Tony Awards Drama, Understudies to the Rescue, Wicked's 20th: The Biggest Headlines of 2023 | Playbill

Special Features Tony Awards Drama, Understudies to the Rescue, Wicked's 20th: The Biggest Headlines of 2023

As the year draws to a close, we're looking back at a tumultuous 2023 in Broadway news.

Alex Newell, Laird Mackintosh, and Alyssa Fox

2023 is almost behind us, thus ending another year chock full of Broadway and theatre news. As we get our resolutions in order and try to finally memorize those lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne," we're taking a look at some of the biggest and most-clicked-on stories of 2023. Read below to revisit the year in Broadway news.

An Emergency Alert Threatens Broadway Matinees

All theatre fans know there is little else more annoying in the middle of a world-class Broadway performance than a cell phone going off. And sadly, it's becoming the rarer exception when a performance isn't interrupted by a cell phone at some point.

Far more rare, however, is everyone's phone going off en masse. That was the possible situation created by a nationwide emergency alert test earlier this year. FEMA and the FCC were testing a program designed to let people know about major emergencies, like tsunamis or hurricanes or worse. And understandably, this system was and is designed to get past your phone's silent setting to make sure you hear the alert.

While you probably would want to get that alert in the event of a real emergency, Broadway show or not, a test was another situation altogether. In a true "news you can use" moment, Playbill put together an explainer on making sure your phone won't make noise even if that silent mode–thwarting alert comes in. And y'all read it in droves, making it our most-read story of the year by far. Spoiler alert: the best and most reliable method is to turn your phone completely off.

Read more here.

Protests Outside Broadway's Parade

The real-life events of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's musical Parade happened well over a century ago. But antisemitic hatred has sadly continued to this day.

Broadway got a startling reminder of this horrible reality when the Tony-winning revival began performances at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre February 21. As theatregoers lined up to take their seats, members of a far-right white supremacist group known as "The National Socialist Movement" showed up to protest. The protesters handed out flyers taking issue with the musical's depiction of Leo Frank's innocence; they also uttered other hateful and antisemitic rhetoric.

“It was definitely very ugly and scary, but a wonderful reminder of why we’re telling this particular story and how special and powerful art and, particularly, theatre can be," said production star Ben Platt in a video posted to Instagram following the performance. "And it made me feel extra, extra grateful to be the one to get to tell this particular story and to carry on the legacy of Leo."

Read more here.

Strike! Strike! Strike!

No, we're not harkening back to Newsies. There was a tremendous amount of union action in Broadway and the entertainment community at large this year, part of a growing national conversation around wage equality. Hollywood saw almost all of its productions shut down due to strikes from the Writers Guild of America and actor union SAG-AFTRA. And the former strike threatened to postpone the Tony Awards (more on that below).

Broadway saw a number of its contracts renegotiated in 2023, including AEA's Broadway and National Touring agreements and IATSE's Pink Contract. But a big theatrical union brouhaha was Here Lies Love's initial plans to perform without live accompaniment, which would have become a historic Broadway first. The musical had performed earlier runs Off-Broadway and in London with pre-recorded tracks, a choice the production says was artistically made as a homage to the Philippines' love of karaoke.

AFM/Local 802, representing Broadway musicians, countered that there were ways to achieve that pre-recorded, synthetic sound without completely eliminating live musicians, framing the fight as a labor issue. Ultimately, a compromise was struck wherein Here Lies Love hired 12 union musicians for the duration of its run. That being said, the vast majority of the show was performed to pre-recorded tracks, with those musicians only coming in for two brief moments towards the end of the show. But those musicians still had jobs, and AFM/Local 802 still got their dues.

Read more on the Here Lies Love drama here.

Will They or Won't They: Tony Awards Edition

Though union strikes didn't end up affecting any Broadway performances, they very nearly shuttered Broadway's biggest night: the 2023 Tony Awards. With just about a month before the announced ceremony date, Playbill found out that the Tonys had petitioned WGA for a waiver to be able to go on with the ceremony as planned (WGA members write the script for the Tony Awards host and presenters). But this request to an exception was denied, making it appear for several days that the Tonys might not happen at all, at least not as a TV broadcast.

It was a scary few days as organizers hatched a plan to make everyone happy. After all, that national TV broadcast is one of Broadway's most powerful marketing tools, one producers had been counting on to help several shows still struggling in an industry that even now hasn't fully recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

And then a few days later, we got the happy news: the 2023 Tony Awards would proceed as scheduled, though they'd have to be fully off-script. As it turned out, that meant no voice-overs, no pre-written banter, and no cue cards reminding host Ariana DeBose which category to introduce next.

Read more here.

Alex Newell Getty Images

Tony Awards Make Non-Binary History

2023's Tony Awards were a big night for historic wins in the queer community. Joining writer Toby Marlow's 2022 win for co-writing the score to SIX, Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee jointly became the first non-binary performers to win acting categories in 2023, for their performances in Shucked and Some Like It Hot respectively. 

"I have wanted this my entire life," said an emotional Newell while accepting the honor. "Mommy, I love you. Thank you for believing in me, thank you for loving me unconditionally, thank you for teaching me what strength is…I should not be up here as a queer non-binary fat little baby from Massachusetts. And to anyone who thinks they can't do it—you can do anything you put your mind to.”

