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Tony Awards kick off with plenty of athletic Broadway razzle-dazzle, despite writers' strike

The stage appears before the start of the 75th annual Tony Awards on June 12, 2022 in New York. The 76th Annual Tony Awards will broadcast live from the United Palace in New York on Sunday, June 11, 2023. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
The stage appears before the start of the 75th annual Tony Awards on June 12, 2022 in New York. The 76th Annual Tony Awards will broadcast live from the United Palace in New York on Sunday, June 11, 2023. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
NEW YORK -
Tony Awards host Ariana DeBose opened a blank script backstage before dancing and leaping her way to the stage as the main show's telecast kicked off Sunday, seizing the moment after the Hollywood writers' strike left Broadway's biggest night without words but with plenty of razzle-dazzle.
 
An exciting, hectic opening number down the aisle gave a jolt of electricity to what is usually an upbeat, safe and chummy night. The strike by the Writers Guild of America has 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."'
 
A total of 26 Tony Awards will be handed out Sunday for a season that had 40 new productions -- 15 musicals, 24 plays and one special engagement during the first post-pandemic full season.
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.
 
Director Jerry Mitchell won the Isabelle Stevenson Award in recognition of his dedication and contributions to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
 
Broadway had some very serious works this season, like the new plays "Cost of Living" and "The Kite Runner" and revivals of "Topdog/Underdog" and "Death of a Salesman," led by Wendell Pierce. A revival of "Parade," about the lynching of a Jewish businessman starring Ben Platt, was also well received.
 
The season also had an element of the fantastical in a puppet-heavy adaptation of the lifeboat book "Life of Pi," satire in "The Thanksgiving Play" and pure silliness in "Shucked" and "Peter Pan Goes Wrong."
 
"Some Like It Hot," a musical adaptation of the classic cross-dressing movie comedy that starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, goes into the night with a leading 13 Tony Award nominations. For the top crown, it is pitted against "& Juliet," which reimagines "Romeo and Juliet" and adds some of the biggest pop hits of the past few decades, "New York, New York," which combined two generations of Broadway royalty in John Kander and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and "Shucked," a lightweight musical comedy studded with corn puns.
 
The critical musical darling and intimate, funny-sad "Kimberly Akimbo," with Victoria Clark playing a teen who ages four times faster than the average human, rounds out the best musical category.
 
The best new play category is a competition among Tom Stoppard's "Leopoldstadt," which explores Jewish identity with an intergenerational story, and "Fat Ham," James Ijames' Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" set at a Black family's barbecue in the modern South.
 
"Leopoldstadt" leapt ahead of its play rivals with wins for director Patrick Marber, best featured actor for Brandon Uranowitz and Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes.
 
Michael Arden won for best director of a musical for a revival of "Parade," a doomed musical love story set against the real backdrop of a murder and lynching in Georgia in pre-World War I.
 
"'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," he 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."
 
The rest of the category is made up of "Ain't No Mo,"' the short-lived but critical applauded work by playwright and actor Jordan E. Cooper, Stephen Adly Guirgis' Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Between Riverside and Crazy" and "Cost of Living," parallel stories of two caretakers and their respective patients.
 
The answers to some intriguing questions pend: Can Audra McDonald ( "Ohio State Murders" ) extend her record as the most awarded actor in Tony Awards history? Will either J. Harrison Ghee ("Some Like It Hot") or Alex Newell ("Shucked") become the first nonbinary person to win a Tony for acting? (Last year, "Six" composer and writer Toby Marlow became the first out nonbinary winner.)
 
Performances are slated from the casts of "Camelot," "Into the Woods," "& Juliet," "Kimberly Akimbo," "New York, New York," "Parade," "Shucked," "Some Like It Hot" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
 
In addition, Joaquina Kalukango -- the winner of last year's Tony for best lead actress in a musical -- will sing, as will the casts from "A Beautiful Noise" and "Funny Girl." That means there'll be plenty of star power, from Josh Groban to Lea Michele.
 
It's all taking 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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