The 25 best Tony Awards performances

We choose the top musical numbers from 48 years of Tony telecasts

The Tony Awards are not just a celebration of excellence in Broadway theater, but also a national showcase and public record of performances that are otherwise local and fleeting. The most memorable Tony moments can echo in theater history for years or decades to come. But which are the best of the best? We've surveyed every performance of a nominated musical or musical revival since CBS's first Tony telecast (in 1967), and here's our list of the top 25. Note that we're limiting ourselves to Tony-nominated shows in the years they were nominated; don't look here for special material, musical guests, opening medleys and the like. So without further ado—and steeling yourself for the possibility that some of your favorites didn't make the cut—prepare to be razzle-dazzled by the greatest of the Great White Way. Curtain up!

RECOMMENDED: See complete Tony Awards coverage

25

42nd Street, “Lullaby of Broadway” (1980)

Having created many ornate dance sequences for 42nd Street, the final show of his celebrated career, Gower Champion pared his choreography way down for the show's rousing centerpiece. In lieu of fancy stepwork is the simplest possible movement: legs kicking up in cakewalks, arms waving from side to side or rising like corkscrew wings. It's show dancing scraped to its bones, and the magic is in how well it still works.

24

The Life, “My Body” (1997)

Cy Coleman's final Broadway musical, a look back at the seedy lives of Times Square hookers in the 1980s, was not a hit, but its several standout numbers included "My Body," in which sex workers of all shapes and sizes (Tony winner Lillias White among them) flout their haters and flaunt their wares. In contrast with the weary come-on of "Big Spender" in Coleman's Sweet Charity, "My Body" is a sassy come-off-it, and that energy has earned the song a solid after-Life among Tony aficionados.

23

Company, “Being Alive” (2007)

In musical theater, leading ladies get most of the big emotional songs, but composer Stephen Sondheim has often shared the wealth with the male characters—such as Company's Bobby, played with unusual depth and intensity by Raúl Esparza in the musical's 2006 revival. The sheer capaciousness of Esparza's voice—it's as though he had a microphone built into his vocal cords, complete with reverb switch—helps give Bobby's personal breakthrough in "Being Alive" an almost cosmic resonance.

22

The Wild Party, “Welcome to My Party”/“When It Ends” (2000)

Toni Collette made a striking Broadway debut as a trouble-prone showgirl (opposite Mandy Patinkin's abusive clown) in Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's underappreciated 2000 adaptation of a Jazz Age poem. And the unique Eartha Kitt—returning to Broadway after a 22-year absence, with her trademark felinity honed to claw and fang—brought down the house with her ferociously dire "When It Ends": part warning, part curse and part bloodied lament.

21

Annie, “Tomorrow”/“You're Never Full Dressed Without a Smile”/“Easy Street (1977)

The long medley of songs from the orphan fantasy Annie would be remarkable enough for its opening salvo alone: Andrea McArdle's poignantly belted, nonsaccharine delivery of "Tomorrow," the show's famous paean to implacable optimism. This is followed by more adorable kid stuff with Annie's fellow ragamuffins, before the peerless Dorothy Loudon spikes the punch with "Easy Street." If her lips are not always in sync with the prerecorded vocals (a common practice in Tony numbers from that period), her bumping hips and flouncing blouse put her in her own league of gleeful malice.

20

Evita, “A New Argentina” (1980)

Evita was the show that put Broadway superdiva Patti LuPone on the map—or at least the map of South America. The unlikely subject of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's pop opera was the former first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron, and her oft-repeated theme song, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," was the show's signature tune. But for the Tonys, the show chose Harold Prince's brilliant staging of its Act I closer, in which an aquiline, predatory LuPone knocks out huge notes that help explain Eva's role in the political rise of her populist-strongman husband: When this lady belts, people listen. (The performance might rank higher on this list if those money notes were not pretaped for the telecast.)

19

Guys and Dolls, “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat” (1992)

The beloved 1992 revival of Frank Loesser's classic Guys and Dolls had a lot going for it, including a swell cast led by Nathan Lane and Faith Prince and an old-school aesthetic that went hand in glove with the show's colorfully cartoonish world of lovable New York gangsters. The show's liveliest number found a minor character, Nicely-Nicely Johnson—played by Walter Bobbie, who went on to direct the Chicago revival—pretending to have seen the religious light. Choreographer Christopher Chadman, a longtime associate of Bob Fosse's, came up with a staging that is pure musical-comedy elation.

18

La Cage Aux Folles, “We Are What We Are”/“I Am What I Am” (1984)

Broadway finally came out of the closet, where it had apparently been trying on its mom's nuttiest clothes, with the groundbreaking 1983 musical comedy La Cage Aux Folles. Introduced as though they were exotic flowers in some alien garden, the show's unabashed transvestites shed their puffy gowns and perform a snappy tap number in sparkly miniskirts. And although George Hearn—as the show's drag queen bee, Zaza—bizarrely performs the show's gay-pride anthem in a tuxedo instead of a frock, the former Sweeney Todd star sings with forceful dignity.

17

Chicago, “All That Jazz”/“Hot Honey Rag” (1997)

The hugely successful Broadway revival of Kander and Ebb's cynical Chicago began as a concert staging at Encores!, and the production's sleek, pointed style retains an air of presentational formality that is in perfect tune with Bebe Neuwirth's icy-hot delivery of the show's opening number. Ann Reinking's choreography summons the spirit of Bob Fosse, but this Tony sequence is most compelling when, in "Hot Honey Rag," Neuwirth and Reinking dance the 90-second synchronized duet that Fosse himself devised for the musical's original 1975 production.

16

Spring Awakening, “Mama Who Bore Me”/“The Bitch of Living”/“Totally Fucked” (2007)

One of the first rock musicals to sound like contemporary rock music, Spring Awakening throbbed with new blood—a quality accentuated by an attractive young cast (fronted by Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele). By offering a medley instead of a single number, the show smartly emphasizes newness, speed and change. And when the cast explodes into the last song, whose unsafe-for-TV language the actors preemptively struck, the nothing-to-lose wildness of Bill T. Jones's choreography is heightened by herky-jerky pans and zooms of the camera.

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Comments

14 comments
Mark D
Mark D

On the 20th Century (Winner of best score and book, actor, featured actor and scenic design) gave us the debut of the stunning Judy Kaye and a taste of the finest score Cy Coleman wrote.
https://youtu.be/wYoRwQWgA5c

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.

dm10003
dm10003

@Bruch Reed Too bad the live performance was drown out by screams and applause that started before the song and ended ten minutes after it, so there was no way to enjoy it in the theater.

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. :)