Tony Awards Behind the Scenes: All the Tea You Didn’t See on TV
J. Harrison Ghee started their day eating a bacon, egg, and cheese McGriddle. They ended the night making history as the first non-binary performer to win a Tony Award for best leading actor in a musical for their role as Jerry/Daphne in the new musical comedy Some Like It Hot, loosely based on the 1959 film starring Marilyn Monroe.
For Ghee, Tony Awards Sunday – the Super Bowl for the Broadway industry – was relatively calm compared to what nominated actors endure most years. In the morning, they went to the Shubert Theatre on 44th Street in Manhattan, where Some Like It Hot is playing, along with the rest of the cast to get into costume. Then they all headed uptown to the United Palace Theater on 175th Street for dress rehearsal to practice their Tony Awards performance number. After getting out of costume, Ghee headed down to Hell’s Kitchen’s Ink 48 Hotel around noon where they spent the afternoon getting glammed up prior to the red carpet. Traditionally, most nominees have a 3 p.m. matinee to do just before the Tonys. This year, that show was dark.
“It would have been wild [if we had a show to do],” Ghee told Rolling Stone by phone from their suite, where they were celebrating the day with their family. They were dressed in a custom Jérôme Lamaar-designed gown with Brandon Blackwood heels. “I’m glad I get time to hang with my mom, to get her glam, and to really live in the moment.”
It was an unconventional year for the Tony Awards. There was no scripted show, due to the ongoing WGA strike, and it was held for the first time all the way up in Washington Heights. Most years, it’s at Radio City Music Hall in Midtown Manhattan. Crowds camped out across the street as Broadway descended upon their neighborhood. The red carpet and surrounding tents were adorned with decorations that paid homage to the rich culture of the community.
Inside the 3,350-capacity United Palace Theater, there was a continuous line at the cash bar before the auditorium doors opened. Shucked nominee Kevin Cahoon, who arrived early, hugged fans of his entering the theater, while Cost of Living nominee Kara Young grabbed Brenda Braxton for an embrace as she walked by. On the second floor before the show began, two of the hosts for the evening, West Side Story star and Oscar winner Ariana DeBose and So You Think You Can Dance’s Julianne Hough (who co-hosted a portion of the awards on Pluto TV with Skylar Astin), posed for pictures in an exclusive Baccarat – Zacapa Rum speakeasy for nominees and other invite-only guests. The VIP Lounge, decorated with a black crystal chandelier made of silver and gold, was also a first in recent Broadway memory — as these special ticket-holders were treated to a cocktail experience that attempted to embody the culture of Washington Heights with drinks like the Zacapa Piraguas, a twist on a Piragua. Guests in the lounge included Succession star and A Doll’s House nominee, Arian Moayed; Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o; Josh Groban; and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan. Composer Jason Robert Brown caught up with composer Tom Kitt, nominated for Almost Famous, as upcoming Back to the Future star, Jelani Remy, was ecstatic to meet Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Kandi Burruss.
As the 6:30 p.m. Pluto TV show was about to begin, DeBose quickly addressed the audience – specifically the nominees, about what camera they should look at depending on what side of the stage they were to accept their award. Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda looked on adoringly from the side of the stage at New York, New York composer John Kander, one of this year’s lifetime achievement award winners, as he gave his speech. Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey did the same as her father, Joel Grey, accepted his lifetime achievement award. Off-camera, Hough did a little shimmy before taking her place at the microphone to present the best choreography award to Some Like It Hot’s Casey Nicholaw.
The audience, anxious to get up and socialize after the first act, was repeatedly asked to stay in their seats prior to the 8 p.m. portion of the show on CBS and Paramount+ since there would be a performance in the aisles. Since the show was unscripted, with no new original songs or lyrics permitted due to the WGA strike, the opening number choreographed by Karla Garcia featured DeBose delivering a dance tribute to Broadway. Part of the performance took place outside the theater on the second floor lobby, which was closed briefly to ticket holders. DeBose called upon orchestrator Macy Schmidt and DeBose’s long-time musical director, Benjamin Rauhala, to create an epic instrumental dance overture with a Latin flair. Several of DeBose’s West Side Story cast members were part of the ensemble, including Carlos E. Gonzalez, Tanairi Vazquez, Jacob Guzman, and Kevin Csolak. The number was a knockout, and the audience ate it up, especially since no one knew what, if anything, would be staged due to the strike.
During the commercial breaks, montages of upcoming shows like The Wiz and Merrily We Roll Along revivals played on the screen, as those in the crowd scrolled their phones, took bathroom breaks, grabbed drinks at the bar, ate snacks, and caught up with friends and colleagues in other seats. With no announcements for who the next presenter was or what the next performance was, the audience went wild as the curtain rose and numerous celebrities and casts of shows took their place on stage to present, including Annaleigh Ashford, Into The Woods’ Sara Bareilles and Bryan D’Arcy James, and the company of Sweeney Todd. It was bleeped on TV but everyone inside heard Parade Director Michael Arden during his speech say, “Growing up, I was called the F-word [he said the PG version of F-word] more times than I can count,” he said. “But now, I’m a f—-t with a Tony.” It received heaps of laughs and a roar of applause. When The Gilded Age star Denée Benten called Florida Governor Ron DeSantis a “grand wizard,” comparing the “anti-woke” right-wing politician to a KKK leader, the audience clapped along with enjoyment, while some gasped at how she’d made such a bold comment on live TV.