READ: Alex Newell May Be the First Non-Binary Actor to Win a Tony, But They Want Others to Follow

But ironically, Broadway's top honors had made far less celebratory headlines earlier in the year for another issue involving non-binary actors. Given only the option of being considered in gendered Actor or Actress categories, non-binary actor and & Juliet star Justin David Sullivan opted to decline Tony eligibility altogether. The move inspired renewed calls for the Tonys and many other awards systems to re-think gendered categories.

"I was told that I had to choose [the category in which] I felt comfortable, and in that process, I struggled a lot," Sullivan told Playbill. "There's nothing more that I want to empower than non-binary people, to show that it's possible to be non-binary on Broadway, play a non-binary character on Broadway and be nominated, and possibly potentially awarded. I felt like I couldn't choose. I didn't feel right being in either category because it didn't resonate with me. I decided the only thing that felt right to me would be to abstain from nomination consideration. So I will not be considered for a Tony nomination."

The Tonys, co-presented by The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, cited an inability to change categories once the season has begun while affirming that they "recognize that the current acting categories are not fully inclusive[.]" Their initial statement shared that they were "currently in discussion about how to best adjust [the categories] to address [the issue]," but so far no changes have been announced.

Read more here.

Over Zealous Fans Sneak Backstage at Here Lies Love

The musician battle wasn't Here Lies Love's only offstage drama this year. We got a scary reminder of just how mega-famous Tony winner Lea Salonga is when two fans actually managed to sneak backstage following a performance of Here Lies Love. They filmed a video featuring a visibly shocked and concerned Salonga that quickly went viral on social media. Suffice it to say, there are lots of reasons why this is very bad fan behavior. Aside from making Salonga feel uncomfortable and unsafe, the fans' actions had a serious potential to put themselves in danger, too. Backstage on Broadway is typically a pretty cramped space with lots of specialized tools around—not a place to be casually walking around as a fan.

"The money you pay for a theatre/concert ticket does not mean all-access," Salonga wrote later on Twitter. "You pay for that performer’s art, and that’s where it stops. I gotta say, the folks at the stage door have been so incredibly kind, which only makes us (well, me) enthusiastic to say hello and spend the time to talk to them. I have boundaries. Do not cross them. Thank you."

Read more here.

Mikayla Renfrow

Understudies to the Rescue

Post pandemic, we are in a new world in terms of what level of sickness makes us call out of work. And to be clear, that's more a course correction (after all, it had become far too normalized to go to work while actively nursing a cold and spreading it to your colleagues). This safer culture also means that understudies, swings, and standbys have become even more important than they used to be. 

This year abounded with stories of swings and understudies stepping in, surrounded by the most dramatic of circumstances. 

Whether it's having to be flown in last minute to play the title role in the final Broadway performance of The Phantom of the Opera, an Aladdin understudy who got the notice to step into the show while on a plane, or last week's unique Hamilton performance in which an actor played the title role in act one and Jefferson in act two, Broadway's understudies have been affirming that they are the mechanism by which "the show must go on." Bravo!

A Look Inside Sondheim's Townhouse

One of our most-read stories this year proved that our readers are a bunch of nosy Gladys Kravitzes—and we wouldn't have it any other way. Late Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim's Turtle Bay townhouse went on the market earlier this year, and a real estate listing gave us the best look Broadway fans have ever gotten at where the Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods composer-lyricist lived and wrote. From a beautiful grand piano to a room decked out with all of the posters from Sondheim's shows, we really got a nice view of what the man's home life must have been like.

By the way—the townhouse has since sold, reportedly to a big Sondheim fan. We've got Playbill swag and are available and standing by for any and all future party invites. Just saying.

Read more here.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman at opening night of Some Like It Hot Michaelah Reynolds

They're (Almost) in Tech

How shocked and delighted were Broadway fans earlier this year when, after years of speculation and teases, a Broadway bow for the Smash musical finally got confirmed. Yes, one of our most-read stories of the year was the climactic and much-awaited confirmation that the theatrical NBC television series is coming to the stage, planned for the 2024-2025 Broadway season.

Smash fans have been through so much. Not only did the cult favorite get cut tragically short with only two seasons, but a stage iteration has been dangled in front of us for years. We first thought that the series' fictional Marilyn Monroe bio-musical Bombshell would come to the stage as a fully realized musical. That hasn't happened (yet), though we did get a one-night-only benefit concert in 2015. 

But after years of anticipation, we finally learned this year that Smash would indeed come to the stage as a musical adaptation of the series itself. The story will be a meta tale about the struggles and joys of creating of a musical; with many of its songs joining new tunes by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Since then, the musical has held a major NYC workshop presentation with Susan Stroman directing and Joshua Bergasse choreographing (Rick Elice is writing the book). Dates, a theatre, and casting have yet to be announced, but it really does look as if this Smash stage news won't be just a tease.

Read more here.

Wicked Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary

Broadway's favorite witchy musical hit 20 years on the Main Stem earlier this year, and the Stephen Schwartz musical proved it really knows how to celebrate. The Broadway anniversary was marked with the declaration of October 30 as National Wicked Day, a block party, special pink and green performances with swag bags for audience members, special limited edition Playbill covers, and more.

And it's no surprise that of the large amount of content that Playbill produced around Wicked's anniversary, the most-read entry was our collection of every actor who's played Glinda and Elphaba on Broadway. Leave it to the readers of Playbill to care not just about the originals, not just about their favorites, but about everyone who's painted themselves green and descended the Gershwin's proscenium in a bubble over Wicked's 20 years.

Read more here.

Thank you all for continuing to read our coverage on We can't wait to see what is to come in 2024, and we hope you will join us back here for the latest theatrical news and backstage antics.

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