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A brief history of the Olivier Awards

12 October 2020 by Marianka Swain
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Due to the pandemic, the Olivier Awards were forced to cancel their usual April results ceremony. However, winners will now be announced on Sunday, 25 October in a special programme broadcast on ITV – also featuring pre-filmed interviews and performances from some of the nominated shows, all shot at the London Palladium.

It’s a chance to champion the industry in these difficult times, and to get a glimpse of those amazing productions. To celebrate, we’re looking back at some of the key events in Oliviers history!

Why are they called the Olivier Awards?

The Olivier Awards, presented annually since 1976, were actually called the Society of West End Theatre Awards originally. In 1984, the awards were renamed in honour of Sir Laurence Olivier, a tribute to an actor and director who contributed so much to his industry. The physical award subsequently changed from a blue Wedgewood urn to a bronze statuette of Olivier.

How many categories are there at the Olivier Awards?

The number of categories at the Olivier Awards quickly grew. In the second year, they went from 12 to 16, adding awards for opera and dance, and that number has since more than doubled. The ceremony now celebrates key roles both on and offstage, including choreography, set, costume, lighting and sound design, as well as Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, first awarded in 2004 to the Young Vic.

Changes for 2020 include the merging of Best Comedy and Best Entertainment into one category, a separate award for Best Family Show, and the Outstanding Achievement in Music award renamed Best Original Score or New Orchestrations.

Who votes for the Olivier Awards?

While the majority of the judging is done by professional panels, made up of experts in those fields, the Oliviers also call upon theatre fans. You can apply to be a public panellist, which means you get free tickets to eligible shows for a year, can vote for your favourites, and attend the awards ceremony.

There’s also the Audience Award, which was introduced in 2002 and then ran from 2010 to 2016. It handed out gongs to popular shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, We Will Rock You, Les Misérables and Billy Elliot.

Where do the Olivier Awards take place?

As the Oliviers ceremony became a bigger affair, it moved to progressively larger venues. The first was Café Royal, and it’s since migrated to the Grosvenor House Hotel, theatres like the Victoria Palace, Lyceum, National Theatre, Albery, Shaftesbury, Dominion, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and the London Palladium.

In 2012, the Oliviers landed at the Royal Opera House, and remained there until 2016. In 2017, the ceremony moved to the Royal Albert Hall.

Are the Olivier Awards broadcast?

A key part of the Oliviers’ importance to the industry is that it’s a chance to showcase theatre to a big audience via the television broadcast. The first broadcast took place on 1981 on BBC1, and then from 1992 until 2003 on BBC2. The ceremony was then only broadcast on radio for a few years, until ITV secured the broadcast rights and returned it to television in 2013. That’s continued ever since, as well as on Magic Radio.

Who has made history at the Olivier Awards?

In 1996, Dame Judi Dench achieved an impressive feat by winning two Best Actress awards in one year: for the play Absolute Hell and the musical A Little Night Music. In 2016, she became the most recognised individual at the Oliviers, with her win for The Winter’s Tale taking her tally to eight (including a Special Olivier Award in 2004).

Close behind are designer William Dudley and choreographer Matthew Bourne, both with seven wins; Andrew Lloyd Webber with seven (including a Special Award); and Ian McKellen, Alan Bennett, Richard Eyre and Stephen Sondheim with six (again including a Special Award).

In 2018, Hamilton tied for the most Olivier Awards ever received by a musical – matching Matilda’s tally of seven, including Best New Musical, from 2012. It was a record-setting era: in 2017, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child took the most awards ever for a play, with nine, beating The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’s seven awards in 2013.

Hamilton’s wins came from a chart-topping 13 nominations, while Hairspray (2008) and Cursed Child racked up 11, and Follies managed 10 in 2018. However, Kiss Me, Kate (2002) holds the unenviable title of the most nominations without any wins, at nine, while Dame Maggie Smith has no wins from six nominations – although she did receive a Special Olivier Award in 2010.

International winners at the Olivier Awards

Jessica Lange became the first American actress Olivier-nominated for a play in 2001 for Long Day’s Journey into Night. That honour came much sooner for musicals, with Patti LuPone winning in 1985 for her work in Les Misérables and The Cradle Will Rock. She then picked up her second gong in 2019 for Company.

On the Best Actor side, Tim Flavin was the first American to win in 1984 for his performance in On Your Toes. He was also nominated that year for Most Promising Newcomer.

Over the years, the Oliviers have celebrated talent from around the world – including Filipina breakout star Lea Salonga, who won for Miss Saigon in 1990, and then repeated the feat at the Tony Awards in 1991. Brian Dennehy also took the Olivier/Tony double for Death of a Salesman, as did Flavin’s On Your Toes co-star, prima ballerina Natalia Makarova.

Shared winners at the Olivier Awards

In 2006, the three actors who shared the lead role in Billy Elliot together won the Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical, followed in 2012 by the four stars of Matilda, who won Best Actress in a Musical. That seems to have set a trend. In 2017, the cast of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour were jointly nominated, as was the cast of The Girls. In 2019, that honour went to the queens of SIX. It’s a welcome recognition of theatre’s ensemble spirit.

The Matildas set another record: they are the youngest winners of the Olivier Awards to date. Eleanor Worthington-Cox and Cleo Demetriou were both ten when they picked up their statuettes (with Worthington-Cox the youngest by a few weeks), while their co-leads, Sophia Kiely and Kerry Ingram, were 12. The previous youngest winners were the Billy Elliot trio: James Lomas and George Maguire, both 15, and Liam Mower, aged 13.

Who is nominated for 2020 Olivier Awards?

The musicals looking to make theatrical history this year are: & Juliet, featuring the songs of pop hitmaker Max Martin, which leads the pack with nine nominations; Trevor Nunn’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof, with eight; Pasek and Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen, with seven; the returning Mary Poppins, with six; film-to-stage transfer Amélie, with three; plus Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Evita, the revamped Andrew Lloyd Webber favourite Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Broadway hit Waitress, all with two nominations.

On the plays side, there’s another Jamie Lloyd production, his James McAvoy-starring Cyrano de Bergerac, with five nominations. Also on five are political play Rosmersholm, led by Hayley Atwell, and Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman revival, which featured an African-American Loman family.

On four nominations are the Andrew Scott-starring Noël Coward play Present Laughter and Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, while it’s three for the herstory hit Emilia. On two, it’s the Russian spy drama A Very Expensive Poison, the Juliet Stevenson-starring The Doctor, a stage version of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and Tom Stoppard’s latest Leopoldstadt.

The Special Award this year goes to Don Black, who wrote the lyrics for musicals like Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me On A Sunday, Aspects of Love, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard, as well as the James Bond themes “Thunderball,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” and “The Man with the Golden Gun”.

Tune in on 25 October to catch all the action!