The awards founded by Brock Pemberton are named after Antoinette "Tony" Perry, an actress, producer and theatre director who was co-founder and secretary of the American Theatre Wing. The trophy consists of a medallion, with a face portraying an adaptation of the comedy and tragedy masks, mounted on a black base with a pewter swivel.
The rules for the Tony Awards are set forth in the official document "Rules and Regulations of The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards", which applies for that season only. The Tony Awards are considered the highest U.S. theatre honor, the New York theatre industry's equivalent to the Academy Awards (Oscars) for film, the Emmy Awards for television, and the Grammy Awards for music. It also forms the fourth spoke in the EGOT, that is, someone who has won all four major annual American entertainment awards. The Tony Awards are also considered the equivalent of the Laurence Olivier Awards in the United Kingdom and the Molière Awards in France.
As of 2014[update], there were 26 categories of awards, in addition to several special awards. Starting with 11 awards in 1947, the names and number of categories have changed over the years. Some examples: the category Best Book of a Musical was originally called "Best Author (Musical)". The category of Best Costume Design was one of the original awards. For two years, in 1960 and 1961, this category was split into Best Costume Designer (Dramatic) and Best Costume Designer (Musical). It then went to a single category, but in 2005 it was divided again. For the category of Best Director of a Play, a single category was for directors of plays and musicals prior to 1960.
A newly established non-competitive award, The Isabelle Stevenson Award, was given for the first time at the awards ceremony in 2009. The award is for an individual who has made a "substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations".
The category of Best Special Theatrical Event was retired as of the 2009–2010 season. The categories of Best Sound Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Musical were retired as of the 2014–2015 season. On April 24, 2017, the Tony Awards administration committee announced that the Sound Design Award would be reintroduced for the 2017–2018 season.
The award was founded in 1947 by a committee of the American Theatre Wing headed by Brock Pemberton. The award is named after Antoinette Perry, nicknamed Tony, an actress, director, producer and co-founder of the American Theatre Wing, who died in 1946. As her official biography at the Tony Awards website states, "At [Warner Bros. story editor] Jacob Wilk's suggestion, [Pemberton] proposed an award in her honor for distinguished stage acting and technical achievement. At the initial event in 1947, as he handed out an award, he called it a Tony. The name stuck."
The first awards ceremony was held on April 6, 1947, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The first prizes were "a scroll, cigarette lighter and articles of jewelry such as 14-carat gold compacts and bracelets for the women, and money clips for the men". It was not until the third awards ceremony in 1949 that the first Tony medallion was given to award winners.
Since 1967, the award ceremony has been broadcast on U.S. national television and includes songs from the nominated musicals, and occasionally has included video clips of, or presentations about, nominated plays. The American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League jointly present and administer the awards. Audience size for the telecast is generally well below that of the Academy Awards shows, but the program reaches an affluent audience, which is prized by advertisers. According to a June 2003 article in The New York Times: "What the Tony broadcast does have, say CBS officials, is an all-important demographic: rich and smart. Jack Sussman, CBS's senior vice president in charge of specials, said the Tony show sold almost all its advertising slots shortly after CBS announced it would present the three hours. 'It draws upscale premium viewers who are attractive to upscale premium advertisers,' Mr. Sussman said..." The viewership has declined from the early years of its broadcast history (for example, the number of viewers in 1974 was 20 million; in 1999, 9.2 million) but has settled into between six and eight million viewers for most of the decade of the 2000s. In contrast, the 2009 Oscar telecast had 36.3 million viewers.
The Tony Award medallion was designed by art directorHerman Rosse and is a mix of mostly brass and a little bronze, with a nickel plating on the outside; a black acrylic glass base, and the nickel-plated pewter swivel. The face of the medallion portrays an adaptation of the comedy and tragedy masks. Originally, the reverse side had a relief profile of Antoinette Perry; this later was changed to contain the winner's name, award category, production and year. The medallion has been mounted on a black base since 1967.
