The Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theatre, colloquially known as the “Tonys,” are very, very strange annual spectacle. On one hand, you have a live broadcast on network television that celebrates live theatre, of all things, potentially jumpstarting one’s interest in a struggling medium from a young age. That’s great! On the other hand, you have a live broadcast on network television that focuses on the theatrical accomplishments of a tiny sliver of productions in one city, which, aside from the rare chart-topping hit, most people in America could not care less about, and have no chance of actually seeing.
This reveals a certain amount of truth to the long-standing criticism that the Tonys basically represent the financial interests of a small group of powerful New York producers. Who really cares who wins and who loses? If one more person in Jersey sees a dance number on CBS and goes into Manhattan and buys a seventy-dollar ticket to… I don’t know, Bright Star? Or starts dreaming about seeing Hamilton? That’s a win in their boat.
Still, so what? The Tonys are as transparent and gross about their priorities as any other awards show, but are ten times as exciting and fascinating and weird to watch. Especially considering that when you only nominate plays and musicals from a certain class of New York’s theatre scene—there are something like forty Broadway theaters that can only produce so many eligible shows, as opposed to the three-hundred-odd movies that qualify for ten Best Picture slots every year—you get some interesting, crowded, uncomfortable situations.
A Tie for Best Musical
This is far from the weirdest thing that happened at the 14th Annual Tony Awards in 1960, but we’ll get into that later. Both Fiorello! and The Sound of Music took home Best Musical, beating out Gypsy, Once Upon a Mattress, and Take Me Along. Still, I’d argue that The Sound of Music won in the long run. Take Me Along, a musical based on Ah, Wilderness definitely did not.
The von Trapp Children Split a Nomination
You thought it was strange when those three Billy Elliot kids split an award? At least they were playing the same character. Lauri Peters received a nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for playing Liesl von Trapp, but technically split that nomination seven ways— Horcrux-style —with her siblings, two of whom were male. When you tally it up, including wins for Mary Martin (Maria), and Patricia Neway (Mother Abbess), and two other Best Featured Actor Nominations, The Sound of Music kind of received nominations for thirteen members of its cast, a feat that would otherwise only be possible if a show’s cast literally dominated all of the nominations in three of the four acting categories for musical theatre.
1995 Was A Slim Year for Musicals
There just weren’t that many eligible musicals in 1995, I guess, and it shows. Sunset Boulevard and Smokey Joe’s Cafe were the only two Best Musical nominees, while Show Boat and How to Succeed… were the only two eligible revivals. This reverberated throughout the rest of the awards. There were only two nominees for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, and no other nominees for Book and Score—Sunset Boulevard took home both by default. In the Best Featured Actress in a Musical category, Smokey Joe’s Cafe secured three of the four slots but still lost to Show Boat. So basically the whole thing was a slap in the face to Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
But Not as Slim as 1985 Was for Everyone Else
Imagine you’re a bright-faced young actor, actress, or choreographer who makes their debut on Broadway during, admittedly, kind of a bum year for musical theatre. “That’s okay!” you say, because it means little old you is basically a lock for a Tony nomination, right? Wrong. In 1985, the nominating committee eliminated the Best Actress in a Musical, Best Actor in a Musical, and Best Choreography categories entirely in an unprecedented move. As if to add insult to injury, the committee clarified that while the Best Actress category had been eliminated due to there being only one eligible candidate, the Best Actor and Best Choreography categories were scrapped because “they did not consider any of the performances or choreography outstanding or excellent.” Oof.
Short Runs Win Big
Stephen Sondheim musicals are outstanding for many, many reasons, including — somehow—this one. In 1994, Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion won Best Musical despite only running for 280 performances, making it the shortest-running show to ever win that particular award. Sondheim’s old collaborator Arthur Laurents went through a similar experience in 1967 with his musical Hallelujah, Baby!, which ran for 293 performances but holds the both sweet and sour distinction of having won Best Musical after it closed, the only musical to have ever done so. Then again, Hallelujah, Baby was also a musical about the civil rights movement written by four white writers, so… Maybe the less said about that the better.
