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!

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.



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.

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.

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.

Annie, “Tomorrow”/“You're Never Fully 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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hairspray, “You Can't Stop the Beat” (2003)

It's almost impossible to watch Hairspray's relentlessly peppy finale without eventually giving in to the urge to bop along. The number's lather-rinse-repeat structure—in which the show's five major character groups get a verse apiece, with energetic refrains after each—is built to wiggle its way into your brain. (It's also hard to forget the sight of Harvey Fierstein in his parade-float fuchsia dress.) And Jerry Mitchell's zippy choreography doesn't give you a moment to catch your breath, especially as performed by a pre-Glee Matthew Morrison, leaping for joy in a gleaming white suit.

Pippin, “Magic to Do” (1973)

Like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's "Comedy Tonight," the opening number to Pippin finds the actors candidly welcoming the audience to an evening's entertainment. But under the heavy-lidded eye of director-choreographer Bob Fosse, this invitation takes on a slightly sinister cast. At first, we see only an eerie arrangement of hands; and when the heavily made-up ensemble emerges from the dark, led by a sinuous Ben Vereen, its players are oozily eroticized—knowing, used and intent.

Les Misérables, “At the End of the Day”/“One Day More” (1987)

A French pop opera that had been translated and expanded into a London hit, Les Miz took New York by storm in 1987, sweeping audiences into a saga of love, greed, revolution and redemption. Absent its high-tech turntable set, the ensemble's rousing Tony performance of "One Day More"—an Act I finale that introduced the show's major characters and musical motifs, with close-ups and smart sound mixing to help sort things out—made a strong impression with just a few back-and-forth steps and a waving red flag. The British invasion of Broadway was officially on the march.

Purlie, “I Got Love” (1970)

She starts out tentative and girlish, but don't be taken in: Melba Moore is just winding up for a shocking pitch—a piercing vocal performance that reached heights rarely if ever heard on Broadway before or since. In the original cast of Hair two years earlier, Moore had used her banshee wail to ornament the coda of "Let the Sunshine In" with soulful high-belt counterpoint, but in her Tony-winning turn in Purlie, she upped the ante, building her blissful expression of romantic pride to a climactic high A.

 

The Will Rogers Follies, “Will-a-Mania”/“Favorite Son” (1991)

The extravagant Ziegfeld-revue format of this 1991 extravaganza allowed its creators to go all-out in mixing cowboy kitsch and Broadway glitz. The spectacular high point, created by Tommy Tune and associate choreographer Jeff Calhoun, places Keith Carradine in the middle of a row of beautiful women—cleverly decked out in red, white and blue, with powder-puff bosoms and tambourine hats—for a Rockettes-worthy explosion of precision dancing, made all the more impressive by the fact that the chorus is seated the entire time.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Lion King, “Circle of Life” (1998)

From the opening blare of Lesotho-born singer Tsidii Le Loka's pulsing Zulu call, it is clear that Julie Taymor's visionary reimagining of Disney's animated movie is no trip to the theme park, but an expedition through gorgeous new terrain. And as the music morphs into Elton John's familiar tune from the soundtrack, Taymor produces a fantastical menagerie of puppet beasts—flocks of birds, herds of antelopes, jungle cats, giraffes, an elephant and a rhino lumbering up the aisles of Radio City Music Hall. Overlaying the source material's essential songs and story with African pride and ingenious theatricality, "Circle of Life" announced to anyone watching that this was not your children's Lion King.


Grand Hotel, “We’ll Take a Glass Together” (1990)

Has there ever been so pure a distillation of drunken joy as Michael Jeter's performance in this ebullient number from Grand Hotel? As a terminally ill accountant bent on living the good life while he can—encouraged by a shady baron (a sturdy Brent Barrett)—the liquid-limbed Jeter seems to lose his bones completely. He leaps, flails, twists and kicks with a breathtaking mix of control and release; in Tommy Tune's witty staging (the bar is a barre), he flashes out in gorgeously messy relief from the tight chorus doing Charlestonish steps behind him. This number is widely credited with reviving Grand Hotel's financial fortunes, and Jeter received a well-deserved Tony for Best Featured Actor—ending his acceptance speech, ironically, with a moving testimonial to hard-won sobriety.

Promises, Promises, “Turkey Lurkey Time” (1969)

"Turkey Lurkey Time" is frankly idiotic: one of the silliest songs ever written for a hit Broadway show, with no pretext of being anything but an excuse for a production number set at an office Christmas party. But what a number! The very inconsequence of the song—in which a trio of office workers wish their cohorts "a snowy, blowy Christmas/A mistletoe-y Christmas"—frees choreographer Michael Bennett to create a number that is entirely about a sense of growing exuberance. In a bright red dress at the center of the party, making head movements that give new meaning to the term rubbernecking, is Bennett's longtime muse, Donna McKechnie, one of the great show dancers of all time. It's hard to keep your eyes off her, but it's worth pulling them away (at least on a second or third viewing) to see how Bennett brings in the rest of the chorus, building the number to a gloriously frenetic climax to match the pounding brass and drums of Burt Bacharach's music.

Gypsy, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (2008)

The strange thing about performing in the vast Radio City Music Hall, where the Tonys were held from 1997 through 2010, is that solos or relatively small scenes—which can be captured closely on camera—tend to fare better there than larger-scale production numbers, which often seem a little lost in the space. The best-case scenario, of course, is a solo by a performer with a presence and talent big enough to fill the hall as well as the camera. And that's what Patti LuPone delivered in her definitive 2008 version of Gypsy's Act I closer. The song itself may seem encouraging and hopeful, but in the context of show it's more like a threat: the denial spasm of a woman who will not let reality get in her way. In LuPone's epic performance, sung with extraordinary power, this smother-mother's raw fury takes center stage—watch her rip that letter!—as she tries to bellow her hapless lover, her cowering daughter and the whole hostile world into the submission her bottomless frustration demands.

Dreamgirls, “It’s All Over”/“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (1982)

No matter how many times you watch Jennifer Holliday's massive performance of Dreamgirls' rafter-ripping Act I finale, the only adequate response remains awe. After a bickering backstage setup, the sequence kicks into gear at the three-minute mark; playing a woman in a spiral of personal and professional rejection, Holliday grabs her aria by the throat and squeezes every breath of wailing pathos from it. (Astonishingly, she was just 21 years old at the time.) A master of dynamic stagecraft, director Michael Bennett opts for aching slowness here. Holliday's ogreish movement grounds her in implacable abjection, right up to the number's startling penultimate image: After a giant gasp, her face a Kabuki mask of pain, the singer moans out a final note and reaches a desperate arm out for rescue as she sinks behind the golden waves of a falling curtain. That's not just showbiz: That's greatness.

Comments

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. :)