Seven Spectacular Moments that Define Our Sacred Ceremony
By Matt Smith
For the past 73 years, the Tony Awards have been a time-honored tradition, annually assembling icons from across the entertainment spectrum to toast the best of Broadway’s best with a fiery finesse and flair as only they can. Boasting heartfelt speeches, humorous topical bits, and of course, a signature peek at both current and upcoming Main Stem offerings, it’s become habitual appointment television for theatrical luminaries and fans alike.
With the 2020 awards hoopla officially on hiatus — and the fate of this year’s bash still up in the air — all as a result of the shutdown brought on by the infamous coronavirus, we’re opting to look back at happier times, when Broadway took TV by storm to celebrate, scintillate and formulate moments and memories to last a lifetime. Read on for some of our faves from over the last 15 years… and, when it’s safe once again, go see a Broadway show!
Flying High (2004): There’s no question that Wicked is one of the most swankified spectacles in town, and nowhere was that made more apparent than during the cast’s initial appearance — performing that electrifying Act One closer, “Defying Gravity” — on the Tony Awards broadcast in 2004.
If watching Elphie soar above the audience at the Gershwin Theater is enough to make your spine tingle and your hair stand on end, imagine seeing the cherry picker rise over 60 feet to the top of the colossal Radio City Music Hall! Sure, the orchestra may be going at a slightly faster tempo, causing Menzel to rapidly take large breaths in order to keep pace, but you gotta admit — hearing her defiantly shout “IT’S MEEEEEE!”- against the resounding roar of the crowd – is as mesmerizingly magical as ever.
And to have it all capped off by the green girl’s thrillifying win as Best Actress in a Musical! She may have been through accepting limits, but that night, she was clearly not through accepting praise and reverence for her performance. What’s more? It’s been over 15 years since that faithful night, and, though no longer portrayed by the original Tony winner, Elphaba is still flying high today. And you can be sure, as the lyric goes, that no one’s ever gonna bring her down.
Happy-Tappy Hugh (2005): Is there anything Wolverine can’t do? Four-time Tony host (and one-time winner) Hugh Jackman certainly had everyone singin’ when he debuted this mega-medley at the 2005 ceremony, one that’s since become a staple of his solo shows on tour. Complete with an assortment of snazzy jazzy musical theatre hits and examples of soft-shoe, waltz, and a singular “shake-shake-shake” of his money-maker, it offers the perfect respite from the routine prize distribution, while showcasing the endless talent and technique we’ve come to love from of our favorite claw-bearing emcee. And if the song can start you dancing even 15 years later, then you know he’s made a lasting impression. That’s entertainment at its finest indeed! Next stop, River City….
The (G) hostess with the Mostess (2008): This may be the Tonys, but sometimes, it helps to be an Emmy winner, an Oscar winner, and a Grammy winner as well. Indeed, no one has brought a sense of whimsy to the awards quite like EGOT extraordinaire Whoopi Goldberg did in 2008. Whether popping in as Mary Poppins or Sebastian the Crab, salsa dancing with Lin-Manuel Miranda, taking digs at Debbie Allen and Thurgood Marshall, or even appearing as characters in everything from Phantom and A Chorus Line to Spring Awakening and Spamalot, she kept the evening lighthearted and loose, while still maintaining the sanctity of the ceremony, casually reminding us “there’s a little bit of Broadway in everyone.”
And, of course, she wins the day with her gut-busting quip when describing the process of attending a New York show: “You go to the theatre….somebody who’s been at the theatre for as long as it’s been there scans your ticket, hands you a program, then points you to a seat that was made back when people were skinny.”
As we’re still unsure about the timeline for the actual 2020 ceremony, we certainly can’t say anything about a potential host at this time. But one thing’s for sure: With Whoopi at the helm, we know we ain’t in danger, girl.
The More, The Merrier (2013): Those who say “Bigger isn’t always better” simply couldn’t have been more wrong at the 2013 Tony Awards, when lively host Neil Patrick Harris wowed — nay, stunned — the crowd with his razzle-dazzle opener. Returning to the hallowed Radio City Music Hall after a year away at the smaller-scale Beacon Theatre, Harris pulled out all the stops with a supersized number fit for the venue that sent him tumbling and twirling on the stage and in the aisles. Featuring a live magic trick, a Mike Tyson cameo, a rap interlude (courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, natch), and appearances by the casts of over 15 musicals, both nominated and not, this high-octane spectacular perfectly encapsulated the grandiosity of what a big Broadway musical really is, while also promoting the idea that such a career isn’t so far out of reach for those who want it — especially the #TonyDreamers glued to the television in that moment. ‘Cause although these folks may be spittin’ rhymes and shakin’ legs now, at one point in time, as Harris explains, #wewerethatkid too. So, again, bigger isn’t better, you say? In this case, we’ll respectfully disagree.
