Gearing Up For June Ninth: The History and Impact of the Tony Awards

Gearing Up For June Ninth: The History and Impact of the Tony Awards

The Tony Awards is the ultimate glitz and glamour event of Broadway. Last year, approximately 6.3 million people tuned into the theatre awards show, according to the New York Times. Every year, the Tonys are used as a measure of Broadway’s best and, by association, Broadway’s worst. Earning nominations and winning awards can make or break a show’s run. But what does that really mean? How are this year’s nominees doing at the box office? And, how have these awards changed and shaped the New York Theatre Scene since their creation?

The Tony Awards began in 1947, founded by the American Theatre Wing (ATW), an organization that supports and honors the performance arts in America. The Tonys got their name from Antoinette Perry, nicknamed “Tony,” a former leader of ATW and actress, director, and playwright among other titles. The first ceremony was held on April 6th, 1947 and featured eleven awards given in seven categories among several other special awards. Some notable winners included Arthur Miller, playwright of The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, and All My Sons, for which he won Best Author, and Agnes De Mille, choreographer of Oklahoma, Carousel, and Brigadoon for which she won Best Choreography.

The Tonys have come a long way from 1947. Today, there are over 30 awards given, including special awards, and the event is broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall rather than held in a hotel ballroom. While there are plenty of awards honoring theatre on and off-Broadway, in and out of New York (the Drama Desk Awards, the Lucille Lortel Awards, and the Obie Awards among others), the Tonys hold the most prestige by far. Nominations and wins can make or break a show’s box office. A recent study done by Russell T. Warner on the impact of these nominations and wins on a show’s success showed that shows that win Best Musical or Best Play had a 60% lower chance of an imminent closing. That’s incredibly significant. Nominations can be a double-edged sword, however, as earning many nominations but leaving without any wins can severely harm a show.

In the past few years, Tony “sweeps” have become a more frequent phenomenon. In 2016, the award show earned itself the nickname the “Hamiltonys” in reference to the record-setting sixteen nominations earned by the Lin Manuel-Miranda smash-hit musical, of those sixteen nominations it won eleven. Obviously, Hamilton continues to be a cultural megahit. Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, however, earned ten nominations at the same awards and won none of them. It went on to close about a month following the Tonys. While earning ten nominations is a feat in itself, winning none left the show to flounder and close after 100 regular performances. In 2017, Dear Evan Hansen became the next sensational show to burst into the Tonys. It came in with nine nominations of which it won six. Today, in 2019, it is still one of the top-ticket shows in New York. Interestingly, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 had more nominations that year with twelve, but it won only two of those nominations and closed in September shortly after the summer season. Tonys do not always make or break a show. With only one 2017 Tony win, Come From Away continues to do well, now in its third year on Broadway. There is not perfect formula to keeping a show open. Furthermore, most Broadway shows will not recoup their initial investment. Only about one in four do so. Producers clearly have incentive, though, to hope and push for their shows to earn nominations and, more importantly, wins. Especially when a show has no big names or familiar movie-based plotlines to sell tickets.

That brings us to the 2019 season which pits several new, creative, original works against movie revamps and jukebox spectacles (not that those are bad). The question becomes, which shows will the voters favor? Tony Voters are members of the theatre industry who ATW selects to see all the season’s shows and vote on the nominees. The nominees are selected by a rotating nominating committee of fifty These voters range from producers to casting directors to critics. One often hear’s generalizations about what the ATW voters tend to go for. A common one is that they don’t often select comedies as winners. In the past decade, however, Best Musical winners have included The Book of Mormon, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Kinky Boots. With different Tony Voters entering and exiting, it is hard to generalize. That is not to say there are never implicit biases (the first female team to win best book was in 2015 with Fun Home, seemingly quite late for such a “first”), that is a topic for another article.

This year the nominees have a lot on the line. The clear frontrunner, so it seems, is Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, for which grosses are already extremely promising following fourteen nominations. The Prom, a new original musical by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin earned itself seven nominations, a victory for a show whose grosses have hovered around 60% of its potential throughout the spring, begging the question was it kept open in hopes of Tony success and will it win well enough to keep running? The season is also filled with musicals based on beloved, classic movies such as Beetlejuice, Pretty Woman, and Tootsie. While Tootsie and Beetlejuice earned enough nominations to keep things interesting, Pretty Woman got none, proving there is no “safe” formula to bringing a show to the Great White Way. In the play categories, The Ferryman, Choir Boy, To Kill A Mockingbird, and What The Constitution Means To Me are all doing well nomination-wise. Unlike the many comedies present in the musicals of the season, the plays seem to be mostly hard-hitting, dramatic, and political pieces. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most popular and pricey shows in New York right now, while Choir Boy, a limited run, has already closed. Again, it will be interesting to see what effect the wins have on what stays open and what closes throughout the summer. I will not make predictions here, but I am eager to see the outcomes. You can find out for yourself Sunday, June 9th.