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The Best Tony Awards Performances

The Tonys 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 Awards performances can echo in theater history for decades to come. But which are the best of the best? We've surveyed every performance of a nominated musical or musical revival since the very first Tony telecast in 1967, and here's our list of the top 30. Note that we're limiting ourselves to Tony-nominated Broadway musicals in the years they were nominated; don't look here for special material, musical guests, opening medleys and the like. But do expect plenty of thrilling music, go-for-broke dance numbers and dazzling Broadway divas. So without further ado—and steeling yourself for the possibility that some of your favorite Broadway shows may not have made the cut—prepare to be razzle-dazzled by the greatest of the Great White Way.
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The Tonys 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 Awards performances can echo in theater history for decades to come. But which are the best of the best? We've surveyed every performance of a nominated musical or musical revival since the very first Tony telecast in 1967, and here's our list of the top 30. Note that we're limiting ourselves to Tony-nominated Broadway musicals in the years they were nominated; don't look here for special material, musical guests, opening medleys and the like. But do expect plenty of thrilling music, go-for-broke dance numbers and dazzling Broadway divas. So without further ado—and steeling yourself for the possibility that some of your favorite Broadway shows may not have made the cut—prepare to be razzle-dazzled by the greatest of the Great White Way.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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The strange thing about performing in the vast Radio City Music Hall, where the Tonys have been held nearly every year since 1997, 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.
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Gypsy, “Everything's Coming Up Roses” (2008)

The strange thing about performing in the vast Radio City Music Hall, where the Tonys have been held nearly every year since 1997, 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.

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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.
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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.

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“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.
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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.

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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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Dreamgirls, “It's All Over”/“And I Am Telling You I'm Not Go

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.