“Kimberly Akimbo,” a small-scale, big-hearted show about a teenage girl coping with a life-shortening genetic condition and a comically dysfunctional family, won the coveted Tony Award for best musical Sunday night.
The award came at the close of an unusual Tony Awards ceremony that almost didn’t happen because of 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 would be a mistake to make the struggling theater industry collateral damage in a Hollywood-centered dispute, and in the end the telecast aired without pickets, without scripted banter and without a hitch.
“I’m live and unscripted,” the ceremony’s returning host, Ariana DeBose said at the start of the show, after an opening number that began with her backstage, paging through a binder labeled “Script” filled with blank pages, and then dancing wordlessly through the theater and onto the stage. She then pointed out the absence of teleprompters, offered her support for the strikers’ cause, and declared, “To anyone who thought last year was a bit unhinged, to them I say, ‘Darlings, buckle up!’”
At one point, she looked at words scrawled on her forearm, and said, “I don’t know what these notes stand for, so please welcome whoever walks out onstage next.”
The basic elements of the awards show — acceptance speeches by prize winners and songs performed by the casts of Broadway musicals — remained more or less intact. But the introductions to the shows and performances were mostly sleekly shot videos, rather than descriptions by celebrities; presenters kept their comments extremely spare, which left more time for unusually well-filmed production numbers.
The ceremony featured a pair of milestone wins: J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell became the first out nonbinary performers to win Tony Awards in 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 human, whoever was told you couldn’t be, you couldn’t be seen, this is for you,” said Ghee. Newell expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Thank you for seeing me, Broadway.”
Last fall’s production of “Topdog/Underdog,” Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2001 tour de force about two Black brothers weighted down by history and circumstance, won the Tony Award for best play revival. The play had won a 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 does not want the likes of us living at all” and added, “Theater is the great cure.”
There was star power, too. Jodie Comer, best known for playing an assassin on television’s “Killing Eve,” won the best actress in a play award for her first major stage role, a grueling, tour-de-force performance as a defense attorney who becomes a victim of sexual assault in “Prima Facie.” And Sean Hayes, best known for “Will and Grace,” won for playing the depressive raconteur-pianist Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar.”
The night served as a reminder of the growing concern about antisemitism in America and around the world, as “Leopoldstadt,” Tom Stoppard’s wrenching drama following a family of Viennese Jews through 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 bested 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 who noted the personal nature of the production for its predominantly Jewish cast in his speech, saying “my ancestors, many of whom did not make it out of Poland, also thank you.”
The win by “Parade” cemented a remarkable rebirth for that show, which was not successful when it first opened on Broadway in 1998, but which is shaping up to be a hit this time, thanks to strong word-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 else we are doomed to repeat the horrors of our history.” Arden went on to recall how he had been called a homophobic slur — “the F-word,” many times as a child, and he drew raucous cheers as he reclaimed the slur. “Keep raising your voices,” he said.
But the night belonged to “Kimberly Akimbo,” the smallest, and lowest-grossing, of the five nominees in the best musical category, but also by far the best reviewed, with virtually unanimous acclaim from critics. (Nodding to the show’s anagram-loving subplot, the New York Times critic Jesse Green presciently suggested one of his own last fall: “sublime cast = best musical.”)
The show, set in 1999 in Bergen County, New Jersey, stars the 63-year-old Victoria Clark as Kimberly, a 15-going-on-16-year-old girl who has a rare condition that makes her age prematurely. Kimberly’s home life is a mess — dad’s a drunk, mom’s a hypochondriac, and aunt is a gleeful grifter — and her school life is complicated by her medical condition, but she learns to find joy where she can. Clark won a Tony for her performance as Kimberly, and Bonnie Milligan won a Tony for her performance as the aunt.
“Kimberly Akimbo,” which was directed by Jessica Stone, began its life with 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 the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and the composer Jeanine Tesori, based on a play Lindsay-Abaire had written in 2003. Lindsay-Abaire and Tesori both won Tony Awards for their work Sunday night.
The musical, with just nine characters, was capitalized for up to $7 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission; that’s a low budget for a musical on Broadway these days, when a growing number of shows are costing more than $20 million to stage. The lead producer is David Stone, who, as a lead producer of “Wicked,” is one of Broadway’s most successful figures; this is the first time he has 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 a boost in 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 is a runaway hit, and four, including “Kimberly Akimbo,” have been losing money most weeks.
The 2022-23 season, which ended last month, was a tough one for new musicals: Broadway audiences were still down about 17 percent below prepandemic levels, and those who did buy tickets gravitated toward 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 took on even more importance than usual, with the industry’s leaders hoping that a nationally televised spotlight on 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 barn-burning performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” by Michele, 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 show’s closing in 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: the actor Joel Grey, 91, who remains best known for playing the master of ceremonies in both the Broadway and film versions of “Cabaret,” and the composer John Kander, 96, who wrote music for “Cabaret” as well as “Chicago” and “New York, New York.” “I’m grateful for music,” Kander said after being introduced by Lin-Manuel Miranda as “the kindest man in show business.” Grey was introduced by his daughter, the 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.