The Oscar winner returned for her second time as host of the annual Tony Awards, which played out differently amid the WGA strike.
During the 76th annual Tony Awards, returning host Ariana DeBose addressed the ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike with studios during what normally would have been a traditional song-and-dance-filled opening monologue. Instead, a planned performance written by Lin-Manuel Miranda was scrapped while the ceremony was allowed to go forward with live performances of nominated musicals and the handing out of awards, but with no scripted material.
DeBose opened the show by opening up a blank script, which appeared to be no problem for the seasoned performer who danced her way on-stage to a jazzy medley of pre-existing Broadway hits, reimagined and newly orchestrated, thus not crossing the picket line of script writing, or rather, lyric writing.
Macy Schmidt and Benjamin Rauhala constructed and arranged the medley after Miranda pulled the song he was working on for the opening number, in solidarity with the WGA strike.
The dance and music-forward number was met with a standing ovation from the crowd, which proved that no words were needed to kick off the big night.
After kicking off her dancing shoes, DeBose addressed the audience, "Well, well, well, DeBose began. "Welcome to the 76th annual Tony Awards. And we are coming to you live from this gorgeous theater, the United Palace, uptown, baby, in Washington Heights. By the way, happy Puerto Rican Day!"
She continued, "That was very special to me to be able to open tonight with dance forward and music forward and the number choreographed by Carlo Garcia. Very special. Thank you. All right. So, I'm sure some of you caught that I opened the number by opening the script blank pages. Very good reason for that. Our siblings over at the WGA are currently on strike in pursuit of the fair deal. Now -- yes. And how many of us know what that is?"
DeBose broke down the strike and how it impacts the Tony Awards, namely the show's script for the evening, leaving the host and fellow presenters without teleprompters or a guide to go off.
She continued, "I'm sure for some of you at home you are thinking, okay, the Tony Awards? I'm going to tell you. Thank you for asking. The award shows are traditionally written by members of the WGA. In order for us to go on, they had to find a compromise. For every single person that had a hand in finding that compromise, I say a full-throated thank you!"
"So now you are asking, well, what's the compromise? Well, we don't have a script, you guys," DeBose added before poking fun at her "live and unscripted" performance. "...To anyone who may have thought last year was a bit unhinged, to them I say, 'Darlings, buckle up!'"
"But in all seriousness, yes. I'm unscripted, as will every presenter who comes on the stage tonight. We're just making it up as we go along. That's cool. It is a blessing to be here," the Tony winner shared. "So, what else does that mean? What else does that mean? That also means no teleprompters. We have two monitors in the room. One over there and one over there."
The one thing presenters and award-winners will see is a countdown to count the winners down if their speeches go on for too long. Even still, DeBose encouraged winners to take their moment and enjoy it.
"But honeys, take your moment. Tonight is about you," DeBose reminded. "Also you'll see three little words, 'Please wrap up.' And that's okay."
"What I want to tell you is the Tony Awards are so special. Everyone here has worked very hard to make a show that not only honors those guidelines but celebrating your contributions and your achievements this season," she continued. "I'm so proud. I've seen the work. It is incredibly varied. You should be so proud of everything that you've given to this Broadway season. Well done."
DeBose also took the time to share the significance of the Tony Awards and what the broadcast means to viewers at home, some of whom may be inspired to see a show or even get on stage themselves one day.
"The Tony Awards are unlike any other show. Not just because we celebrate the excellence on the Broadway stage, but because it is the one night of the year that we get the opportunity to bring Broadway to all of you at home. One night," DeBose stressed. "Because just maybe, maybe you'll see a performance that inspires you to take a trip to New York City. Buy a ticket for you and your families or your friends to see a Broadway show."
She continued, "Or maybe you're like, 'We live in the post-Covid world. Travel is not my vibe, but I want to see that show when it goes on national tour and comes to a city near me.' That's why the Tony's matter. You at home, you are a part of keeping the lights of Broadway shining bright, and for that we are grateful, and we thank you for your viewership."
"OK, this has been really fun. I've talked a lot. I think it is time for Broadway to speak for herself," DeBose said ending her monologue to introduce the cast of New York, New York.
Not surprisingly, the opening to the 2023 ceremony was quite different from the Oscar-winning actress' first year hosting the awards. In 2022, she kicked off the 75th annual Tonys at Radio City Music Hall with a jam-packed musical monologue that brought the house down.
The performance was directed at all the nominees as well as the cast and crews who make Broadway come to life each year, especially after the theater scene bounced back from the pandemic.
"And so tonight, for you I want to start by singing," DeBose, who was dressed in a sparkling white jumpsuit and white top hat, sang. "To every team, every cast, in present, future and past, tonight at last, this is a round of applause. For the last 75 years, You kept it alive here, cheers! High five. 'Cause you know the show would never go on if we didn't all come together as one."
DeBose followed the rousing number with a few words for the live audience and viewers at home, welcoming them all to the "celebration of the very best of the past season." She said, "I am so proud to be hosting the first Tony awards since Broadway got its groove back, and I'm so proud that the theater is becoming more reflective of the community who adores it. In doing so, it has gained new performers, new creative teams, and new fans."
DeBose also noted how Broadway was becoming more culturally diverse and inclusive onstage and behind the scenes. "While we have not solved all of our problems, I feel like the phrase 'great white way' is becoming more of a nickname than a 'how to' guide," she said before listing the 2022 nominees that were changing the face of the Tony Awards.
"And here's why: This season featured new shows written by seven black playwrights. Yeah! It brought us a gender-flipped production of Company. And tonight, Lynn Nottage is the only playwright ever to be nominated for both best play and best book of a musical in the same season," she continued. "Yes. L. Morgan Lee is the first openly transgender performer to be nominated for a Tony, and she won't be the last. Scenic designer Adam Rigg is the first out-gender nominee. Composer Toby Marlow is the first non-binary winner. Wow. And last but certainly not least, both Lena Horne and James Earl Jones are having theaters renamed for them."
The 2023 nominees were no different, with non-binary performers J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell earning their first-ever acting nods, for their respective musicals, Some Like It Hot and Shucked, while Amber Ruffin, Lena Waithe and Mariah Carey were among some of the many diverse producers nominated in the top categories.
DeBose's second time hosting, meanwhile, follows a long line of notable emcees who have taken the stage during the Tony Awards, including Audra McDonald as well as James Corden, Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris.
The 2023 Tony Awards unfolded over a four-hour event that first kicked off with The Tony Awards: Act One, a pre-show of exclusive content leading up to the main celebration. That event started at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT on Pluto TV before DeBose took over as host with awards handed out live starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS and Paramount+.
Check out the complete winner's list here.