Each night at Broadway’s new musical-comedy “Shucked,” audiences are treated to the sweet (and pun-filled) story of Cobb County residents Maizy and Beau, who are forced to postpone their wedding when the corn stalks that fuel their small rural town are ravaged.

But the show’s undeniable breakout is Maizy’s cousin Lulu, a local whiskey distiller who convinces her too-innocent relative to travel to Florida to find a way to save their crops.

Alex Newell, who plays Lulu, brings down the house in the middle of Act I with the show-stopper “Independently Owned,” an anthem to warn to Maizy’s new friend Gordy, a conman pretending to help Cobb County, that she don’t need no man. On most nights, the rafter-shaking performance concludes with the rare mid-show standing ovation.

“I’m so exhausted by the end of the number because I’ve just spent a minute and a half screaming to the back row,” she says.

So it’s no surprise, especially to those who watched the actor on “Glee” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” that the words Tony nominations and Newell are frequently mentioned in the same sentence. Since Newell is gender nonconforming and uses he/she/they pronouns, the big question has been which category they’ll be nominated in at the Tonys. Non-binary and gender nonconforming actors are able to select between the gendered categories, and Newell tells Variety they ultimately wanted to be considered for supporting actor.

“I went based off the English language. Everyone who does acting is an actor. That is genderless,” she says, wearing a slouchy sweater and ripped jeans in their dressing room at the Nederlander Theater before a recent performance.

As for Lulu, the character that Newell plays in “Shucked,” they felt an instant connection to the role because she “reminds me so much of myself. I’m turning 30 and I’ve been so independent my entire life.”

Newell glances up at the two small, bedazzled picture frames — one of corn and the other of the show’s patron saint, of sorts, Dolly Parton — above the couch where she’s sitting.

“Dolly is my inspiration for Lulu’s aesthetic,” Newell says. “A little tiny waist with a big ol’ chest and big hair. It’s the quintessential country that I wanted.”

There’s one question I’ve been wondering since I saw “Shucked.” What is it like to get a mid-show standing ovation?

I don’t notice it sometimes. I used to get ovations for “Once on This Island,” but this one is a little different. For “Once,” there were only 600 seats in the theater, and this one has 1,500. So that wall of sound is different. I’m so exhausted by the end of the number because I’ve just spent a minute and a half screaming to the back row. But it’s really cathartic to have that visceral response. On television, you don’t get that instant gratification.

Is it hard not to crack a smile?

Sometimes. A couple nights ago, there was someone in the dead center, right behind the conductor who was queening out and screaming “Yes, Alex, you better work! You better sing!” It was louder than me, and I had a microphone. It was hard because it was a very funny moment.

From a technical perspective, what is the key to enunciating so clearly during a barn-burner like “Independently Owned”?

It really comes down to the training. Your words have to be clear, especially with the southern dialect in such a wordy song. There was a time that I had a clipboard because I was like, “I will never remember these lyrics.” It used to be more words, but I couldn’t breathe. It’s really hard.

How were you first introduced to the show?

I was sitting on my couch eating a bag of chips, and I got a text message from our [musical director] being like, “Hey, do you want to be on Broadway in the spring?” And I was like, “Sure, what is it? Send me the materials.” I remember reading the script and actually laughing out loud. That doesn’t happen.

Did you have to audition for “Shucked”?

Yes, I had a director session and the entire creative team was there. I was the terrible, self-deprecating actor who walks into the room like, “I know none of these words. I’m so sorry if I fumble.” It was one of the most comfortable director sessions I’ve ever done. I came back the next day to do a chemistry read with John Behlmann, who plays Gordy, and that was all she wrote. And now I’m here.

Broadway is currently filled with revivals and movie adaptations. What is it the appeal of doing an original musical?

There are no expectation. We don’t have to live up to somebody else. My first Broadway show was a revival, and I had many a women who I looked up to my entire youth who played that role before me… Kecia Lewis-Evans, Sharon D. Clarke. That was the expectation. I even had an expectation for myself. I was like, “I have to live up to those that have come before me.” Now, I’m creating Lulu for whoever is to come after me. I love that the weight is lifted. It’s a braggadocios statement, but I am the standard.

There’s been a lot of speculation about Tony nominations. How did you decide which category you wanted to be considered?

