Tony Awards Analysis

The American Theatre Wing

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The American Theatre Wing’s Antoinette Perry Awards, popularly known as the Tony Awards, have been presented for distinguished achievement in the theater since 1947. They have since become the most prestigious awards for live, professional theater in the United States.

The process that led to the Tony Awards began in 1917 when Rachel Crothers, one of the leading American women playwrights, and six of her colleagues rallied professional theater workers to form an organization to aid war relief. By the end of World War I, the Stage Women’s War Relief represented every segment of the New York professional theater. Together they collected food and clothing, set up servicemen “canteens” on Broadway, and sold millions of dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds. Subsequently, during the Great Depression, Crothers organized the United Theatre Relief, continuing her humanitarian work and demonstrating her belief that theater professionals could serve society in more ways than merely entertainment.

In 1939, Crothers again rallied theater professionals to provide war relief for American allies. The Stage Women’s War Relief became a branch of the British War Relief Society and was soon known as the American Theatre Wing War Service. A men’s division was established with Gilbert Miller serving as chairman. When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the American Theatre Wing separated from the British War Relief Society. Antoinette Perry, an actress and one of the United States’ first successful women directors, was chosen president and secretary of the American Theatre Wing, which by this point encompassed the women’s and men’s organizations. Between 1941 and 1945, theater professionals continued the humanitarian projects begun during World War I. Under Perry’s progressive leadership, the Wing continually expanded its operations, eventually sponsoring fifty-four separate projects. The most well known of these were the Stage Door Canteens, offering servicemen a place to have a sandwich and a soft drink (no alcohol was served), to be entertained by volunteer performers, to meet theater stars, and to dance with chorus girls.

At the conclusion of the war, the American Theatre Wing remained an active organization but turned its humanitarian efforts to serving the civilian population. In 1946 the American Theatre Wing founded its Professional Training School under the G.I. Bill and trained thousands of returning military personnel for careers in all aspects of the professional theater.

Establishment of the Tony Award

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After five years spending most of her waking hours and personal fortune as the visionary leader of the American Theatre Wing, Perry died of a heart attack on June 28, 1946. Jacob Wilk, an executive at Warner Bros., suggested to Broadway producer John Golden that a memorial should be established to recognize Perry’s humanitarian work and leadership. The Wing established a committee chaired by Brock Pemberton, one of Perry’s closest friends and associates, to consider the proposal. Recalling the many Wing projects created by Perry, the committee’s members decided that an appropriate commemoration should be a project that encouraged improvement in the theater arts. This notion was combined with a growing dissatisfaction with theater awards given by “outsiders.” The Pemberton Committee announced that a self-renewing memorial in the form of annual awards, given by theater professionals for theater professionals, be established in Perry’s name to honor innovative and distinguished achievement in the Broadway theater. The Antoinette Perry Award was not to be like Academy Awards that pitted professionals against each other in a competition for a single “best” award in each category. The committee also decided that a simple scroll, together with an engraved compact for the women and a cigarette case for the men, would be more appropriate than any kind of statue.

Early Award Ceremonies

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

There was no voting to determine the recipients of early Tony Awards. Instead, a fifteen-member panel met in secret to determine who the recipients should be. It was announced that specific award categories would not be permanent and that nominees would not be revealed. In order to maintain complete confidentiality and to eliminate competition, no records were kept of those early deliberations. The first Tony Awards were presented April 6, 1947, in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Presentations are held on Sunday because that is the day most Broadway theaters are dark. Vera Allen, the new chairwoman of the Wing, presided over the festivities, which included dinner, dancing, and entertainment provided by Mickey Rooney, Ethel Waters, David Wayne, and Herb Shriner.

There were only nine categories in 1947, but some included multiple award recipients. Awards for outstanding performances were presented to Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes, José Ferrer, and Fredric March. Outstanding debut performance went to Patricia Neal, and outstanding musical performance went to David Wayne. Kurt Weill received an award for outstanding score. All My Sons (pr. 1947) was honored with awards for Arthur Miller, playwright, and Elia Kazan, director. Two awards were given for choreography. Outstanding technical awards were presented for scenic and costume design. The first “special awards” were presented to P. A. McDonald for set construction, Burns Mantle for the annual publication of The Ten Best Plays, Jules J. Leventhal for the season’s most prolific backer and producer, and Dora Chamberlain for courtesy as the treasurer of the Martin Beck Theatre. The final special awards were presented to Ira and Rita Katzenberg for being enthusiastic first-nighters, and Vincent Sardi for his theater-oriented restaurant.

Award Categories

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Tony Award categories have changed through the years. Best play awards were not given until 1948, while separate awards for straight and musical plays began in the same year and continued to expand through the years until a complete suite of parallel awards were presented. Some awards reflect their times and pay tribute to the willingness of the Wing to experiment with categories. In 1948, for example, Mary Martin and Joe E. Brown received Tony Awards for “spreading theater to the country while the originals perform in New York.” Stage technicians were honored most years until their category was eliminated in 1964. Orchestra conductors received awards from 1948 through 1957. In the late 1960’s separate awards were given for music and lyrics, but these categories were combined again in the early 1970’s. By 2001, the number of categories numbered twenty-five, including best play, best musical, book of a musical, original score, choreography, scenic design, costume design, lighting design, director of a play, director of a musical, revival of a play, and revival of a musical. The Performance Awards include leading actor in a play, leading actress in a play, featured actor in a play, featured actress in a play, leading actor in a musical, leading actress in a musical, featured actor in a musical, and featured actress in a musical.

