How does a Broadway musical stay alive?
The answer is complicated, and it involves a bevy of dealings that happen behind closed doors. One thing is (public and) sure, however: a show won’t last long if it doesn’t sell tickets. The audience, the oftentimes-ignored part of the equation, dictates the post-Tony life of a musical. Awards matter, of course, but what can truly capture an audience member is the performance during the Tony telecast. That is when the show makes the strongest case for why someone (read: a tourist visiting on a weekend) should pay to see precisely that show over all the others currently playing.
In the billion-dollar business of Broadway musicals, this night is crucial – shows pull out their flashiest number, mash up their most thrilling songs, and present to the world a spectacle, pleading: “What do I do to make you love me?”
And if it doesn’t keep those tourists flocking, it at least gives the theatre kids who cannot afford the Broadway shows or plane tickets to NYC that musical theatre education. To give a taste of what’s happening in that theatrical mainstream. To give them the chance to see all of these Broadway greats in one room, to inspire them to keep training, and to procrastinate on schoolwork by watching 60 years of theatre history on their computers.
Here are, in no particular ranking, some of the best Tony performances of the past decades.
2013 Tony Awards Opening Number – “Bigger” – as described by Benina
Tony’s Hottest Opening Number is 2013’s “Bigger.” This number has EVERYTHING. Puppets, fishnets, Newsies. A rousing patter/rap section penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Corner of the Sky/Magic to Do” – Pippin (2013) – as described by Bojan
Imagine the Bakhtinian carnivalesque hopped up on uppers, downers, and candy corn – that’s what Diane Paulus’ radical revival of Pippin brought to Broadway. Mixing Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography with the circus arts of Les 7 doigts de la main, Paulus, along with Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider, completely changed the game of re-imagining theatre. Though Ben Brantley panned it in the New York Times, this performance affirms the type of life the show had until it closed and why it snagged some of the most coveted Tony’s of that season.
“I’ve Decided to Marry You” – A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder (2014) – as described by Benina
As NPH’s 2013 opening number stated, the Tony Awards and its performances are all about spectacle. But here, 2014 Best Musical winner, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, throws spectacle out the window in favor of pure fun and storytelling. Not to mention Jefferson Mays’ insane on-stage costume (and character) change.
“As If We Never Said Goodbye” – Sunset Boulevard (1995) – as described by Bojan
Glenn Close’s voice is not Patti Lupone’s or Petula Clark’s, but she plays the part of Norma Desmond–the washed-up and delirious star of silent cinema–like nobody else. Every pause is intentional. Every phrase is deliberate.
“And I Am Telling You” – Dreamgirls (1982) – as described by Benina
If this isn’t the paragon of leaving it all on the stage, I don’t know what is.
Bojan: And then she never worked again.
“96,000” – In the Heights (2008) – as described by Bojan
I know, a hip hop musical sounds trite. But this gem, originally penned by Lin Manuel Miranda when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan, gave Broadway access to more people of color while highlighting the New York lives lived way uptown. And the music is genius.
”Lullaby of Broadway” – 42nd Street (1981) – as described by Benina
This is the show that made me fall in love with musical theatre. Jerry Orbach’s rousing “Allentown” monologue, backed by the tremolo-ing bells and a tension building horn section will always send goosebumps through my entire body. Broadway dreams, dammit.
“Sugar Daddy” – Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2014) – as described by Bojan
Taking on John Cameron Mitchell’s legendary role, NPH asserted himself as one of Broadway’s top entertainers–even if he could never become one of Broadway’s top singers or actors. Revel in the theatrical (and cultural) spectacle of his headline-making Tony performance.
“I Hope I Get It” – A Chorus Line (1976) – as described by Benina
A Chorus Line is a groundbreaking musical in that it gives such a truthful voice to those in the cast of a Broadway show who get little chance to be in the spotlight. To see that cast dance their hearts out on the Radio City Music Hall stage is the manifestation of a Broadway dream come true.
