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What Are the Tony Awards?

by Scott Kacsmar
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Tony Awards Ceremony

The most casual fans of the performing arts probably know the Tony Awards honor the best in Broadway theatre. But did you know the official name is the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre? 

With that kind of mouthful, no wonder they shortened it to the Tony Awards. But it is one of the major awards shows for the performing arts in America. It is the ‘T’ in the prestigious EGOT achievement, which is the label for those who are able to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award in their careers.

As we prepare to place our bets at the top sportsbooks, and with the 77th Tony Awards coming up in June, we thought we would look back at the history of the Tony Awards, how it came to be, the awards handed out, and the biggest winners in history, including some of those EGOT overachievers.

The Origin Story of the Tony Awards: Who Was Antoinette Perry?

The Tony Awards have always been synonymous with the New York theatre scene. Shortly after World War II was finally over, happier times meant more people enjoying Broadway plays again.

In 1947, a committee of the American Theatre Wing, a New York City-based non-profit, founded the idea of the Tony Awards. The committee was led by Brock Pemberton. No, not the baseball player. This was an American producer and director of theatre.

Pemberton was the professional partner of Antoinette Perry, nicknamed Tony. She was heavily involved in the theatre scene as an actress, producer, director, and a co-founder of the American Theatre Wing.

“Tony” passed away from a heart attack in 1946 at the age of 58. Her friends, led by Pemberton, thought they could honor her legacy with an award ceremony to honor the best in Broadway theatre from the past year.

Hence, the creation of the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre. Pemberton, who died in 1950, was the host of the 1st Tony Awards on April 6, 1947 at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. When handing out an award he referred to it as a “Tony” and the name just stuck from there.

The Introduction of the Tony Medallion Award

Tony Medalion Award

Pemberton also co-hosted the 3rd Tony Awards in 1949, the last one before his death, in a year where the classic Death of a Salesman won Best Play. By then, he had already sold the Broadway theatre community on keeping the Tony Awards an annual tradition in the New York scene.

The 1949 ceremony was also the 1st to use the Tony medallion as the prize for award winners. A Tony Award is a spinnable medallion with faces that depict comedy and tragedy masks. It comes on a black base with a pewter swivel.

To this day, the Tony Awards are still presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League. It has always been held in some venue in New York, including a record 20 times at Radio City Music Hall and also 12 times at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Broadcast History of the Tony Awards

The Tony Awards were televised for the 1st time in 1967 by ABC. NBC took over the rights in 1968-70 before it returned to ABC for another short run in 1971-77.

CBS picked up the Tony Awards in 1978 and is signed on to carry it through 2026. Since 2021, it has also been aired on the Paramount+ streaming network, which is the streaming partner of CBS shows.

No one has hosted the Tony Awards more than Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote), who hosted 5 times in her long career. That record can still be tied or broken as Neil Patrick Harris, Hugh Jackman, Nathan Lane all hosted 4 times and are still active. Robert Preston also hosted 4 times but he passed away in 1987.

Ariana DeBose (2021’s West Side Story) is hosting in 2024, her 3rd-straight year hosting the Tony Awards, and she is only 33 years old.

Types of Awards at the Tony Awards

In 1947, the 1st Tony Awards had 11 awards handed out. In 2023, there were 26 award categories split between plays and musicals:

  • Best Play (awarded since 1948)
  • Best Musical (awarded since 1949)
  • Best Acting (8 total awards for actors and actresses)
  • Best Revival (an old work)
  • Best Direction
  • Best Original Score
  • Best Book in a Musical (songs)
  • Best Scenic Design
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Lighting Design
  • Best Sound Design
  • Best Choreography
  • Best Orchestrations

Best Musical and Best Play are the most significant Tony Awards in the ceremony. But there was not a category for Best Play until 1948 and Best Musical was added a year later in 1949. Since then, those prestigious awards have been given out each year at the Tony Awards.

