The best and worst moments of the 2023 Tony Awards

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On Sunday night, Broadway celebrated the best of the 2022-2023 season at the 76th annual Tony Awards.

For a time it seemed the show would not go on this year in keeping with the restrictions of the writers' strike. But the annual awards were granted special dispensation to go on, without a script. The last time this happened was 1988, when Into the Woods and Phantom of the Opera squared off for Best Musical (fittingly, Into the Woods is nominated in Best Revival this year and Phantom just closed after 35 years).

Ariana DeBose was on hand to host again, following up her emcee gig at last year's Tony Awards and this year's BAFTA ceremony. DeBose gave a hearty thanks to all who came together to find a compromise to let the show go on, while also warning the audience to "buckle up" due to being unscripted.

Without a script, the Tony Awards, live from the United Palace in Washington Heights instead shone a spotlight on the best and brightest from Broadway's stages this year. There were still plenty of memorable moments (some great, some cringey), and we rounded up the best and worst for you here below.

BEST: That unscripted opening

Usually, the Tony Awards begin with an original musical number in the form of an opening monologue. This year, we didn't get that, but instead a medley of classic standards and musical theater tunes with an extravagant dance number that took host Ariana DeBose and a crop of dancers from the dressing room at the Palace to the glorious art deco lobby and into the theater itself. The dancers got to shine without any jokes overshadowing their skills and DeBose gave us a particularly jaw-dropping jump from the top of the stairs into the arms of a dancer on the landing. Finally, DeBose paid tribute to the writers, noted the lack of the script, and shouted out their new location uptown.

Ariana DeBose
Ariana DeBose

Best: Brandon Uranowitz's moving and funny speech

Brandon Uranowitz was the odds-on favorite to win in his category for his moving work in Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt. But he delivered another winning performance accepting the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. He delighted with his tribute to his parents and his less than stellar income as an actor. "The only thing I've ever wanted is to repay the sacrifices that you've made for me, but I work in the theater so I can't do that," he quipped, before making a plea for parents to love their children the way they are. "When your child tells you who they are, believe them. An authentic life is a limitless life."

Brandon Uranowitz
Brandon Uranowitz

WORST: Lifetime Achievement Awards in the pre-show

Two of the American theater's greatest living legends, John Kander and Joel Grey, were the recipients of this year's lifetime achievement Tony Awards. Between them, they've brought to life Chicago, Cabaret, Wicked, and many other Broadway classics. Yet still, the producers of the broadcast decided that their honors were best reserved for the PlutoTV pre-show. Grey gave a moving speech after his daughter, Jennifer, presented him with the awards. But unless you figured out how to get the app working and find the right channel, you wouldn't have seen it. They nodded to the awards during the main broadcast with a performance of Chicago's "Hot Honey Rag" from Ariana DeBose and Julianne Hough — but it was scarcely the primetime moment these two luminaries deserved.

Joel Grey and John Kander
Joel Grey and John Kander

BEST: Jordan Donica's Mellifluous Voice

It's no secret that the real star of the Camelot revival isn't Aaron Sorkin's new book, but rather Jordan Donica (Charmed) as Lancelot. He gave a stellar reminder of that during Sunday night's broadcast, singing snippets of his entry song and "If Ever I Would Leave You" as part of a medley for the show. When Donica takes the stage, his booming baritone makes everything else irrelevant. We have never loved his voice in silence, and the only disappointment in his Tony performance was that it didn't last longer.

LCT Camelot #577r2 - Jordan Donica as Lancelot du Lac in Lincoln Center Theater's production of CAMELOT. Credit to Joan Marcus
LCT Camelot #577r2 - Jordan Donica as Lancelot du Lac in Lincoln Center Theater's production of CAMELOT. Credit to Joan Marcus

WORST: <em>Into the Woods</em> song choice

Into the Woods is one of the most beloved musicals in the musical theater canon, and it's not the easiest show to choose a large ensemble number from. But for a revival that was heavily praised for the stellar work of its entire cast, we would've liked to see more of them featured. Don't get us wrong, we love Brian D'Arcy James and Sara Bareilles, but it was a bit of a head-scratcher that they chose to feature them (and a silent Milky White) at the expense of the rest of the cast. Plus, they deprived us from seeing Phillipa Soo perform twice in one night.

Brian d'Arcy James and Sara Bareilles in 'Into the Woods'
Brian d'Arcy James and Sara Bareilles in 'Into the Woods'

BEST: Michael Arden reclaims the f-word (no, the other one)

Michael Arden has steadily been building a reputation as a superb director of revivals and he reached new heights with this season's production of Parade, starring Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt. He deservedly nabbed the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical. He used his time on stage to loudly celebrate the LGBTQ community and reclaim a homophobic slur. "Growing up, I was called the f-word more times than I can count," he said. "But now, I'm a f– with a Tony." The remarks, which CBS bleeped, drew uproarious applause from the audience, most particularly Platt and fiance Noah Galvin, who jumped out of their seats shrieking. It was the perfect blend of pride and defiance.

