When the curtain rises on the 76th annual Tony Awards, a Kentuckian will be center stage among Broadway’s best and brightest stars.
“I’m just thankful for this recognition just because I know what it means in the landscape of this business,” says Colton Ryan, a Lexington native and graduate of the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Bluegrass, also known as SCAPA.
Ryan is nominated for best performance by a lead actor in a musical for his work in “New York, New York.” He plays Jimmy Doyle, a brilliant, young musician searching for fame and love in post-World War II New York.
This isn’t the first turn on a Broadway stage for the 26-year-old Ryan. He was an understudy for several parts in the acclaimed production “Dear Evan Hansen” in 2016, and he had a role in “Girl from North Country” in 2020. He also starred in the Hulu TV crime drama “The Girl from Plainville.”
“To be blunt, the theater saved my life when I was a kid,” says Ryan. “It built me up.”
Ryan appeared his first musical when he was in fourth grade and says he got the theater bug “pretty hard.” He credits his teachers at SCAPA, which serves artistically gifted students in grades four through eight, for bringing out the best in him as a person and as a performer.
“The way my mind worked as a child, it doesn’t always fit all the boxes,” says Ryan, “and the ones who recognized that were my teachers at SCAPA.”
After making his Broadway debut at the age of 21, Ryan now joins several other Kentuckians who have been recognized for their theatrical work, including Tony nominees Laura Bell Bundy (raised in Lexington) and Will Chase (a Frankfort native), and Tony winner Steve Kazee (from Ashland).
“It’s pretty cool to know that a lot of my heroes are from the same place as me,” says Ryan.
When this year’s Tony nominees were announced in early May, Ryan says he tried to sleep through the broadcast, thinking he wouldn’t be recognized. But his slumber was broken when his fiancé screamed as his name was read. He says he will never forget the look on his mother’s face when they FaceTimed after the announcement. Ryan credits her tireless efforts as a single parent to take him and his sister to countless auditions, practices, performances.
“I cannot believe how lucky I am to have so much love in my life, but especially my family’s and my mother’s,” he says.
Ryan says it’s humbling to be counted among the nominees for lead actor in a musical this year. They include Josh Groban for “Sweeny Todd,” Christian Borle for “Some Like It Hot,” and Brian d’Arcy James for “Into the Woods.” He says he learned important aspects of being a stage singer from listening to several of their performances on Broadway cast albums.
“I’ve met them all and... they’re all just lovely people and couldn’t be more understanding and welcoming to me in this process,” says Ryan.
Despite the glamor of Broadway, appearing in a hit show can be grueling with as many as eight performances a week. Ryan says he has to drink two gallons of water a day just to keep his vocal cords lubricated. Still, he says he hopes his run with “New York, New York” will continue for “a good long while.” In the meantime, he says he’s proud of his career so far, honored to represent the commonwealth, and grateful for the training he received growing up in Lexington.
“Frankly I know… how much of a miracle it is that even SCAPA just exists,” Ryan says. “I think it should be a right for all children.”
The Tony Awards broadcast will air on Sunday, June 11 at 8 p.m. on CBS and Paramount+.
New Poetry Collection Honors the Lives of Rural LGBTQ Youth
Growing up in Floyd County was not easy for Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. Sometimes the electricity at home was shut off because the family couldn’t afford their bill. Other times, they had no home to stay in. But through it all, Carver says he had one place of refuge.
“School had food, school had warm water, school had people who were watching out for me,” he says.
That experience inspired Carver to become an educator himself, eventually working as a French and English teacher at Montgomery County High School in Mount Sterling. In 2022, he was named the Kentucky Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education.
“I want every child in Kentucky, I want every child in America to feel like there’s a space where they can be and they’re welcome exactly as they are and people care about them,” he says.
But even as he was honored for his classroom work, Carver, an openly gay man, faced harassment and homophobia. Shortly after winning the teaching award, Carver announced he would leave the profession.
“I felt like I’d been in a tornado for 10 years,” he says.
Now Carver works as a LGBTQ+ advocate and speaker. He is also the author of a new book entitled “Gay Poems for Red States,” published this month by the University Press of Kentucky. The collection of narrative poems chronicles the life of a boy growing up queer in Appalachia and explores what it means to long for a home in a place that can be unwelcoming.
“It is really hard in rural places for LGBTQ youth especially to see themselves,” he says.
While discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals isn’t new, Carver says the current political climate that targets gay and transgender youth is especially troubling.
“Those dangerous voices are now being treated as if they’re politically normal and it’s not normal,” he says. “It’s not normal to attack children.”
While the people of Kentucky are good, caring, and loving, Carver contends that some politicians in the state are actively against LGBTQ individuals. He says he’s only wants to live his life, but he says that becomes difficult when even the most mundane daily activities are seen by some as a political statement.
“It’s impossible not to make a political point when you’re LGBTQ because basically me putting on glasses is a political point. Me going to the grocery store with my husband is a political point,” says Carver. “When other people create circumstances that make your life political, everything you do is political.”
As he wrote the poems in his collection, Carver says he would sometimes start to delete sections he thought were too emotionally raw. But then he thought about himself as a young boy, yearning for a voice and validation. He says the memory of that boy wouldn’t let him erase the words the adult Carver wrote.
Now he hopes his poems can help new generations of LGBTQ+ youth. He says even former students have messaged him requesting copies of his book. Instead of trying to silence gay and trans youth through public policy, harassment, and discrimination, Carver says they should be lifted up.
“What we’re really doing is sending a message to these young people that who they are shouldn’t exist,” he says. “These kids should exist everywhere.”