It’s a hot topic, isn’t it? I went based off the English language. The standard has always been a male is an actor and a female as an actress. And I don’t like that. Because when I say I’m an actor, I mean that is my profession, the craft that I studied, the craft that I’m doing. Everyone who does acting is an actor. That is genderless. I appreciate that the categories are separate to give cis women, and women in general, an actual fighting chance to win awards in such a male-dominated field. If we can create that, we can create more lanes for other people who don’t want to stick to those two categories. I think me choosing actor, I hope, will be a spark to use that word as it was meant to the art of acting.

How do you feel about non-binary actors who chose to withdraw from Tony consideration to protest gendered acting categories?

I find it admirable. There’s a flip side that’s heartbreaking, but that was the only option for someone who does not feel either. It should be a wake-up call. Change is inevitable and it will happen, but we need to move a little faster.

Is there a conversation you wish people were having about gender categories at awards shows?

Yes, because it’s a bigger thing that has to change. I see both sides of the coin. Having one category alienates a lot of people as well. As much as we want to sit here and say that change is going to happen, a lot of these developed characters always go to men. I think the larger conversation is, how do we do make it more inclusive?

Are awards shows meaningful to you?

I can’t sit here and lie and say “No, they’re not meaningful.” I spent half of my life watching the Tonys, Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes. It’s everybody’s dream. I think holding up a mirror to our industry and showing them some of their flaws and errors might actually create a lot more change than we think.

Do you have any favorite musical numbers from past years at the Tonys?

Anytime I’m down, I will 1,000% turn on Jennifer Holliday — I call her my auntie, she came last night — singing “And I’m Telling You.” When you leave, I will probably turn it on and watch.

What was it like to perform for Jennifer Holliday?

I’ve looked up to her my entire life. She is singular. I treat her like she has my blood relative. She gave me a compliment after I performed at a Juneteenth event in Times Square. She was like, “I love how you make things your own. It’s reminiscent but so uniquely you.” It meant the world to me. She walked out last night and said it again.

Have you been excited about anyone else who has come to see the show?

Reba! A single mom who works two jobs! Who loves her kids and never stops! I love Reba. She’s stunning. I don’t think there’s a person on this planet who doesn’t like Reba McEntire.

How do you wind down after performances?

Some nights I’m more tired than other nights. Sometimes it’s truly going home and watching “Girls Trip” or “Real Housewives.” Something mindless and funny. But nine times out 10, you’ll find me at Glass House Tavern. That is my favorite bar. It’s ridiculous how often I’m there. I live so far uptown that my car ride back is kind of decompressing.

What are you doing when your character isn’t on stage?

Lotioning my legs. I wish I were joking. I genuinely wish I were joking. I have so many lotions over there.

How do you spend your days off?

If you find me on Monday, it’s a mirage. Don’t look at me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t even breathe in my direction because I should not be outside. Girl, on Mondays, I’m in a cocoon in my bed, hoarding food and drinking water under my humidifier.

What do you do to preserve your voice?

I try to drink as much water as I can. I’m constantly warming up. I take Mondays very seriously. My mother called me this past Monday, and I answered because I don’t know what I was thinking. Normally I just hit ignore and say “You already know what it is.” But I answered and she said, “Hey, I know you’re on vocal rest but I wanted to hear your voice.” And I was just like, “See, this is why I don’t answer the phone. You’re trying to ruin it.”

I know it’s exciting, but is it also exhausting to be on Broadway?

If I can’t get at least one to two drinks after a performance and still sing the next day, I should not be doing it. I wanted to keep human qualities, like seeing your friends, because most of my nights are taken up. When I leave the show at 10 or 10:30, they are home already and they’re not going to come out and go to a bar with me. So, shame on them.

I saw you post on TikTok that people at the stage door have made comments to you about whether you hit your high note that night.

I get so many different comments. I’ve had people look at me dead in my face and say, “Oh, you didn’t sing the high note tonight.” And I said, “Yeah, because I did it seven other times this week.”

Is it true that you didn’t have formal voice training until you were on “Glee”?

Yeah. I was in every choir and a lot of my ear was emulating sounds, so that helped. But no formal training whatsoever… just trial and error.

When did you realize you could sing?

Everyone told me. And when everyone tells you something, you start to believe it. I still shock myself when I sing sometimes. I was singing backstage a couple nights ago, and I was like, “Oh, wow. That’s really good.” But I don’t want to get complacent about it. I’m always finding my voice. And she lets me know when she’s tired.

Would you ever act in a play on Broadway?

Oh, honey, I would thrive off of a play. To not have to scream to the back row for eight shows a week and just talk? I would love that.

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