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10 historic memorable moments in Tony Awards history

October 12, 2020 by Jennifer Walk
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The Tony Awards are Broadway’s biggest night, and while the 2020 ceremony will look a little different, it’s still a celebration. This year’s online ceremony is the Tony Awards’ 74th annual affair, which means we have 73 years of incredible performances, speeches, and opening numbers to look back on. Here, we highlight 10 of the most impactful and groundbreaking moments from Tony Awards history.

What makes a groundbreaking moment? From taking major steps for gender equality to performers winning awards before they were in junior high, there are plenty of memorable moments from years past. During his opening number at the 2013 Tony Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris sang, “There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere sitting there living for Tony performances, singin’ and flippin’ along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses,” he told us. “So, we might reassure that kid, and do something to spur that kid, cause I promise you all of us up here tonight, we were that kid.”

Here are the moments that stood out to us when we were that kid (and that kid at heart).

Julie Taymor paves the way for female directors

It’s safe to say that Julie Taymor has changed the face of Broadway. Not only is she a Tony-, Emmy-, and Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated director, she’s also a history-making director. Taymore directed the musical adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King, which came in with a roar during the 1997-1998 Broadway season.

An instant hit, the show received 11 Tony Award nominations in 1998, winning six of them, with Taymor receiving awards for Best Director and Best Costume Design. She was the first woman in theatrical history to win for Best Direction of a Musical. Since then, only three other women have won: Susan Stroman for The Producers (2001), Diane Paulus for Pippin (2013), and Rachel Chavkin for Hadestown (2019).

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s speeches deserve their own Tony

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first of three Tony Award wins came in 2008 for Best Original Score for In the Heights, and he turned his speech into an impromptu rap. “I used to dream about this moment, now I’m in it,” he began. “Tell the conductor to hold the baton a minute.”

Years later, when he won Best Original Score for Hamilton in 2016, he delivered his speech entirely in iambic pentameter. “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside,” he proudly proclaimed. “I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story / Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.” He has changed the thank you speech game forever. Raise a glass!

Big wins for little Frankie Michaels and Daisy Eagan

Matilda taught us “even if you’re little, you can do a lot,” and this pair of Tony winners prove that to be true. For his role as Young Patrick Dennis in Mame, Frankie Michaels won Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1966. The ceremony was held one month after his 11th birthday, making him the youngest person to ever win a Tony Award — a record he still holds today. Twenty-five years later, Daisy Egan won Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. She was 11-and-a-half when she took home the prize, meaning Eagan is still the youngest woman to win a competitive Tony. However, the four original actors who shared the title role in Matilda — Sophia Gennusa, 9; Bailey Ryon, 10; Oona Laurence, 10; and Milly Shapiro, 10 — also shared a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre for their performances.

The Producers finds out where they went right

Mel Brooks is a comedy legend, and his musical adaptation of his film, The Producers, is a legend, too. At the 2001 Tony Awards, The Producers won 12 of its 15 nominations, including Best Musical, Best Book (for Brooks), and Best Score (also for Brooks). Those 12 wins set the record for most wins in Tony history and meant The Producers became one of the few musicals to win in every category for which it was nominated — receiving two nominations for Leading Actor and three for Featured Actor. The show’s record for most nominations was broken, however, in 2016 when Hamilton received 16, but The Producers’ record number of wins still stands today.

Juanita Hall has an enchanted evening

South Pacific’s Bloody Mary may be a shady character, but there’s no question Juanita Hall deserved her win for Best Featured Actress in 1950. For her performance as the island’s money-minded mother, Hall became the first Black person to win a Tony.

Hall went on to reprise the role in the celebrated 1958 film version, too. Director Joshua Logan recalled that upon completing her initial audition, Hall proudly told the casting room, “I am Bloody Mary, and don’t you dare cast anyone else!” Well, it’s a good thing they listened to her.

All hail Queen Audra

Audra McDonald has won the most Tony Awards of any performer with six awards, and she also is the only performer to have won a statue in all four acting categories. She won her first award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Carousel in 1994, followed by an award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Master Class in 1996.

Two years later, she won for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Ragtime in 1998 and received an award for Best Featured Actress in a Play again for A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. She firmly cemented her leading lady status when she won for Best Actress in a Musical for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in 2012, and she made Tony Awards history for her win for Best Actress in a Play in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in 2014.

Fun Home celebrates women and is celebrated in return

Based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, Fun Home follows Bechdel’s life from childhood to adulthood, her discovery of her sexuality, and her relationship with her closeted gay father. It’s the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist, but that’s not Fun Home’s only historical “first.”

At the 2015 Tony Awards, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron became the first female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score. The show went on to win four other awards that night, including Best Musical, Best Book (for Kron), and Best Actor in a Musical (for Michael Cerveris, his first win). The show also became the first musical written by women to win the evening’s top prize, Best Musical.

Mary Martin is Broadway’s best boy…kind of

In 1955, Mary Martin, a muse of Rodgers and Hammerstein, became the first person to win a Tony Award for playing a role of the opposite sex. Think of it like Shakespearean times but in reverse. Martin was recognized for her performance as the titular character in Peter Pan, winning Best Actress in a Musical.

After her historic victory, three other performers have gone on to do the achieve the same feat — Harvey Fierstein for Hairspray (2003), Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night (2014), and Lena Hall for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (also 2014).

Ali Stroker is anything but “OK!”

Ali Stroker has made Broadway history not once, but twice. In 2015, she became the first actor in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway as part of the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening. Four years later, she was seen as Ado Annie in the 2019 revival of Oklahoma! where she went on to win the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Her win marked the first time an actor in a wheelchair won a Tony Award. On stage at Radio City, Tony Award in hand, Stroker inspired us all by saying, “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena — you are.”

Hal Prince reigns at the Tony Awards

Hal Prince was a producer and director associated with many of the most popular Broadway musicals in the 20th century. As of 2020, he holds the title of having won more Tony Awards than any other person in history. Over the course of his 60+ year career, Prince earned 21 Tony Awards, including eight for directing, eight for producing, two as Best Producer of a Musical (that used to be a category!), and three special recognition awards. His first win came in 1955 when The Pajama Game won Best Musical. His final Tony was a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, solidifying his record.