After the show at the official Tony Awards After Party, set in various tents outside the United Palace Theater, there was a long line for the Shake Shack truck. There were also churros, fruit cups, and mangos (Funny Girl star Tovah Feldshuh dug into one) – representing the flavors of Washington Heights. There was also an impressive champagne tower. Standing nearby was Tony Nominee Corey Hawkins (Topdog/Underdog) enjoying a fruity refreshment and Kimberly Akimbo’s Bonnie Milligan, winner of Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, who couldn’t believe SNL’s Lorne Michaels had personally congratulated her.
“He stood up. We shook hands. He said, ‘Congratulations. Great Job,’” a beaming Milligan told Rolling Stone of her interaction with the SNL power broker.
Lorna Courtney, nominated for Leading Actress in a Musical for & Juliet, was spotted at the show’s afterparty at the Edison Hotel in an & Juliet T-shirt. There were sliders, burgers, and a crowded dance floor.
Two blocks away, the cast of Some Like It Hot celebrated at Sardi’s. Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, and Billy Eichner were some of the celebrities there. They held down a table in the corner, mostly keeping to themselves, where Best Score nominee Scott Wittman and members of the cast were also sitting, noshing on pigs in a blanket, cheese, and crackers. Shubert Alley was closed off for the party with several food trucks and a long red carpet leading back to the iconic Broadway restaurant.
For the second year in a row, one of the hottest parties was Julianne Hough and Darren Criss’s After After Party at the Pebble Bar presented by Ketel One Vodka and Zacapa Rum. Lea Michele, who came with her husband Zandy Reich, was seen giving Julianne Hough a big hug. She then reunited with Criss, her former Glee co-star. Musician Este Haim was also there. Other celebs spotted included Alicia Silverstone chatting at a table with designer Christian Siriano, and Ariana DeBose, who sprinted out of the elevator into the party around 2 a.m. to join her close friend, Adrienne Warren.
Billy Eichner party-hopped here as well, along with Matthew Broderick. Guests were offered espresso martinis and burgers from 7th Street Burger. Johnny’s, on the private top floor, morphed into a late-night evening of live music as Criss sang with the band. Criss’s wife, Mia Criss, sang 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” while Hough and DeBose danced on. Ashley Loren, who recently starred in Moulin Rouge on Broadway, dueted with Darren Criss to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” In between, guests jumping up to perform, as Darren rocked out to Green Day’s “Basket Case” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” which had Best Actress in a Play winner Jodie Comer (Prima Facie) on her feet.
For the real insiders, Broadway was officially back with the long-awaited return of the star-studded black-tie Carlyle hotel after party hosted by DKC/O&M president Rick Miramontez and Broadway producer John Gore. After a four-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the party remained the central meeting place and final stop for the entire Broadway community as it raged on until 5 a.m. Joel Grey, Jennifer Grey and Jackie Hoffman were plopped down in the middle of the room indulging in the champagne, sliders, and french fries being passed around. Rumblings in the room involved everything from the hot temperature in the theater during the show to celebs using the popular weight-loss drug, Ozempic. All the Broadway stars were keen to chat up newly-minted New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers, far and away the biggest fish out of water at the party (he also attended the Tony Awards show). The towering QB was schmoozing left and right. Comedian Alex Edelman, who is about to launch his one-man show on Broadway, was seen chatting it up at the bar with TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney.
Bonnie Milligan, Miriam Silverman, Brandon Uranowitz, and Jerry Mitchell were seen walking around with their heavy Tony statues in hand. Upstairs on the dance floor, Mitchell and The Sex Lives of College Girls star Reneé Rapp were spotted around MJ the Musical star Myles Frost. Kimberly Akimbo Best Actress in a Musical winner Victoria Clark took a bite of a slider on her way out the door, as she crossed paths with Into the Woods nominee Julie Lester – who was just arriving. They hugged each other and chatted about their upcoming projects.
Around 3 a.m., J. Harrison Ghee arrived to applause from attendees. They were in their second look for the night – if you don’t count changing back and forth into their Some Like It Hot costume for the broadcast. Their show dressers helped change them in the theater’s downstairs dressing room, keeping the same glam makeup from the carpet.
This was their first time at the Tony Awards and all the subsequent parties. They said being at the Carlyle “feels right. It just feels like home, and the time is relaxed and comfortable and people are having a good time loving each other and celebrating.”
After a long and exciting night, Ghee didn’t even get a chance to savor their Tony win. They were on an 8:30 a.m. plane en route to The White House for a Pride event.
“Champagne problems,” they quipped. “I’m so excited. I’m so honored. I’m so humbled. I don’t take this moment lightly for myself and for the community and what it means for the world.”