The 500 guests at the American Theater Wing dinner dance at the Plaza Hotel on April 1, 1956, were not the only ones who saw Gwen Verdon, Paul Muni, Bob Fosse and Lotte Lenya accepting their Tony Awards. So did fans all over New York City, who for the first time in the history of the honors, which began in 1947, could watch the event live, on DuMont channel 5.
Since the broadcast went national in 1967, it has been an unmissable rite for theater lovers everywhere, many of whom have limited access to Broadway. More recently, thanks to YouTube, ranking (and ranking on) the winners, losers, excerpts and showstoppers has become a perennial pastime. So with the awards on hold for the first time this year, we decided to look back on the most memorable moments of Tonys past.
Mostly those moments are acceptances and musical numbers. (Except in the years when PBS provided an illuminating preshow, television has botched the dramatic and technical categories.) But that still leaves plenty. Whether your taste runs more to Angela Lansbury or Neil Patrick Harris as host, or whether you are a partisan of Bernadette Peters or Patti LuPone singing “Rose’s Turn,” there’s something to enjoy and fight about in the highly idiosyncratic highlights below.
In 1974, Johnny Carson presented a special Tony Award to “a very unique young lady”: Bette Midler. “I always wanted one of these things,” she said, bounding onstage, décolletage first, with a speech celebrating live theater. In 2017, another statue came her way, for “Hello, Dolly!” She thanked the Tony voters, “many of whom I have actually dated.” When the orchestra tried to play her off, she gave them what for and went on. ALEXIS SOLOSKI
Sealed With a Kiss
They sealed their victory with the kiss that smacked round the world. Accepting their Tony for the score to “Hairspray” in 2003, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman locked lips after Shaiman told his collaborator: “We’re not allowed to get married in this world, I don’t know why. But I would like to declare in front of millions of people that I love you, and I want to live with you for the rest of my life!” BEN BRANTLEY
The grand style of the Golden Age was on its last legs by 1987, a fact both underlined and mooted by the re-creation on that year’s telecast of a showstopper already 21 years old. As sung by the evening’s host, Angela Lansbury, and her “Mame” castmate Beatrice Arthur, “Bosom Buddies” demonstrated how vulgarity and class have always coexisted, along with sequins, as crucial parts of the Broadway formula. By the time the two dames bumped and shimmied their way through the final chorus, it was 1966 again. JESSE GREEN
The “Spring Awakening” lyricist Steven Sater saved the CBS censors some effort in 2007 by extensively rewriting the onanistic lyrics of “The Bitch of Living”; the cast then chipped in by covering their own mouths several times during “Totally _____ed.” Four years later, Stephen Adly Guirgis forced the presenters Alec Baldwin, Viola Davis, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Samuel L. Jackson to deal with saying at least most of his title “The Mother______ With the Hat.” (Baldwin, perhaps not surprisingly, came the closest of the four to a full recitation.) ERIC GRODE
‘Then He Still Gave Me This’
Renée Elise Goldsberry was 45 when she won, in 2016, for her indelible turn as Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton.” “If you know anything about me,” she said, “I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life — what some would consider the lifeblood of a woman’s career — just trying to have children.” God granted her two, she added, her voice breaking as she lofted her Tony, “and then he still gave me this.” She was like a witness to a miracle: She hadn’t had to choose. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
And Dolly Parton, Too!
The opening number of the 2009 telecast featured so many famous people on such a packed stage, I didn’t know where to aim my camera. I’ve covered the Tonys every year since 1996 and in looking through my pictures for this article, I noticed that not only does the photo above have both Elton John and Liza Minnelli in it, but Dolly Parton is politely singing from the second row all the way on the right. SARA KRULWICH
Speaking in Poems
There was no preamble, no explanation. When the British actor Mark Rylance accepted his first Tony in 2008, for playing a comically fuddle-headed Wisconsin rube in “Boeing-Boeing,” he recited not a speech but a poem — Louis Jenkins’s “The Back Country,” spoken in a superb Midwestern accent. With Rylance’s 2011 win, for his jaw-dropping lead performance in the comedy “Jerusalem,” out came another poem. Years later, when he and Jenkins wove a play, “Nice Fish,” from the poet’s work, it all made more sense. But in the moment? It was dazzlingly awkward and odd. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
More Is More (and More)
Few Tony performances illustrate the escalation of frenzied joy that distinguishes a big showstopper more than “24 Hours a Day” from “Golden Rainbow” and “Turkey Lurkey Time” from “Promises, Promises” (in the 1968 and 1969 award ceremonies, respectively). Nobody argues that these musicals are masterpieces, but these two exuberant, more-is-more spectaculars are timeless perfection. Their addictively manic vitality, the sheer energy and craftsmanship they deploy to whip up pure froth are the essence of Broadway. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI
I’ll have what she’s having, but it’s the “Brotherhood of Man” number from “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” that I turn to more often than I’d like to admit. And I’m talking about the 2011 broadcast, with an utterly winning Daniel Radcliffe as Finch, hoofing (and huffing and puffing) his way through Rob Ashford’s witty ensemble choreography. The CBS cameras, for once, really let the dancers shine. And the roar of the crowd inside the theater only confirmed how wrongheaded it was that Radcliffe wasn’t even nominated for the role. SCOTT HELLER