Lose the Tony, Win the Pulitzer
The only award more respectable for a theatre artist than a Tony is, arguably, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This may be simply because it is older, more literary, and more particular about who can be nominated while also drawing from a wider pool of eligible nominees, or because Kinky Boots never won a Pulitzer. In any case, the history of the Tony Awards is filled with winners who go on take home a Pulitzer. It is also, however, filled with shows that lost the Tony but claimed the Pulitzer, an occurrence that isn’t as unusual as others on this list, but is nevertheless deeply satisfying— catering to our love of a production as having a narrative itself. It takes a few hits but there’s ultimately a happy ending. And the different choices of the two awards say something about what those awards value. The Tonys preferred The Diary of Anne Frank to Pulitzer-winner Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and preferred La Cage aux Folles to Sunday in the Park with George. Never has that divide been more apparent than from 1982 to 1984, when for three years running the Pulitzer winner lost Best Play at the Tonys. Sometimes it was a toss up (as when Glengarry Glen Ross lost to The Real Thing), sometimes is was unwarranted (as when Crimes of the Heart lost to Nicholas Nickleby, or when ’night, Mother lost to The Torch Song Trilogy). In all cases, the plays were very, very long.
Death of a Salesman (Basically) Can’t Lose
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is one of the greatest plays ever written, and if you’re a Broadway producer who would just love a Tony award for your trouble, it’s probably a safe pick. Literally. Salesman won the 3rd Tony Award for Best Play in 1949 (and the Putlizer, in case you were wondering), and went on to win Best Revival of a Play on three separate occasions: in 1984 (with Dustin Hoffman), in 1999 (with Brian Dennehy), and 2012 (with Philip Seymour Hoffman). The only Broadway revival not to win that award was a 1975 production with George C. Scott. To be fair, that production was staged before the existence of the Best Revival category, but somehow I imagine George C. Scott was pissed off by the snub regardless, as was his way.
There Are No Small Parts
Another strange element of the Tony awards is that Broadway is constantly, constantly restaging and re-nominating shows, which necessitated the creation of the Best Revival category (or, as it was called, “Most Innovative Production of a Revival” and then “Reproduction (Play and Musical)”) in 1977, before it was split into two categories in 1994. As a result, roles that are initially categorized as “supporting” when initially staged, but become iconic in their own right over time, sometimes get a promotion later on. Most famously, Alan Cumming won Best Actor for playing Cabaret’s Emcee in 1998, a role that won Joel Grey the award for Best Featured Actor in 1966. Similar boosts have begin given to the roles of Doolitle in My Fair Lady and the Kind of Siam in The King and I.
The Replacement Wins Instead
It is a given that the person nominated for playing a role on Broadway will also be the person originally cast in that role for that particular production. That just makes sense. The only time in history that a replacement actor has received a nomination in lieu of an original cast member was in 1971, when Larry Kent was nominated for playing Bobby in Company after having replaced Dean Jones, who only played the role on opening night. Given that it’s such a rarity, replacement actors shouldn’t keep their hopes up.
No Physical Award
The early Tony Awards were quite different from what we’re used to today. The first ceremony, in 1947, only had “Performance” and “Craft” categories, and they were pretty… odd. There were four Acting categories—Actor in a Play, Actress in a Play, Supporting Actress in a Play, Supporting Actor in a Musical—and that’s it. Lucinda Ballard won an award for costume designing five different shows. Kurt Weill won an award just for being Kurt Weill, I think. But most significantly, there was no physical medallion given as an award until 1949. At first, winners were just given a scroll, cigarette lighter, and some jewelry (gold compacts and bracelets and money clips, alternatively, for women and men). This is a handy reminder that the ceremony is largely bullshit, and we’ll all have more fun if we don’t take it too seriously.