“Mama Who Bore Me/Bitch of Living/Totally Fucked” – Spring Awakening (2007) – as described by Bojan
In all fairness, I only love the first part, where pre-Glee Lea Michele sings the convention-defying opening ballad “Mama Who Bore Me” whereas the rest of the performance is made complicated by the censoring of the expletive-heavy latter songs.
Maybe the creative team of Spring Awakening agreed to the censorship because so much of the story of the show is about not being able to say what/how you feel. Maybe Michael Mayer is meta.
Benina: Or maybe teen angst needs a Tony Award audience.
“Not the Boy Next Door” – The Boy From Oz (2004) – as described by Benina
This role won Jackman the 2004 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, and deservedly so. The entrance on a live camel. The tight, tight gold pants. Pelvic thrusting with SJP. This performance, while it not only pushes the limits of what someone should do to a Tony awards audience, showcases the versatility of Jackman’s performance talents. Step aside, Wolverine and Valjean!
“Phantom of the Opera/Music of the Night” – Phantom of the Opera (1988) – as described by Bojan
OG Phantom Michael Crawford seems to sing his part all in one breath. Let’s put it this way: he is to me what Henry Miller is to Culture & Commentary Editor Brittany Newell–he shunts me back into the main frame.
“Anything Goes” – Anything Goes (2011) – as described by Benina
In this age of modern Broadway, the need for a lead that is a triple threat is slowly dying (it is coming back a bit in this year’s Best Musical nominee An American In Paris.) But then there’s Sutton Foster. They cut this number in half for the Tony’s because this tap break is eight minutes long. On top of that, Sutton decides she’s not tired from all that tapping and belts E flats like nobody’s business. Sutton is an incomparable force (not) to be reckoned with.
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THE SECTION WHERE THE 2015 TONY AWARD CO-HOSTS ARE REALLY TALENTED – as described by Benina
“My New Philosophy” – You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (1999)
Kristin Chenoweth won a Tony for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for playing a Peanuts character. There is good in the world.
“The Ballad of the Pimp”– The Threepenny Opera (2006)
I’m sorry I’m not giving you Alan Cumming in two Cabaret revivals, but I really love Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weil, and musicals that poke fun at the bourgeoise. Also, I feel like you all could use a surprise Cyndi Lauper doing musical theatre in your lives.
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THE ONES WITH A GREAT PERSONALITY – as described by Bojan
“Run, Freedom, Run” – Urinetown (2002)
The point of Urinetown is the mockery of the predictable nature of Broadway shows. In this exceedingly self-conscious and wonderfully sardonic number, Hunter Foster and co. foreground the show’s main ontological and political concerns: piss and shit.
Benina: Hunter Foster, brother of Sutton Foster? Musical theatre is genetic, yo.
“Raise Your Voice” – Sister Act (2011)
Nobody but Patina Miller could get me to stand up when I’m preachin. We all knew she was going to be a star, even if her unbelievable energy and that curvacious-bodacious underneath that habit didn’t win her the Tony.
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“I Will Never Leave You” – Side Show (1998) – as described by Benina
There are two reasons this is included: Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley (related: please watch her 2009 acceptance speech when she won for Diana in Next to Normal) literally belting their faces off for their joint Tony nomination. Second, Side Show is tragically missing from this year’s Best Revival of a Musical nominees.
Bojan: “HISTORY! KENNEDY! ART.”
“The Circle of Life” – The Lion King (1998) – as described by Bojan
This is Broadway’s truest ensemble show. The majestic costumes tell a story, and the dance is not far behind. Helmed by Tsidii Le Loka, who tragically (though understandably) lost the Tony to Audra McDonald, this number opens the show, bringing us into the world of the anthropomorphized characters of The Lion King.
Benina: This was the first professional touring show I’ve ever seen and the elephants coming down the aisle scared five year old me. Thanks, Julie Taymor.
“Turkey Lurkey Time” – Promises Promises (1969) – as described by Benina
We have to acknowledge that Broadway is the haven of kitsch and camp. Here, the Act I finale of Promises, Promises is a Christmas office party. AN OFFICE PARTY. That, in any normal universe, should not merit any musical number whatsoever. Michael Bennett’s astonishingly energetic choreography (that “jingle bells jingle bells” move is ICONIC) and Donna McKechnie’s (she’s the one in the center) CRAZY back carves itself a space in Tony’s hall of fame.