Getting There First
Producers of each musical jockey every year to get their most box-office-friendly number onto the show. But the splashy performance of “On Broadway” from “Smokey Joe’s Café” at the top of 1995’s broadcast — and the resulting spike in ticket sales despite the show going winless that night — sent a new message: With the Nielsen ratings typically sliding as the evening goes on, first is best. ERIC GRODE
“It’s the first woman to ever win a director’s award, next to Garry Hynes, YEAH!” Sandy Duncan yelled in 1998, as she punched the air. “Julie Taymor!” After half a century of being shut out in the directing categories, women finally ruled that year: Taymor for staging the musical “The Lion King,” and Hynes for the Martin McDonagh drama “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” Making it an all-female hat trick, Yasmina Reza picked up the Tony for best play for “Art,” only the second time a woman won in that category. BEN BRANTLEY
It seems obvious that the best Tony performance ever was Jennifer Holliday singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls” in 1982. The torment in her face. The stagger in her walk. That voice, with all its pain and pleading, its fury and force. Plus that final, gulping, gasp. I’m not really sure what else there is to discuss. MICHAEL PAULSON
In 2004, the world learned that mutant movie star Hugh Jackman could bump and grind like Gypsy Rose Lee. Recreating his role as Peter Allen in the biomusical “The Boy From Oz,” Jackman made his entrance in gold lamé pants atop a camel. Singing “Not the Boy Next Door,” he led with his pelvis, spiced the air with innuendo and gave audience member Sarah Jessica Parker a lap-dancing lesson. (P.S. He also won the Tony.) BEN BRANTLEY
A Singular Sensation
“Again! Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch …” Such were the opening instructions delivered to the aspiring title characters of “A Chorus Line” in the 1976 Tonys broadcast. This Tony-sweeping show was to its decade what “Hamilton” would become to the 2010s, a red-hot mold-breaker that redefined what a musical could be. And the ensemble’s performance on television — in which each dancer in a cattle call audition routine somehow stood out as a quivering individual — palpably made clear what all the excitement was about. BEN BRANTLEY
Dancing as Fast as He Can
Accepting the 1990 Tony Award for best performance by a featured actor in a musical, Michael Jeter spoke movingly (and at the time surprisingly) of having overcome substance abuse issues to get there. Perhaps that history informed the astonishing wet-noodle Charleston he performed to “We’ll Take a Glass Together” from “Grand Hotel,” a number (staged by Tommy Tune) about the joy you can still find in hopelessness while drinking yourself to death. JESSE GREEN
The Best Way to Show a Best Play
Scenes from the best play nominees would rarely make highlights lists, partly because the broadcasts sometimes don’t even bother to show them. But 1987 offered formidable snippets from the likes of James Earl Jones (“Fences”), Linda Lavin (“Broadway Bound”), Annette Bening (“Coastal Disturbances”) and both Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”). I’ll take that over a “Starlight Express” number any day. ERIC GRODE
Rap Reaches the Big Stage
In 2008, when Alexander Hamilton was still just a dishy face on a $10 bill, Broadway newbie Lin-Manuel Miranda won a Tony Award for the score of “In the Heights.” In keeping with the hip-hop-accented show, he rapped his acceptance speech. “I used to dream about this moment now I’m in it/ Tell the conductor to hold the baton a minute,” he began. Best line: “I don’t know about God, but I believe in Chris Jackson.” ALEXIS SOLOSKI
When ‘Bigger!’ is Best
Five years later, and well on his way to the “Hamilton” heights, Miranda wrote the lyrics (Tom Kitt the music) to what is surely the most spectacular Tonys opening number ever: an over-the-top ode to Broadway’s penchant for making things “Bigger!,” delivered by Neil Patrick Harris and a seeming cast of thousands — Matildas and Jersey Boys, acrobats and cheerleaders and (huh?) Mike Tyson. “If there’s a Newsie you prefer just let me know/There’ll be a Newsie in your gift bag when you go,” is my favorite line, but there’s one zinger after another, making for as joyful an 8 minutes and 26 seconds as you can spend right now. SCOTT HELLER
“Seasons of Love,” the multi-hanky ballad from Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” has become a June staple, sung at many graduations. In 2018, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., found another reason to measure a year. In honor of their teacher, Melody Herzfeld, who won a Tony for excellence in theater education, 16 members of the drama department, who had survived a school shooting that February, sang the number, bringing the audience to its feet, twice. ALEXIS SOLOSKI
A Focus on Faces
Dark shows often have difficulty selling themselves on the Tonys, their huge emotions seeming to arise from nowhere. “The Band’s Visit” avoided that problem with its gorgeously storyboarded rendition of “Omar Sharif” for the 2018 telecast. With its focus on faces — not just Katrina Lenk’s as she sang but her nearly silent co-star Tony Shalhoub’s — the camera showed you exactly where the emotions came from. And also, almost imperceptibly in the background, how those emotions altered the surrounding world. JESSE GREEN
Revisiting the Season With The Times
There’s never been a Broadway season like 2019-20. And to mark the shows that opened, and those still waiting for their moment in the spotlight, The New York Times presents “Offstage: Opening Night,” a streaming video event scheduled for June 11 at 7 p.m. Hear Times journalists talk with the creators of “Slave Play” and “Six,” and watch performances by Mary-Louise Parker (“The Sound Inside”), Elizabeth Stanley (“Jagged Little Pill”), Mare Winningham (“Girl From the North Country”) and the cast of “Company.” You can register for the free event at timesevents.nytimes.com/broadway.