum, leaving more time for the production’s unusually well-filmed numbers.
The ceremony featured a pair of milestone wins: J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell became the first nonbinary performers to win Tony Awards in the acting categories, Ghee as a musician on the lam in “Some Like It Hot ,” and Newell as a whiskey distiller in the musical comedy “Shucked.” “For every trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming person, whoever you’ve been told you can’t be, you can’t be seen, this is for you,” Ghee said. Newell expressed similar sentiments, saying, “Thanks for seeing me, Broadway.”
Last fall’s production of “Topdog/Underdog,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2001 tour de force about two Black brothers weighed down by history and circumstance, won the Tony Award for best play revival. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 but no Tony Awards; Parks, in accepting this year’s Tony, praised actors Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins for “living large in a world that often doesn’t like the way we live at all” and added, ” Theater is the great cure.”
There was also star power. Jodie Comer, best known for playing an assassin on television’s “Killing Eve,” won the best actress in a play award for her debut role, a harrowing, tour-de-force performance as a defense attorney who has been a victim of sexual assault. in “Prima Facie.” And Sean Hayes, known for “Will and Grace,” won for playing the depressive raconteur-pianist Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar.”
The evening served as a reminder of the growing concern about antisemitism in America and around the world, as “Leopoldstadt,” Tom Stoppard’s searing drama following a family of Viennese Jews in the first half of the 20th century, won the prize for best play, and a new production of “Parade,” a 1998 show based on the early 20th century lynching of a Jewish businessman in Georgia, won the prize for best musical revival.
“Leopoldstadt,” which won three Pulitzer-winning dramas to win the Tony, also won several other prizes Sunday night, including for its director, Patrick Marber, and for Brandon Uranowitz, who won as best featured actor in a play, and acknowledged the personal nature of the production for its mostly Jewish cast in his speech, saying “my ancestors, many of whom never made it out of Poland, thank you too. “
“Parade’s” win cemented a remarkable rebirth for the show, which was unsuccessful when it first opened on Broadway in 1998, but is shaping up to be a hit this time around, thanks to strong word-of-mouth. of-mouth and the popularity of its leading man, Ben Platt. The success of “Parade” is also a significant milestone for the musical’s composer Jason Robert Brown, who is widely admired within the theater community but whose Broadway productions have struggled commercially. Brown wrote the music and lyrics for “Parade,” and the book is by Alfred Uhry; both men won Tonys for their work on the show in 1999.
Michael Arden, who won a Tony for directing the “Parade” revival, said in his acceptance speech, “we must come together,” adding, “or we are doomed to repeat the same horror of our history.” Arden even recalled being called a homophobic slur — “the F-word,” many times as a child, and she let out loud cheers as she took the slur back. “Keep raising your voices,” he said.
But the night belongs to “Kimberly Akimbo,” the smallest, and lowest-grossing, of the five nominees in the best music category, but by far the best evaluated, with almost united praise from the critics. (In a nod to the show’s anagram-loving subplot, New York Times critic Jesse Green certainly suggested one last fall: “sublime cast = best musical.”)
The show, set in 1999 in Bergen County, New Jersey, stars 63-year-old Victoria Clark as Kimberly, a 15-going-on-16-year-old girl with a rare condition that makes her premature his old age. Kimberly’s home life is chaotic — dad’s an alcoholic, mom’s a hypochondriac, and aunt’s a fun-loving mom — and her school life is complicated by her medical condition, but she’s learning to find joy where she can. Clark won a Tony for her portrayal of Kimberly, and Bonnie Milligan won a Tony for her portrayal of the aunt.
“Kimberly Akimbo,” directed by Jessica Stone, began life in an Off Broadway production at the nonprofit Atlantic Theater Company in the fall of 2021 and opened at the Booth Theater in November. It was written by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori, based on a play Lindsay-Abaire wrote in 2003. Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori both won Tony Awards for their work Sunday of night
The musical, with just nine characters, was capitalized at up to $7 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission; that’s a low budget for a Broadway musical these days, when an increasing number of shows cost more than $20 million to stage. The lead producer is David Stone, who, as lead producer of “Wicked,” is one of Broadway’s most successful figures; it was the first time he won a Tony Award for best musical, and he was also the lead producer of the Tony-winning “Topdog” revival.
The award for best musical is considered the most economically beneficial Tony, generally leading to increased ticket sales. In winning the prize, “Kimberly Akimbo” beat out four other nominated shows: “& Juliet,” “New York, New York,” “Shucked” and “Some Like It Hot.” None of the five nominated musicals was a runaway hit, and four, including “Kimberly Akimbo,” lost most weeks.
The 2022-23 season, which ended last month, is a tough one for new musicals: Broadway audiences are still down about 17 percent below prepandemic levels, and those who bought tickets have tended to favor established titles (like “The Phantom of the Opera,” which sold strongly in the final months of its 35-year run) and big stars (especially Hugh Jackman in “The Music Man, ” Sara Bareilles in “Into the Woods,” Lea Michele in “Funny Girl” and Josh Groban in “Sweeney Todd”).So this year’s Tonys ceremony was even more important than usual, with industry leaders hoping that a nationally televised spotlight on the theater would boost box office sales.
The ceremony featured not only musical performances by all nine nominated new musicals and musical revivals, but also a fiery performance of Michele’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” a “Sweet Caroline” singalong led by the cast of the Neil Diamond musical “A Beautiful Noise,” and, as part of the In Memoriam segment, a song from “The Phantom of the Opera” sung by Joaquina Kalukango to acknowledge the closing of the show on April.
The Tonys, presented by the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing and named for Antoinette Perry, gave lifetime achievement awards to two beloved nonagenarians: actor Joel Grey, 91, who remains best known for playing master of ceremonies in the Broadway and film versions of “Cabaret,” and composer John Kander, 96, who wrote music for “Cabaret” as well as “Chicago” and “New York, New York.” “I’m thankful for music,” Kander said after being introduced by Lin-Manuel Miranda as “the nicest guy in show business.” Gray was introduced by his daughter, actress Jennifer Grey; he sang a few words from the opening number of “Cabaret.”
“Oh my God, I love the applause,” he said, to a round of applause.
Sarah Bahr, Nancy Coleman and Matt Stevens contributed reporting.