“Willkommen” – Cabaret (1998) – as described by Bojan
Benina. Kurt Weill Schmurt Weill. This is Alan Cumming’s historic legacy to the Broadway stage. The revival of Cabaret turned the original story inside out, revealing the darkness that had always lain within. Forsaking the tame, playful, rouge-cheeked Joel Grey interpretation, Alan Cumming became a different Emcee, a hypersexual Jewish queer who wore suspenders around his crotch. The show was so popular that it was brought back to Broadway in 2014. Seventeen years later, an equally buff Cumming reprised his role.
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THE NECESSARY GYPSY CAVEAT – as described by Benina
“Rose’s Turn” – Gypsy (2003) by Bernadette Peters
“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” – Gypsy (2008) by Patti LuPone
Here’s a diva diptych for you. Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters with the two most diva songs sung by the The Most Diva Role of All Time: Mama Rose. Bow down to these goddesses.
Bojan: I know it’s sacrilege, but I don’t think Bernadette Peters was amazing. You can’t make Titania play Richard III.
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THE WHY HASN’T SHE WON YET SECTION – as described by Bojan
“Statues and Stories” – The Light in the Piazza (2005)
As soon as I hear Kelli O’Hara’s voice, I am transported to the streets of Florence. Sung almost entirely in broken English and Italian, this musical tells the story of Margaret Johnson (Victoria Clark) and her developmentally challenged daughter Clara (Kelli O’Hara, about to lose her first of six Tony nominations) who falls in love with an Italian man.
Nothing like some Broadway Neoromantic Euro-inferiority complex to let you know you’re alive.
“There Ain’t Nothing Like a Dame/Some Enchanted Evening/A Wonderful Guy/I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair” – South Pacific (2008)
Kelli O’Hara was part of the first woman-on-woman kiss on “All My Sons” and every time I watch this performance, I can’t unsee that lesbian named Leslie, washing that man out of her hair.
Benina: Kelli, I really want you to have a Tony this year, but you’re up against Chita and Kristin. Soon, my dear, soon.
“Ragtime” – Ragtime (1998) – as described by Benina
Don’t think I’m leaving out Audra McDonald from this Tony’s list (I mean, she has the most Tony’s out of anyone ever). Even though she’s not soloing in this number, she won a Tony that year for her performance as Sarah. I’m also putting this one down because I think it’s one of the most underrated musicals, so educate yourselves.
“Forget about the Boy” – Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) – as described by Bojan
Understudy-turned-leading-lady Sutton Foster is the real triple threat of the American theatre, and this show is what catapulted her into the spotlight; back when Michael Mayer was fooling himself he wasn’t born to bring rock to Broadway.
“3-5-0-0/What A Piece of Work is Man/Let the Sunshine In” – Hair (1969) – as described by Benina
The Tony Awards are an important annual moment, because for once in the year, the Broadway community breaks onto regular cable TV and shows the world the power of theatre. The 1969 Original Broadway Cast of Hair simply standing and crying for sunshine on that stage is one of the most truthful and intense moments I have seen from a musical. I understand the power and revolutionary quality of Hair when I see it performed in its historical context. They are belting for their drafted friends, for those they’ve lost, and for, above all, peace now.
Bojan: I want Harry Belafonte to announce me every time I enter a room.
“Seasons of Love/La Vie Boheme” – Rent (1996) – as described by Bojan
I can’t believe this show is almost 20 years old. Jonathan Larson’s first and last musical (he died before he could see it performed downtown or on Broadway) is a heart-wrenching, albeit currently exhausted story about bohemian artists facing death and AIDS at the end of the 20th century. Many members of the original Broadway cast of this ensemble show became leads in other shows – I’m looking at you, Idina.
Benina: I remember when this show turned 10 and Idina was known for playing a green witch and not a snow queen. *tear* They grow up so fast!
The 69th Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, June 7, at 8/7c on CBS.