The Award Matures

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After the awards presentation in 1948, the Wing decided that a more formal award should be presented together with the scroll. The United Scenic Artists sponsored a design contest won by Herman Rosse for his three-inch-diameter silver medallion with a profile of Perry on the obverse and the masks of comedy and tragedy on the reverse. The medallion was first presented in a velvet-lined box but since 1968 has been mounted on a black lucite stand with a metal armature and engraved with individual winners’ names.

The Tony Award presentation was carried on WOR radio and broadcast nationally over the Mutual Radio Network beginning in 1947, the award’s first year. In 1956 the Tony Awards presentation was first broadcast on local New York City television by the Du Mont network. In order to make the television awards presentation more exciting, the award nominees were made public for the first time.

In 1967, the American Theatre Wing aligned with the League of New York Theatres (now the League of American Theatres and Producers), thus joining the humanitarian and professional arms of Broadway Theater in the presentation of the Tony Awards. The location for the presentations moved from various hotel ballrooms to the Shubert Theatre in 1967 in preparation for the first national televised broadcasting of the Tony Awards on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). In 1997 the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) joined with CBS in televising the awards show to improve ratings. The less popular technical awards are presented during the first hour on PBS: then CBS takes over for the more popular performance and best show awards.

Nominations and Voting

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

To be eligible for a Tony Award, a play must have opened during the current Broadway season in a Broadway theater with a minimum of 499 seats. (Theaters with fewer than 499 seats are considered Off-Broadway theaters regardless of their location.) The listing of eligible productions is given to a thirty-member nominating committee, composed of actors, directors, producers, publicists, administrators, designers, and educators. This committee must select between three and six nominees in each category. If there are insufficient nominees in any one category, it is eliminated for that year. Nominees are announced publicly the first Monday after the official cut-off date of each year’s Broadway season.

Ballots are then mailed to approximately 710 eligible theater professionals encompassing the board of directors of the American Theatre Wing, members of the governing boards of Actors’ Equity Association, the Dramatists Guild, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, United Scenic Artists, and the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, as well as critics whose names appear on the first night press list. All those eligible to vote are required to see as many Broadway productions as possible during the season and may vote only in categories for which they have seen all nominees. Ballots are mailed to an accounting firm, which tallies the votes and prepares the “winner envelopes” to be opened live during the Tony Award presentation. Names of winners are never announced in advance. However, those receiving the Regional Theatre Award and other special awards are confidentially notified in advance so they can attend the presentation.

Impact and Trends

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Winning a Tony Award can mean the difference between failure and success for a Broadway play. In 1985, Big River (pr. 1984), a musical based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and written by William Hauptman, opened with no stars, almost no advance ticket sales, and less than enthusiastic reviews. It had been developed in one of America’s regional theaters with music by country and western singer Roger Miller. It struggled to remain open until it won seven Tony Awards, including outstanding musical, consequently going on to run for more than one thousand performances. Winning a Tony Award is even more important for plays, which often are only able to sustain a run and earn a profit if they win a Tony Award.

Predicting theater trends proves less than easy because it is difficult to gauge what play an audience will embrace. Sometimes plays that enjoyed great success in regional or foreign theaters fail miserably on Broadway. Quilters, by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, was the most successful musical in regional theaters throughout the United States during the 1980’s. Its Broadway run in 1985 lasted less than one week. Some Tony Award winning plays seem to prepare the audience for future productions. Yasmina Reza’s Art (pr. 1994; English translation, 1996) created an audience for Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (pr. 1998). Both of these plays had profitable runs that likely gave producers the courage to back other dramatic “intellectual exercises.” Moreover, the Wing has never fallen into set patterns of recognizing only the known and familiar. Throughout its history it has recognized theatrical innovation, whether it be in new technologies or dramatic forms. That recognition ensures support for experimentation and new artistic visions.

The significance of the impact of the Tony Awards can be best illustrated by The Producers, The New Mel Brooks Musical (pr. 2001), the 2001 musical comedy by Mel Brooks and Tom Meehan, which was proclaimed the most successful production in Broadway history, not because it made the most money or because it had the longest run but because it won twelve Tony Awards out of fifteen nominations, the most ever for a single production.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Jewell, James C. Broadway and the Tony Awards: The First Three Decades, 1947-1977. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1977. Traces the early evolution of the awards and Broadway theater.

Lindroth, Colette. Rachel Crothers: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Chronicles the life and times of Rachel Crothers, a prominent actress and director credited with founding the organizations that led to Antoinette Perry’s involvement in the theater.

Morrow, Lee Alan. The Tony Award Book: Four Decades of Great American Theater. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987. Lavishly illustrated with photos, posters, and Playbill covers, this oversized volume includes a history of the American Theater Wing, description of the major awards, and hundreds of brief biographies of the most famous winners in each category. This includes the usual listing of nominees and winners (through 1987). It is the only source that includes citations for all Special Tony Awards.

Stevenson, Isabelle, and Roy A. Somlyo, eds. The Tony Award. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001. This is the official guide of the American Theatre Wing, providing a brief history of the organization and listings of winners (since 1947) and nominees (since 1956) in all categories. The achievements recognized by special awards are not described. The volume, first issued in 1987, is updated periodically.