As a young kid with powerful pipes who wowed their church choir, Lynn native Alex Newell was always turning heads. But even they were surprised when, as a high school sophomore, Newell auditioned for the reality series “The Glee Project” and wound up landing a role on “Glee,” as Unique Adams, one of the first transgender teenagers on television. A few years later, Newell starred as gender-nonconforming Mo, whose fashion choices were as bold as their silver-tongued quips, on “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”
Now Newell is bringing down the house nightly at the Nederlander Theatre as tough-talking whiskey distiller Lulu in the Broadway musical “Shucked,” about a small town facing a corn-growing crisis, with a roof-rattling rendition of “Independently Owned.” For that earthshaking turn, Newell has been nominated for a Tony for featured actor in a musical. We rang up Newell to talk about this cornpone show and the Tonys.
Q. What was your reaction to the news of your Tony nomination?
A. I was numb to it at first because I had been at the Met Gala the night before, and so it was the first thing I woke up to! But I was already on a high after all the champagne from the night before.
Q. How do you describe Lulu and “Shucked”?
A. We’re very matter-of-fact about a lot of things about the show, and Lulu is like that. She’s strong-willed, strong-tempered, and a straight shooter and tells it how it is. I read so many scripts all the time, and with this one it was just so funny and brought so much joy to me.
Q. How did you identify with and connect with the character? What were the aspects of her that you most strongly connected with?
A. With my career thus far, I’ve been on my own in a way and done it on my terms. And so it’s great to now be in my 30s, when I’m figuring it all out and reaping the benefits from the fruits of my labors. But at the same time, the character is also figuring out that you don’t have to do everything on your own all the time. I think that’s really where Lulu and I intersect.
Q. “Independently Owned” often elicits a rare midshow standing ovation. What was your reaction when that started to happen?
A. You know, I guess I’m used to a midshow standing ovation [laughs]. When I was in “Once on This Island” [in 2017], I would get midshow standing ovations [for “Mama Will Provide”]. But I welcome them and I thank everyone for them. The more they happen, the more you get numb to it, but you still know that they’re very special and rare.
Q. You and J. Harrison Ghee of “Some Like It Hot” became the first-ever openly nonbinary performers to be nominated for a Tony Award. At a time when trans and LGBTQ rights are under assault around the country, how important is this visibility and recognition for the queer community right now?
A. It’s showing people that we are just as good and no different than any other person who is talented and the best at their craft.
Q. What do you love about getting to deliver some of those gut-busting puns, double entendres, and one-liners in “Shucked”?
A. You get to try them different ways and see what lands and see what doesn’t. It’s great to hear audiences’ different reactions, because there are some heady lines, and sometimes audiences have to sit and think about the lines before they can actually laugh about it. Once you get into a rhythm [as a performer], you figure out how to use the ebbs and flows of each line. It’s lovely hearing my castmates find ways to make the audience laugh while still keeping the integrity of the show and not making it campy the entire time.
Q. Why do you think audiences are responding so strongly to “Shucked”?
A. Because it’s not taking itself too seriously. When we turn on the news, there’s just so much that’s dismal out there in the world. So we help you to stop thinking about everything bad that’s happening and escape for a little while. Because you do feel nothing but joy when you come to see the show.
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.