A is for Audra (and Ali!) (2014): Since their inception in 1947, the Tonys have been teeming with monumental moments. But none more extraordinary of late than when Audra McDonald won her record-breaking sixth Tony in 2014, a win which not only branded her the performer with the most competitive acting performance Tonys, but the first to win in all acting performance categories.
Upon accepting the coveted award, she tearfully acknowledged “all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I am standing on” in embodying Lady Day’s Billie Holiday — from Lena Horne to Maya Angelou to Diahann Carroll to Ruby Dee — while praising her parents for making the right choice and “pushing her into the theatre” at a young age.
“The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do in my entire life is be on Broadway,” she revealed, while accepting her fourth Tony in 2004. “And the fact that Broadway has been so good to me, is something I’ll never be able to repay.”
Many would applaud her parents for their decision, and based on her achievements and accolades alone (not to mention the gift she gives everyone purely by stepping onto a stage and opening her mouth), it’s clear it was a good one. But it’s McDonald’s words at the 2012 ceremony (her fifth Tony win, for those keeping count) that truly make the case for why the call was so accurate: awkward, chubby, and frizzy-haired, “I found the theatre and I found my home.”
Throw in Ali Stroker’s equally historic 2019 win for good measure (“This award is for every kid….who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena. You are”) and it’s easy to see how the welcoming warmth and supportive nature of the community is so attractive and alluring to those who feel like misfit toys, desperately seeking a place to belong. In the theatre, you are welcomed. In the theatre, you are celebrated. In the theatre, to pull from community icon Stephen Sondheim, there’s a place for you. There certainly was for Audra, and six Tony wins later, we’re certainly all the better for it.
You’ve Gotta Have Hope (2018): The theme of hope emanated throughout the 2018 ceremony. From the politically-charged The Band’s Visit near-sweep in the competitive categories to a few not-so-subtle jabs at the current administration (Andrew Garfield’s plea to “just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked” and Glenda Jackson’s staunch assertion that “America has always been great” among them), it was clear that a communal need for unity was the thing on everyone’s minds, and no one shied away from making it known.
Even so, none seemed to drive the point home more than hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles’ inspirational opener, which, while jokingly referencing the losers of the evening, was, at its heart, a celebration: an all-out ode to everyone who keeps theatre alive. With its optimistic spin on unthinkable global events — not unlike we’re now all facing in our current situation — the number hit home with its meaningful message urging aspiring artists, professionals and amateurs alike, to forge ahead and keep on keeping on, because, as we all well know by now, “if you make art at all, you’re a part of the cure.”
LIVE from New York (2019): Taking a cue from his predecessors, James Corden brought the house down with his crowd-pleasing opening number at the 2019 ceremony. Utilizing a cavalcade of various ensemble members alongside the companies of each of last year’s nominated musicals, the tune — written by Tom Kitt and David Javerbaum, with input from the indefatigable host himself — expertly previews each of the nominees, while singing the praises of live entertainment and lovingly listing off the ways in which it’s superior to film and TV.
And while it may be difficult to truly articulate the pure elation and electricity that stems from a shared experience watching “actual people in an actual space….in ways that [you] can’t when you stare at a screen,” when Corden — who ends backed by a bevy of nominees, including Beth Leavel, Santino Fontana, Kelli O’Hara and André de Shields — asserts, “You go to a show ‘cause the show lets you know that you’re here. And you’re now. And you’re real. And you feel alive,” we’re all collectively nodding our heads in agreement.
Sure, all the various live-streams are doing much to alleviate our Broadway blues, but still, there’s no denying, as this performance affirms, there’s simply nothing like the real, live thing. Here’s hoping we’ll be back and safe, together again, enjoying live Broadway performances with each other real soon. Stay safe and healthy, everyone!
Video courtesy of CBS/Tony Awards Productions
The 2020 Tony Awards, originally scheduled for June 7th, have been officially postponed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information on past and future ceremonies, please visit www.tonyawards.com .