L Morgan Lee (‘A Strange Loop’) on becoming the first openly trans Tony Award nominee: ‘It’s OK to dream bigger than anyone ever imagines’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“I have been at this for quite some time, so for the work to be recognized is really touching and moving,” reveals “A Strange Loop” star L Morgan Lee of her Tony Award nomination. The recognition feels momentous for two reasons: this performance is Lee’s Broadway debut, and her bid for Best Featured Actress in a Musical marks the first time an openly transgender performer has been nominated for a Tony. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

When asked to reflect on the historical nature of her nomination, the actress admits “I don’t know what to feel to be honest with you, because I literally am just trying to put one foot in front of the other.” The experience of hearing her name during the nomination announcements felt like a dream. “I just kept screaming and screaming, and crying, it was like a soap opera in my bedroom,” jokes Lee. “Finally a week later, I’m starting to believe it.”

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While she isn’t expecting one nomination to suddenly alter an entire industry, Lee recognizes that this is an important moment for trans visibility on Broadway. “I hope that it is a big step in the right direction,” she suggests. Beyond any potential impact in the industry, the performer wants this moment to encourage other young trans actors to stick to their truth, even if acting teachers may not understand. “You do the work that speaks to you,” says Lee emphatically, “you continue striving and pushing towards doing the work that you know you should be doing. No matter who says you shouldn’t.”

Lee has been involved with “A Strange Loop” since the initial workshop. She plays Thought 1, one of 5 “thoughts” who portray a variety of people and emotions that swirl around Usher’s (Jaquel Spivey) head. The actress came out about her gender identity during the development of the show, and found that she approached every iteration of its development with a new lens. There were new ways to play the many characters she is tasked with every night. “As I transitioned through the development of the show… what happened is I became more comfortable with myself, and in turn, with the storytelling,” explains Lee. “I see the piece as a Black woman now, in many ways that I did not in the very beginning.”

One of the highlights of Lee’s performance is the number “Sympathetic Ear,” in which she embodies a theater patron that gives Usher some much needed advice to follow his passions. It is perhaps the only bit of true empathy shown to him. Lee loves diving into this woman because of the kindness she displays, her grand persona (“Quite frankly I’m thinking of Diahann Carroll,” she admits of her inspiration for the character), and the full use of her upper register. “One of the things that made me the most comfortable in ‘A Strange Loop’ was that I never had to be anything but myself,’ reveals Lee. She notes that material like ‘Sympathetic Ear’ speaks to her and is not easy to come by. “I got to do that without having people question why I was singing that kind of rep, or why I was doing it in this key.”

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Beyond the perfect vocal fit of the song, the Tony nominee finds that the lyrics and message speak to her lived experience in this very moment. “What I connect to is that she looks in the mirror and realizes that she actually didn’t go after the things that she wanted to do… she had dreams that she never fulfilled.” Just as the character urges Usher to hold tight to his dreams, Lee is acutely aware that she is having this Tony Awards moment because she never lost sight of her own. “For the universe to put that in my hands… I am reminding myself, often times every night, that it is ok to lean into yourself,” explains Lee. “It’s ok to do the things that people don’t think are possible. It’s ok to dream bigger than anyone ever imagines.”

In addition to her Tony nomination, Lee was also nominated for the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award. The Off-Broadway run of “A Strange Loop” garnered her a Lucille Lortel nomination and a special ensemble citation from the Obie Awards.

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