'New York, New York' first-time Tony nominees on celebrating the city they love

Actor Colton Ryan, book writer Sharon Washington, and costume designer Donna Zakowska share their connections to the city and the joy of sharing them with audiences.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

They're finally a part of it — the ranks of Tony Award nominees, that is. The world-premiere musical New York, New York burst onto Broadway in March with Kander and Ebb and Lin-Manuel Miranda songs, explosive energy, and a whole lot of NYC love, much of which comes from new talent, new talent. Or at least newly recognized.

Nominees Colton Ryan (Best Actor in a Musical), Sharon Washington (Best Book of a Musical) and Donna Zakowska (Best Costume Design of a Musical) have all been in the entertainment industry for years, but this is their first time in the Tonys race. They account for three of the show's nine total nominations, which also include Best Musical.

Washington's story, co-written with three-time nominee David Thompson, is set in 1946 New York, where jazz musician Jimmy Doyle (Ryan) and Francine Evans (Anna Uzele) brought together by the "major chord," as Jimmy describes it, of music, money, and love. The struggles of lots of young artists to make it in the post-World War II city are also interwoven into this bustling world.

"We wanted to truly capture the tapestry that makes the city what it is," Washingston said. "You may only experience snippets of other stories, but that's very New York. Snatches of conversations overheard on a subway, or in the park, or through an open window, or on a fire escape. Pieces of lives that sometimes connect and sometimes don't. And of course the city itself is a character."

Tony nominations may be new to Ryan, Washington, and Zakowska, but the city's unmatched energy is something the trio, being longtime New Yorkers, know well.

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Celebrating home

It's safe to say all three first-time nominees see themselves in the characters of New York, New York. They, too, were once aspiring artists with big dreams. Zakowska grew up in Brooklyn, and she said her current motto is the same as her younger self's back then: "Ultimately work as hard as you can, when you can, and relentlessly pursue your goal."

Washington's roots are in Manhattan — "a member of my family has lived on the island of Manhattan since 1835," she said. "Most every character has some aspect of myself - a story I'd either heard or experienced growing up in the city. Parts of my personality as a born and bred New York City native - the tenacity, the drive, the sarcasm, the vulnerability, the openness to possibility."

She infused not just herself, but her whole community into the characters she wrote, too. "Being able to tell some of the stories I heard and showcase characters I knew growing up: my father, my mother, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbors; the unseen and unheralded workers that help make New York the greatest city in the world was important to me."

That's precisely what sets New York, New York apart: Some touristy landmarks make appearances, but the most affecting moments happen in less showy settings. Construction workers tap on a sky-high beam; restaurant workers share their ambitions in the kitchen; a grieving teacher connects with her student on her apartment stoop. Washington was glad to be recognized for shedding light on the thriving, diverse New York that exists beyond postcard pictures.

"It's the New York I know and love," she said. Of her own NYC community, she said. "They were here. They're still here. It's personal to me. And I hope therefore, universal."

Ryan, in contrast, grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, but he's been in New York since 2016, when he had his break as an understudy in Dear Evan Hansen. Like his character, he's learned a thing or two from experience in that time about the difficulty of "making it there" — and how rewarding the payoff is.

"[New York, New York] shares the same philosophy that I have about why I would ever choose to do something as outlandish as live in New York City and pursue this lifestyle," Ryan said. "It’s just like a Kander and Ebb song: it’s downtrodden and melancholic, but it chugs along anyway. And to me, my god, if that ain’t show business.

"I love this place, this life," he continued. "It is where I’ve achieved my wildest dreams and yet has broken my heart ten ways to Sunday. But I couldn’t fathom living anywhere else or living any other way. This city has been the culmination of so much love in my life. And I’m thankful I can scream my love for this place eight times a week."

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Learning new tricks

Living in New York requires its own set of skills: reading a subway map, navigating the non-numbered streets, confidently rattling off your deli order. Similarly, being in New York, New York required its first-time nominees to pick up new tricks.

Ryan, for one, had to learn multiple instruments to play Jimmy, who breaks out half a dozen during the song "I Love Music" alone. "I had to learn so many new skills for this (how to tap, to play the sax, the piano), and I didn’t think it in my nature to be so brazen about it all: that I would willingly do all these firsts on the biggest stage for a very discerning crowd," Ryan confessed. "But I’m thankful I taught my hands how to make [Jimmy] come alive."

Washington called her process a "learning mountain" as opposed to a mere "learning curve." She began her career more than 30 years ago as an actor and has since written a few plays, but New York, New York is her first Broadway book. The lessons she learned from this experience aren't tangible like sax playing, but they're no less valuable.

"What I've learned is tenacity and problem solving. I've learned to be open and flexible and not to second-guess myself. I've learned to work quickly. I've learned you have to do your homework and then be prepared to let it go," she said. "I've learned there is no ownership of ideas in a collaboration. Don't be precious. There are multiple ways to solve a problem.

"I've learned the absolute necessity of making a safe space for all involved to be free to bring their best selves and ideas. I've learned that you've got to laugh. I've learned, to quote John Kander, 'There's nothing better than making art with your friends.'"

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Reaching milestones

A first Tony Award nomination is a milestone no matter what, but Zakowska and Washington share the joy of finally being recognized after decades of hard work.

"I have designed over 25 theatre pieces, often with extremely small budgets," Zakowska said. "I have always believed in the importance of theatre and considered my participation in it a very meaningful. This nomination is a culmination of the many moments I have spent passionately supporting its existence."

Zakowska has worked more extensively in TV than Broadway, though, so she already has other awards to her name — her costume designs for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel earned her an Emmy. But this nomination is a first for any major award for Washington.

"I've been a working actor for 35 years but only became a produced playwright seven years ago," she said. "Longevity in this business is difficult. Particularly for women 'of a certain age' and women of color. It's getting better as more and more of us are behind the scenes writing, producing and directing. We are in rooms where we can make sure that our stories and our voices are heard and centered."

Ryan's nomination is a different kind of special, and the 27-year-old actor is "so glad it happened now and not a moment sooner."

"It’s so much sweeter because you are the person you always wanted to be, outside of all this," he said. "My life will be inevitably filled with more art because of it, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted."

Plus, like Washington, the support of his family and community in part led him to his nomination. "The thing that has lingered with me the most was my mother’s face [when I got nominated]... As many parents know, it’s very costly to have your children surrounded in art. But no matter what, it was never a question in my mother’s mind: She was going to make it all work. And if this nomination is any sort of validation, I hope it is for her. It was worth it, Mom."

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Sharing the love

In "difficult, divisive times," Washington said, she sees her show as a way to unite everyone on stage and off. No matter what one's background is, New York, New York professes, everyone's connected simply because they're here.

"The New York I grew up in was a city of neighborhoods - separate yet somehow intertwined and codependent," Washington said. "There's a line in the show that's a direct quote from John Kander about New York being the "greatest social experiment ever." My hope is that our show celebrates not what separates us, but what brings us together."

That's best exemplified at the show's very end, when the company sings the iconic title song. After the bows, the audience gets to join in.

"We finally turn the mic around and let them sing the song that lives in their bones, that lets them know the wedding’s over, that celebrates the ballgame win or loss," Ryan said. "I can see how much unbridled pride it brings them. This city means so much to so many, way beyond just its inhabitants. And after a few years of being told that this city would never be again what it once was, it’s so brilliant to turn that mic around and hear 1,700 people sing its anthem in defiant harmony."

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Photo credit: New York, New York on Broadway. (Photos by Paul Kolnik)

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