J. Harrison Ghee contains multitudes in 'Some Like It Hot' on Broadway
The actor earned their first Tony Award nomination for playing a character who arrives at a new understanding of their identity with old-fashioned musical flair.
On May 2, J. Harrison Ghee and the Some Like It Hot Broadway cast were in the green room of The Today Show, on which the cast was about to appear. That would have been exciting and nerve-wracking enough, but it was the day of the Tony nominations, which were being announced at the exact same time.
Best Leading Actor and Actress nominations were up first, so Ghee and his co-star Christian Borle got to perform with the joy of knowing they were both nominated for Best Actor in a Musical — and that Some Like It Hot had gotten a Best Musical nod. When the performance was over, the cast got to watch 10 more nominations roll in — more than any other show this season.
Borle and Ghee recreate the roles of Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne, respectively, from the same-named Billy Wilder film about jazz musicians who run from the mob disguised as women. The musical, with an updated book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, sees Jerry gradually realize femininity is actually a key part of their identity they didn't know they were missing.
Ghee, a non-binary actor who uses he/they pronouns, became an instant awards frontrunner when Some Like It Hot premiered in November — New York Theatre Guide's critic wrote that he "endears and delights." But Ghee does even more than that; they interpret the character with deep understanding and heart, as Jerry/Daphne's journey to gender expansiveness reflects their own. Ghee shows that masculinity, femininity, and anything in between can live alongside each other — and within one person — bringing new-fashioned sensibilities to an old-fashioned Broadway show.
"I allow myself the space and the grace to grow," Ghee said. "I hope to be able to share that with audiences."
Now, they join Shucked's Alex Newell (in the Featured Actor category) as the first openly non-binary performers in history to receive a Tony nomination for acting. Ghee shared what Some Like It Hot and the nomination mean to them, and the response from audiences who have gotten to grow right alongside with, and thanks to, their performance.
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What went through your mind when you heard about your nomination?
Literally, the first thing I saw was a text from my friend [that] said, "You did it. You did it. You did it." We went to college together, so we studied theatre, and she's like my little sister. So to just read that from her cracked me. Everyone saw me well up. I was like, "What?!" I showed them, and we were all having to be quiet because they were still on the air, so we were just sitting there!
There was a moment [during the performance] where I and Christian and NaTasha [Yvette Williams], at the top, say, "We could certainly all use a drink!" We were like, "Pop the bottles!"
What does it mean to you that you earned your first nomination for this role, which you've put so much of yourself into?
It's incredible. It is not something I take lightly and especially in this climate of legislation against queer and trans and non-binary beings, it is something I carry with pride. I live with intention and purpose and love, and for that to be honored in this work is truly incredible.
Can you share your journey with the Some Like It Hot, from when the possibility of playing this role first came to you?
I auditioned for a reading of it in 2019, and it was definitely something that excited me, the opportunity to show this journey and this arc of freedom and of finding an expansion, and it met me where I am in my life of being able to, as I say, free myself to see myself, to allow life and circumstances to expand me beyond my own labels and limits and boundaries and step into a fuller version of a human that I couldn't have imagined to be true.
Where were you in your life at the time?
I was doing Mrs. Doubtfire the musical at the time — my parents were getting divorced, so it was funny that I was doing Doubtfire at the time — and then also trying to find this full version of me. I had done Kinky Boots and that expanded me. I'm still seeking, every day in life, freedom and joy. And this is what I see eight times a week. Being able to show people that freedom and that joy, and to go beyond what anybody else can put on me and just walk in what resonates and brings me joy.
Have you gotten any particularly meaningful responses from audiences that responded to your performance?
One of my favorite experiences so far has been our opening night. Our security stage door attendant, Leon, saw the show for the first time from the front and was sitting next to a gentleman. After I finished my song "You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather," he turned to the person next to him and was like, "I need to treat my son better." That's the only review I care about.
Or having those moments at the stage door with a parent of a trans kid who's like, "Thank you for showing my child that their existence matters, and it's important, and there's a part of them living on stage." It's those kind of moments that mean the world to me.
Is it exhausting to perform the role eight times a week? Some Like It Hot is a physical, high-energy show, and you're at the center of it.
We joke at the theatre all the time that Broadway should be sponsored by Celsius and Starbucks. Everyone's guzzling Celsius before the show. It is a lot, but we get to do it with such beautiful people in the theatre. At the Shubert, it is just full of joy and love.
This is a lot — people are literally being thrown around in the opening number! And yet, we're like, "Alright, we're down to do it. Let's go."
What does it mean to lead an old-fashioned mega-musical?
It's something so special. Broadway is back in such a bold, brassy way, and we're doing that at the Shubert. It's wonderful to feel audiences every night receive that and also be taken places we didn't expect in our journey. It's beautiful. The work that we put in over these years, now to receive that love and to give that love back to audiences every night.
Why is it important to you to still have big musicals like this on stage?
People go to theatre to escape, to feel, to see a spectacle, and they want to see something beyond normalcy sometimes. And so we're giving them that, but also it's such a beautiful wave of humanity and grounded in truth. That was Casey Nicholaw's intention the entire time of building the show, that we did everything in this big comedy with authenticity and truth. Yes, we're being farcical here and doing that thing there, but also remember, you're a human. Be grounded in the truth of the matter.
We definitely see that with Jerry/Daphne: Jerry doesn't feel like he's incomplete at the beginning, but the character naturally grows into a fuller identity they didn't know they were looking for.
There's so many trans and queer and non-binary people at the stage door who are like, "I've been struggling and now I have more language; thank you for this visibility. Thank you for helping me in my journey. This is something I've been toying with quietly, but now I can talk about." Even cisgender people who are like, "Wow, this fluid journey you have on stage," and baby boomers who knew the movie when it came out, they're like, "This is beautiful."
There's something about the work in progress.
As we all are! I want to share with humanity [that] we don't have to be one thing. Give ourselves the grace to grow, that freedom, that space to be able to say, "Today I feel this, tomorrow I feel that," and let the two truths exist at once. And that be enough.
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This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Top image credit: J. Harrison Ghee. (Photo courtesy of production)
In-article images credit: Some Like It Hot on Broadway. (Photos by Marc J. Franklin)
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