A larger base was introduced in time for the 2010 award ceremony. The new base is slightly taller – 5 inches (13 cm), up from 31⁄4 inches (8.3 cm) – and heavier – 31⁄2 pounds (1.6 kg), up from 11⁄2 pounds (680 grams). This change was implemented to make the award "feel more substantial" and easier to handle at the moment the award is presented to the winners. According to Howard Sherman, the executive director of the American Theatre Wing:
We know the physical scale of the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys. While we're not attempting to keep up with the Joneses, we felt this is a significant award, and it could feel and look a bit more significant... By adding height, now someone can grip the Tony, raise it over their head in triumph and not worry about keeping their grip. Believe me, you can tell the difference.
For the specific Tony Awards presented to a Broadway production, awards are given to the author and up to two of the producers free of charge. All other members of the above-the-title producing team are eligible to purchase the physical award. Sums collected are designed to help defray the cost of the Tony Awards ceremony itself. An award cost $400 as of at least 2000, $750 as of at least 2009, and, as of 2013, had been $2,500 "for several years", according to Tony Award Productions.
For the purposes of the award, a new play or musical is one that has not previously been produced on Broadway and is not "determined… to be a 'classic' or in the historical or popular repertoire", as determined by the Administration Committee (per Section (2g) of the Rules and Regulations). The rule about "classic" productions was instituted by the Tony Award Administration Committee in 2002, and stated (in summary) "A play or musical that is determined ... to be a 'classic' or in the historical or popular repertoire shall not be eligible for an award in the Best Play or Best Musical Category but may be eligible in that appropriate Best Revival category." Shows transferred from Off-Broadway or the West End are eligible as "new", as are productions based closely on films.
This rule has been the subject of some controversy, as some shows, such as Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Violet, have been ruled ineligible for the "new" category, meaning that their authors did not have a chance to win the important awards of Best Play or Best Musical (or Best Score or Best Book for musicals). On the other hand, some people[who?] feel that allowing plays and musicals that have been frequently produced to be eligible as "new" gives them an unfair advantage because they will have benefited from additional development time as well as additional familiarity with the Tony voters.
Committees and voters
The Tony Awards Administration Committee has twenty-four members: ten designated by the American Theatre Wing, ten by The Broadway League, and one each by the Dramatists Guild, Actors' Equity Association, United Scenic Artists and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. This committee, among other duties, determines eligibility for nominations in all awards categories.
The Tony Awards Nominating Committee makes the nominations for the various categories. This rotating group of theatre professionals is selected by the Tony Awards Administration Committee. Nominators serve three-year terms and are asked to see every new Broadway production. The Nominating Committee for the 2012–13 Broadway season (named in June 2012) had 42 members; the Nominating Committee for the 2014–2015 season has 50 members and was appointed in June 2014.
There are approximately 868 eligible Tony Award voters (as of 2014), a number that changes slightly from year to year. The number was decreased in 2009 when the first-night critics were excluded as voters. That decision was changed, and members of the New York Drama Critics' Circle were invited to be Tony voters beginning in the 2010–2011 season.
The eligible Tony voters include the board of directors and designated members of the advisory committee 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, members of the Theatrical Council of the Casting Society of America and voting members of The Broadway League (in 2000, what was then The League of American Theaters and Producers changed membership eligibility and Tony voting status from a lifetime honor to all above-the-title producers, to ones who had been active in the previous 10 years. This action disenfranchised scores of Tony voters, including Gail Berman, Harve Brosten, Dick Button, Tony Lo Bianco, and Raymond Serra).
To be eligible for Tony Award consideration, a production must have officially opened on Broadway by the eligibility date that the Management Committee establishes each year. For example, the cut-off date for eligibility the 2013–2014 season was April 24, 2014. The season for Tony Award eligibility is defined in the Rules and Regulations.
In 2020, the 74th Annual Tony Awards were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On August 21, 2020, it was announced that the 74th Annual Tony Awards would take place digitally later in 2020.
A Broadway theatre is defined as having 500 or more seats, among other requirements. While the rules define a Broadway theatre in terms of its size, not its geographical location, the list of Broadway theatres is determined solely by the Tony Awards Administration Committee. As of the 2016–2017 season, the list consisted solely of the 41 theaters located in the vicinity of Times Square in New York City and Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
While the theatre-going public may consider the Tony Awards to be the Oscars of live theatre, critics have suggested that the Tony Awards are primarily a promotional vehicle for a small number of large production companies and theatre owners in New York City. In a 2014 Playbill article, Robert Simonson wrote that "Who gets to perform on the Tony Awards broadcast, what they get to perform, and for how long, have long been politically charged questions in the Broadway theatre community..." The producers "accept the situation ... because just as much as actually winning a Tony, a performance that lands well with the viewing public can translate into big box-office sales." Producer Robyn Goodman noted that, if the presentation at the ceremony shows well and the show wins a Tony, "you’re going to spike at the box office".
