Alex Newell knows how to command the spotlight.
With a megawatt smile and a vibrantly expressive voice, Newell has carved out a niche for themselves as a no-nonsense vessel of exhilaration. First bursting onto the scene as a standout member of the television show Glee, Newell has split their time between the screen and the stage, most recently starring on screen in the television musical comedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Now, Newell is back on the boards, playing strong-tempered whisky distiller Lulu in the new musical comedy Shucked.
“Lulu knows everything, she has a dirty dirty mind, and is creative in every sense of the word,” Newell tells Playbill as they lean forward, eager to share. “She is this independent person that’s had to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and teach themselves a lot of things, express themselves in different ways. It’s like me, but heightened.”
At its core, Shucked is a story about breaking barriers, and reshaping traditions to support a new generation. Set in a small rural community in the middle of the country, the town is almost completely isolated from the outside world. When the area's corn crop is suddenly blighted, innocent Maizy (played by Caroline Innerbichler) takes the advice of her worldly cousin, Lulu, and ventures into the outside world in search of a miracle—or perhaps, a miracle worker?
Newell, a gender-nonconforming person who uses all pronouns (she/he/they), made their Broadway debut in 2017 as Asaka in the revival of Once On This Island. That debut was both triumphant and bittersweet: In spite of rave reviews for their performance, they were overlooked come Tony Awards season, with numerous nominators telling Newell that they didn’t know if they should have voted them into the Actor or Actress categories.
“My entire first time on Broadway was, ‘You were snubbed’,” Newell remembers. “I went everywhere, and that's what I was. Not, ‘Hello Alex how are you.’ It was always, ‘Oh how awful.’ The rationality that was given to me was, ‘Well we didn't know what category to put you in. You’re just so different.’ Was that supposed to make me feel better or worse?”
A lot has changed in the last five years: many award ceremonies have done away with gendered categories altogether, or at least asked gender-nonconforming or non-binary performers to select the category they would prefer to be considered for. When asked for a comment about Newell’s criticisms, the Tony Awards said to Playbill, “We recognize that the current acting categories are not fully inclusive, and we are currently in discussion about how to best adjust them to address this. Unfortunately, we are still in process on this and our rules do not allow us to make changes once a season has begun. We are working thoughtfully to ensure that no member of our community feel excluded (on the basis of gender identity) in future seasons.”
To Newell, the fact these such conversations are happening is a step in the right direction. “Award shows should work for the season that's at hand. If Aaron Tveit can be nominated by himself...” Newell smiles, waving off the memory of the unorthodox 2020 Tony Awards. “It really is time. We are so wrapped up in tradition that we’re shutting out good people.”
Newell has resisted categorization throughout their career, playing characters across the gender identity spectrum, including cis men, cis women, and everything in between. In Shucked, Newell plays cis woman Lulu with aplomb, navigating the tightly constructed Robert Horn zingers (one cut line: “Hell, men lie all the time. One tried to convince me you could suck out a kidney stone!”) in between moments of real emotional heart.
“When we first meet Lulu, she's at this, ‘I don't need anybody else’ place, romantically. And then wham!” Newell laughs. “The most independent people are the people that want even more from life. They shove their feelings down, and they don't realize that asking for help does not make them seem weak. Lulu has to learn that.”
Lulu’s run-in with unexpected love mirrors the love story of Newell’s parents, they note: ”My mother and my father met on a plane ride to Alabama. My mother slapped him in the face with her mink tailcoat and fell asleep on him. She drooled all over him, and he chased her down in the airport and asked for her phone number. I was born a year later.” Newell’s father, a deacon, died when they were six years old, but Newell still has clear memories of how he brought music into their life.
“I used to know the hymnal front to back, but my father's favorite song was, ‘If God Is Real’,” Newell remembers. “When I was younger, I used to hate singing because every time I would sing, people would cry. I thought that something was wrong with me!” Newell swallows a wave of sentimentality with a trademark smile. “I had to realize what it was that was making them cry. I had to embrace that emotion, trust that crying wasn’t a bad thing.”
The out-of-town tryout in Utah of Shucked drew comparisons to N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker, with the lines between love, faith, and hope blurring in a joyous portrait of a community on the brink of change. Newell trusts that through the show's comedy, they can open audiences' hearts to accepting change in a world that’s always evolving with, especially these days, breakneck speed. “Tradition is always there,” Newell explains “but you’ll choke if you get too wrapped up in it. It's time to really turn to the mirror and look at ourselves.”
It’s a topic they’re personally passionate about, speaking at length: “Everyone is stubborn, and set in their own ways, and it's hard to try to have a conversation about it when you could just show someone,” they say, fervently. “Show them what it is to have this joy and to have this need and want to grow further and faster than where you are right now. To show you that you don't have to be stagnant...You learn different ways of doing things, how to solve new problems, and all of that good stuff if you just look beyond your horizon. Everything light touches is yours, even in the shadows.”