Best Play Winners

Some of the most notable Tony Award winners for Best Play include:

  • Mister Roberts (1948)
  • Death of a Salesman (1949)
  • The Crucible (1953)
  • The Diary of Anne Frank (1956)
  • A Man for All Seasons (1962)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963)
  • The Elephant Man (1979)
  • Amadeus (1981)
  • Fences (1987)
  • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1993)
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2018)

Best Musical Winners

Many of those were made into great films. Likewise, here are some of the most notable Tony Award winners for Best Musical:

  • Guys and Dolls (1951)
  • The King and I (1952)
  • My Fair Lady (1957)
  • Fiddler on the Roof (1965)
  • Cabaret (1967)
  • Company (1971)
  • Annie (1977)
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)
  • Cats (1983)
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1986)
  • Rent (1996)
  • The Lion King (1998)
  • The Producers (2001)
  • Hairspray (2003)
  • Billy Elliot the Musical (2009)
  • Once (2012)
  • Hamilton (2016)

There are also some special awards given out at the Tony Awards that may not be in a competitive field like a Lifetime Achievement Award. There is also a Regional Theatre Tony Award to honor a regional theatre company. The Isabelle Stevenson Award is a non-competitive award for someone who does great humanitarian work and is associated with the theatre.

Notable Winners in Tony Awards History

Here are some interesting facts about some of the most notable winners in the history of the Tony Awards:

  • Most nominations by a production: Hamilton (2016) received 16 nominations.
  • Most wins by a production: Mel Brooks’ 2001 version of The Producers won 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
  • Most wins by a play (non-musical): The Coast of Utopia (2007) won 7 awards, including Best Play.
  • South Pacific (1950) is the only production to win all 4 acting awards in a year.
  • Death of a Salesman is the only production to win in 4 different years as it won Best Play in 1949, Best Revival in 1984, and Best Revival of a Play in 1999 and 2012.
  • Most wins by an individual: Harold Prince won a record 21 Tony Awards, including 8 for Best Direction of a Musical, 8 for Best Musical, 2 for Best Producer of a Musical, and 3 special Tony Awards.
  • Stephen Sondheim has the most musical wins by any individual in Tony Awards history with 8 total.
  • Bob Fosse, another legend, holds the record for 8 wins for choreography.
  • Audra McDonald holds the Tony Awards record for most wins (6) by a performer/actor.
  • Most nominated performers: Julie Harris, Audra McDonald, and Chita Rivera are tied for the most performance nominations with 10 each.

EGOT Winners

Finally, we wanted to give a special mention to the few artists who have pulled off the EGOT grand slam, winning an Emmy for television, Grammy for music, Oscar for movies, and a Tony Award for Broadway theatre.

Only 19 people have achieved an EGOT in competitive categories, including an interesting mix of directors, producers, composers, writers, musicians, and actors. This is the list and the year where they completed their EGOT grand slam:

  • Richard Rodgers (1962)
  • Helen Hayes (1977)
  • Rita Moreno (1977)
  • Sir John Gielgud (1991)
  • Audrey Hepburn (1994)
  • Marvin Hamlisch (1995)
  • Jonathan Tunick (1997)
  • Mel Brooks (2001)
  • Mike Nichols (2001)
  • Whoopi Goldberg (2002)
  • Scott Rudin (2012)
  • Robert Lopez (2014)
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber (2018)
  • Sir Tim Rice (2018)
  • John Legend (2018)
  • Alan Menken (2020)
  • Jennifer Hudson (2022)
  • Viola Davis (2023)
  • Sir Elton John (2024)

American songwriter Robert Lopez is the only person to pull off an EGOT twice with multiple awards in each category. He may be one of the least recognizable names on the list, but he’ll be known to most as the co-writer of the song “Let It Go” from the 2013 animated Disney classic Frozen.

Six more performers have pulled off an EGOT when you include honorary or special awards:

  • Barbra Streisand (Special Tony Award clinched it)
  • Liza Minnelli (Grammy Legend Award clinched it)
  • James Earl Jones (Honorary Oscar Award clinched it)
  • Harry Belafonte (Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Oscars clinched it)
  • Quincy Jones (Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Oscars in 1994 helped)
  • Frank Marshall (Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Oscars was his 1st in 2019)

A little surprising to learn that Streisand and Minnelli needed honorary awards to pull it off, but this is still quite the achievement in a career.

author avatar
Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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