As awards season comes to an end, theater fans are patiently awaiting the biggest night of the year, the Tony Awards. With the awards set to be given on June 10th at Radio City Music Hall, this time of year provides a wonderful excuse to look back into Tony history and remember why they’re given out and who they were named for in the first place.
The Tony Awards were founded in 1947 by the American Theatre Wing, an organization “dedicated to supporting excellence and education in theatre.” At that time, Brock Pemberton, head of The Wing, felt it important to honor Antoinette Perry, an actress who had passed away the year before. Her nickname had been Tony and when Brock dubbed the “Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre” a Tony Award, the nickname stuck.
In addition to acting, Ms. Perry was also an accomplished director and producer. Her most famous contribution to the canon was likely her directorial effort in the original production of Mary Chase’s play Harvey. Her work offstage has had far longer-lasting impact. Her work with the American Theatre Wing, especially during World War 2, brought theater to countless servicemen and women through the Stage Door Canteen.
Now in their 72nd year, the Tonys, broadcast on network television, often provide people their first glimpses of Broadway shows and the stars who bring them to life. One of the most exciting Tony award performances that embodies this spirit was given by Neil Patrick Harris when he hosted the show in 2013.
The Tonys aren’t without controversy. Some believe the award is less about excellence and more about promoting shows that are going on tour and could use a boost. Others are concerned about issues of representation amongst award winners and nominees, noting fewer actors of color. That issue could be viewed as systemic given there are fewer roles that feature minority actors. The theater community in general is doing a great deal to confront these issues of representation head-on and we are seeing the fruits of that labor in the new voices emerging at the Tony Awards.
Even if one questions the idea of awarding one play, musical, design, or performance as “the best,” the impact of the Tony Awards cannot be overstated. In much of the country, theater is rarely seen and nearly never discussed. Young performers around the country interested in a life onstage otherwise do not usually get to see their idols sing, dance, or act. The Tonys also gives out an award for theater teachers based on nomination from thousands of students who have seen their lives positively impacted by theater. Overall, it’s difficult to overstate the impact that the Tonys have had on American theater.