The 25 best Tony Awards performances

We choose the top musical numbers from 44 years of Tony telecasts

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10
Cats

Cats, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”/“Memory” (1983)

Andrew Lloyd Webber's feline revue became such an institution that it is easy to forget just how weird it was when it opened: a more or less plotless musical adaptation of light verse by T.S. Eliot, performed on an oversize trash heap by a chorus dressed in yak fur and Kiss-y makeup. For the Tony Awards, the production offered a medley of its opening number—which aptly captures the piece's variety-show feel, as well as Gillian Lynne's slinky choreography—and its breakout song, "Memory," performed with wounded, searing delusional intensity by Betty Buckley at the peak of her formidable powers.

9
Gypsy

Gypsy, “Rose’s Turn” (2003)

Perennial Broadway baby Bernadette Peters took a lot of flak for vocal trouble and missed performances toward the start of her run as Mama Rose—the King Lear of musical-theater roles—in Sam Mendes's shadowy 2003 revival of Gypsy. But she comes through magnificently in her fiercely committed Tony performance of the show's 11-o'clock number, "Rose's Turn," a musical nervous breakdown that takes her from defiant, sexy strut to smoldering hurt, full-throttle anger and a last resort of self-embrace.

8
Dancin'

Dancin’, “Sing, Sing, Sing” (1978)

For a lesson in the gap between an original and a reproduction, first watch the perfectly respectable performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing" by the cast of the dance revue Fosse on the 1999 Tony Awards. Then watch the Tony performance of the number it was re-creating, from Bob Fosse's 1978 show Dancin'. The moves are the same, and the tempo of the music is identical, yet the two performances seem radically different. Danced in costume by a cast that includes a young Ann Reinking, the version that Fosse supervised plays faster and looser. Every second of the number is suffused with the jazzed-up spirit of a swinging party; it bursts with flesh, flash and abandon.

7
Anything Goes

Anything Goes, “Anything Goes” (1988)

Just before she clears the decks to make way for a nifty nautical tap-dance number, Patti LuPone turns and gives the crowd a lingering wink—both a come-on and a playful hint that the show is all in fun. Refurbished for its return to Broadway after half a century, Cole Porter's frisky lark was unapologetically old-fashioned, and Michael Smuin's dances perfectly channel the vintage vibe—especially in the title tune, performed by crewmen in white and gals in barely anything. LuPone, perhaps the last of the great Broadway broads, anchors the tune with a lustiness that says, "Hey, sailor!" and a voice that could shiver any ship's timbers.

6
A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line, “I Hope I Get It” (1976)

Michael Bennett's backstage musical, A Chorus Line, had generated so much excitement, and its win for Best Musical at the 1976 Tony Awards was so widely expected, that Tony producers gave the show both the first and last spots on the telecast that year. The former was a version of A Chorus Line's own celebrated opening number: an audition sequence that portrays aspiring Broadway dancers being put through rigorous paces before stepping forward to disappear behind their headshots. The concept is sharp and the deconstructed dance is quick and thrilling, but the sequence is also notable for the way in which it was photographed (reportedly under Bennett's supervision); it has a noticeably more cinematic sensibility than other performances from the period.



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12 comments
Adam
Adam

Donna, this is not a list of Broadway shows, but of classic Tony Awards performances. On the 1975 telecast, no numbers from the four nominated musicals—including the Wiz—were performed. (Sadly, this was true of many of the telecasts in the early 1970s; it robbed posterity of performances from such shows as Follies, Company and Two Gentlemen of Verona as well.)

Donna Brown
Donna Brown

In my subjective opinion, a Broadway Show list that doesn't include The Wiz, can't be very serious.

Bruch Reed
Bruch Reed

I got nervous on the way up the list that Jennifer Holliday's incandescent performance might not be number 1 on your list. That performance of that number stands so singularly alone as the apogee of musical theatre performance to date that any other place on the list would be offensive. Thankfully, the TimeOutsters know their stuff.

rob
rob

really? company? Ragtime,... Sunday in the park (either of them) sweeney todd,(both of them) falsettos.. next to normal,, , does it have to be from a show? Neil Patricks opening number last year was amazing.

GV
GV

RENT 1996 was EPIC at the time.

Scott Thompson
Scott Thompson

SUGAR BABIES is a grave omission. For pure show business know how nothing beats Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney. I could watch it a million times. Probably have...

Steve Nathan
Steve Nathan

I agree with just about every choice, having seen them all. But you need to drop one in order to add on Dorothy Loudon's incredible performance of Fifty Percent from Ballroom.

Fred Landau
Fred Landau

I found this article on All That Chat, but unable to post this spoof lyric of I GOT LOVE there. Is it OK to pay parody tribute to Melba here? I GOT LUNGS Tune of I GOT LOVE, version based on Melba Moore’s big Tony showstopper (verse) Some say save your voice, But I would rather not Why should I hold back, They like the sound Because – I – Got – Lungs! I got lungs! I got lungs! I got lungs, lungs, lungs, Lungs, lungs, lungs, lungs, lungs, lungs!!! I got lungs, I got lungs Hear that vocal power I blew out my shower, I got lungs Lungs so strong, Help in song Need no microphoning. folks ask about cloning My power lungs Every time that I belt My voice rocks the mezzanine From a girl who’s really svelte This power’s not routine (big finish) They’re enthused, And I haven’t used – it up I’m gonna let go now, I’m gonna steal the show now ‘Cause I got lungs! I got lungs! I got lungs! I got lungs, lungs. lungs! I got lu-u-u-u-u-ungs!!!! Thanks if it's OK. Love this list! So many great memories!

Joey
Joey

Where is the Ragtime performance?! I thought that was the best one by far!

Jay
Jay

Next to Normal, which should have won Best Musical, one of the best ever. Glad for its deserved Pulitzer Prize, only the 8th musical to ever win.

Rebecca
Rebecca

Wow, thank you so much for sharing this! I love that your choices are so varied - and that you weren't afraid to put in some songs that people turn their noses down a little at nowadays (ie, Tomorrow) but still make the hair on my arms go up. This was a real treat :)

Jay
Jay

I agree about Ragtime and Next to Normal...I also agree with I Do!, I Do! Worst Pies in London, 50 Percent, City Lights showed some great stars in wonderful performances. I also should add Sugar Babies,...wow, ok-there are just too many. :)

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