The 25 best Tony Awards performances

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

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5
The Lion King

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.


4
Grand Hotel

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.

3
Promises, Promises

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.

2
Gypsy

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.

1
Dreamgirls

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.



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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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