With the Tony Awards coming up this weekend, it’s time to do a little pre-gaming in preparation for Broadway’s biggest night. Every year, there are at least a couple of magnificent excerpts from the nominated shows featured on the Tony broadcast, so we’ll have to wait until Sunday to see who gives this season’s breakout performances. In the meantime, allow me to take you on a guided tour of some of my favorite numbers from the past.
“We’ll Take a Glass Together” from Grand Hotel (1990)
Musical numbers have been featured at the Tony Awards since the ceremony’s broadcast television debut in 1967, but this is the number that raised the bar for all such performances moving forward. What is it about this one in particular? Tommy Tune‘s simple-but-inventive staging, for one thing (using a ballet barre as the bar: perfection). Also, Michael Jeter‘s joyously loose-limbed performance as Kringelein, the fatally ill accountant who wants to live his remaining days in luxury. In a Broadway season that had been dominated by Cy Coleman and David Zippel’s smash musical hit City of Angels, the surprising verve of this number took the 1990 Tony ceremony by storm and helped Grand Hotel stake its claim on the territory. The show took home five Tonys that night, including two for Tommy Tune’s direction and choreography, and a well-earned award for Jeter as Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
“Circle of Life” from The Lion King (1998)
The Lion King was the beginning of Disney’s foray into Broadway theater, and the big question was: how are they going to do a live-action version of anything from this movie? Viewers quickly got the answer at the 1998 Tony ceremony, as director Julie Taymor, a former doyenne of downtown New York theater, revealed her stunning creation. Watching it now, it’s clear from the outset that her signature style (which favors the use of masks and puppets) is perfect for this material. The Lion King won the Tony for Best Musical, Taymor became the first woman to win the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, and this landmark production ushered in a new era of Broadway design.
Viola Davis in King Hedley II (2001)
Once upon a time, excerpts from plays also used to get airtime on the Tony Awards broadcast, and Viola Davis‘ fierce performance in August Wilson‘s King Hedley II is one of the reasons why. As Tonya, the beleaguered spouse of the title character, she lays into her husband about why she aborted the child that he so desperately wanted. Talking about such a hot-button issue so openly on a live award show was (and still is) daring, but, as is evident from this clip, Davis sells it with conviction. It’s easy to see why this performance launched her career, and earned her that year’s Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
“Life in Living Color” / “Don’t Break the Rules” from Catch Me if You Can (2011)
The surprise showstopper of the 2011 Tony broadcast. Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s musical juggernaut, The Book of Mormon, was the heavy favorite to win everything that year (and, for the most part, it did), so no one was paying much attention to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman‘s musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s hit biopic (itself adapted from former con artist Frank Abagnale Jr.’s memoir). It was, therefore, doubly astonishing to see this high energy number – led by the irrepressible Norbert Leo Butz, no less, as FBI agent Carl Hanratty – steal the show. Catch Me if You Can shocked the Tonys a second time later that night when Butz pulled off an upset victory as Best Actor in a Musical. (Take that, Book of Mormon!)
“Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (2015)
In Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori‘s musical adaptation of the Alison Bechdel graphic novel, the protagonist (none other than Bechdel herself) reckons with her own sexual discovery and her father’s mysterious life at three different ages in her history. The youngest version, Small Alison, has a memorable moment of self-discovery in this striking number, as she encounters a butch lesbian for the first time. Kron and Tesori’s songwriting here is exemplary, and Sydney Lucas‘ lovely performance hits all of the right notes, as she swerves from startled unease to jubilation. The result was one of the most moving Tony performances from recent years, and the capstone of Fun Home‘s march towards that year’s Tony Award for Best Musical.
“History Has Its Eyes on You” / “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” from Hamilton (2016)
The musical number that shook the 2016 Tony broadcast. Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s landmark musical adaptation of Ron Chernow’s definitive biography took New York by storm the moment it opened. Everyone had been talking about the show for months, and Hamilton‘s performance at the Tonys was the first time the world-at-large got a good look at it. Could a show with that much buzz around it live up to all that hype? Never fear. Miranda & Co. delivered the goods, and then some. Everything that makes this show a phenomenon – the brilliant score, genius casting, humor, epic sweep, inventive staging and choreography – is all in this number: it’s an all-in-one Hamilton primer. This performance cemented the show’s legacy in the public eye, and served as its victory lap, as well: the production took home 11 Tony Awards, including the trophy for Best Musical.