Michael Arden
Michael Arden

BEST: Clips from the plays

In previous years, CBS eliminated any clips of the nominated plays in favor of scripted banter between presenters (often stars of CBS series). This year, with no script, they instead yielded time to the main event — the nominated work. For every category, we got to see clips of the actors performing in their nominated plays. Additionally, the Best Play categories included lengthy clips of the show, alongside the production team and casts discussing the resonance and legacy of the work itself. This is what the Tony Awards should always focus on.

Topdog Underdog Broadway https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fo/fvpx0qk0mrpmbp4di434a/h?dl=0&rlkey=xkvgei49t1wh6uhoi3mr6x6f8
Topdog Underdog Broadway https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fo/fvpx0qk0mrpmbp4di434a/h?dl=0&rlkey=xkvgei49t1wh6uhoi3mr6x6f8

WORST: Cutting off Jason Robert Brown

Many have long considered Parade to be composer Jason Robert Brown's masterpiece despite the fact that it closed after only 84 regular performances when it premiered on Broadway in the 1998-99 season. It finally got its due with a New York City Center production which transferred to Broadway starring Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond. When Parade won Best Revival of a Musical on Sunday, the producers and book writer Alfred Uhry got their turn at the mic — but when Brown stepped up to the microphone to speak about the murder of Mary Phagan and the still ongoing case against Leo Frank, he was cut off as CBS moved to a pre-recorded segment about the history of The Phantom of the Opera. Hey, Tony producers, this wasn't over yet!

Jason Robert Brown
Jason Robert Brown

BEST: <em>Sweeney Todd</em> proves why we should attend its tale

Because of shrinking budgets, it's very rare nowadays to see an ensemble and orchestra of the size that Broadway shows once regularly commanded. This season's revival of Sweeney Todd, however, invests in superb orchestrations from a lush 26-piece orchestra and a massive ensemble of absurd talent that demonstrated on the Tonys stage the staggering wall of sound that emanates from a group that large and that gifted. It's the type of vocal power that makes an audience sit up straighter in their seat as a shiver runs down their spine. As Broadway and theater at large continue to fight to recover following COVID shutdown, it's a stellar reminder of what is possible when a work of art is given the investment and resources it deserves.

Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Sweeney Todd on Broadway. Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

BEST: Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee make history

Alex Newell, who first came to fame on Glee, and J. Harrison Ghee made history Sunday night as the first openly non-binary actors to win Tony Awards. Newell was visibly emotional when their name was called, naming them the winner of Best Featured Actor in a Musical for their work as a sexy whiskey distiller in Shucked. "I have wanted this my entire life," Newell said. "As a queer, non-binary, fat Black little baby from Massachusetts, to anyone that thinks they can't do it, you can do anything you put your mind to." Ghee won Best Actor in a Musical for their portrayal of Daphne/Jerry in Some Like It Hot amidst stiff competition in a category alongside Ben Platt, Josh Groban, and more. "For every trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming human, who was told you couldn't be seen, this is for you," Ghee proclaimed. "Thank you for letting lives be seen." Their wins come in the midst of ongoing debate over whether the awards should include gendered categories.

Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee
Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee

BEST: Tom Stoppard calls out ChatGPT and devaluing writers

Tom Stoppard, one of our greatest living playwrights, rounded out his Best Play Tony wins that date back to 1968's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a statue for his latest play, Leopoldstadt. His win officially makes him the most awarded writer in this category. But Stoppard, 85, isn't resting on his laurels. Instead, he took his time at the podium to criticize the use of ChatGPT and devaluation of writers as creative professionals. "I am teeming with emotions a chat box wouldn't begin to understand," he quipped. "I should mention, if I may, during those 55 years [on Broadway], I have witnessed the theater writer getting progressively devalued in the food chain. I find it a bit strange because writers are the sharp end of the inverted pyramid, and without a script, with the possible exception of ballet and awards evenings, we're all basically flummoxed."

tom stoppard
tom stoppard

WORST: <em>Some Like It Hot</em> gets tepid number of trophies

With 13 nominations, Some Like It Hot had the potential to break the record for most awarded production in a single night (the record is currently held by The Producers). Instead, it won only four awards (for Orchestrations, Choreography, Costumes, and Actor), three of which were given during the pre-show on PlutoTV. While we were thrilled to see J. Harrison Ghee make history with their win, it was disappointing to see Hot have only a lukewarm night. Tony voters instead bestowed more love on Kimberly Akimbo, which has earned raves for its uplifting take on growing up and mortality. While we're at it, we're also bummed Shucked only won one category, as it's also a delight. But Hot is an old-fashioned, big-hearted tap musical with a hilarious contemporary script from Amber Ruffin and Matthew Lopez and a panoply of incredible performances that deserved more recognition.

Some Like It Hot
Some Like It Hot

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