 Statistical analysis may support this argument; productions that are nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical (which are usually the productions that stage performances at the award show) have a longer run than non-nominated productions. Additionally, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical triples the likelihood that production will stay open. However, plays nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play also receive longer runs, even though they usually do not perform at the award ceremony.
The awards met further criticism when they eliminated the sound design awards in 2014. In 2014, a petition calling for the return of the Sound Design categories received more than 30,000 signatures. Addressing their previous concerns over Tony voters in the category, it was announced that upon the awards' return for the 2017–2018 season, they would be decided by a subset of voters based on their expertise.
Some notable records and facts about the Tony Awards include the following:
Nominations: The most Tony nominations ever received by a single production was the musical Hamilton (2016) with 16 nominations in 13 categories, narrowly passing the previous holders of this record, The Producers (2001; 15 nominations in 12 categories), Billy Elliot (2009; 15 nominations in 13 categories) and Hadestown (2019; 14 nominations in 13 categories). The most Tony nominations for a non-musical play was the revival of Angels in America (2018; 11 nominations in 10 categories).
Wins: The most Tony Awards ever received by a single production was the musical The Producers (2001) with 12 awards, including Best Musical.
Non-musical wins: The most Tonys ever received by a non-musical play was The Coast of Utopia (2007) with 7 awards, including Best Play.
Most nominated with fewest wins: Musicals Mean Girls (2018) and The Scottsboro Boys (2011) are tied: both were nominated for 12 Tony Awards but did not win any.The Scottsboro Boys also holds the record for most nominations for a closed show (having closed nearly six months before the Tony Awards).
Design Awards: Nine shows have swept the Design Awards (original 3 of Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design – joined by Best Sound Design starting in 2008): Follies (1972), The Phantom of the Opera (1986), The Lion King (1998), The Producers (2001), The Light in the Piazza (2005), The Coast of Utopia (2007), the 2008 revival of South Pacific (first to sweep the expanded four awards for Creative Arts), Peter and the Starcatcher (first straight play to sweep the expanded four awards for Creative Arts) (2012), and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2018).
Revivals: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller in 2012 became the first show (play or musical) to win as Best Production in four different years, Best Play at the 1949 awards, Best Revival at the 1984 awards (before the Best Revival award was split into two categories for Play and Musical in 1994), and Best Revival of a Play at the 1999 and 2012 awards. La Cage aux Folles made history as the first musical to win as Best Production in three different years, Best Musical at the 1984 awards and Best Revival of a Musical at both the 2005 awards and the 2010 awards. The King and I has also garnered 3 Tony Awards, one for each time it has been produced on Broadway, first as Best Musical and then twice as Best Revival of a Musical.
Wins: Harold Prince has won 21 Tony Awards, more than anyone else, including eight for Best Direction of a Musical, eight for Best Musical, two for Best Producer of a Musical, and three special Tony Awards. Tommy Tune has won ten Tony Awards including three for direction, four for choreography, two for performing, and one special Tony Award. Stephen Sondheim has won more music Tony Awards than any other individual, with eight awards (six for Best Original Score, one for Best Composer, and one for Best Lyricist). Bob Fosse has won the most Tonys for choreography, also eight. Oliver Smith has won a record eight scenic design Tony Awards. Jules Fisher has won the most lighting design awards, with nine. Audra McDonald has the most performance Tony Awards with six. Terrence McNally and Tom Stoppard are the most awarded writers with four Tonys each; McNally has won Best Play twice and Best Book of a Musical twice, while Stoppard has won Best Play four times.
Performers in all categories: Five performers have been nominated for all four performance awards for which a performer is eligible.
Boyd Gaines was the first performer to be nominated for each of Best Featured Actor in a Play in The Heidi Chronicles (1989), Best Actor in a Musical for She Loves Me (1994), Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Contact (2000) and Gypsy (2008) and Best Actor in a Play for Journey's End (2007). Gaines won in three of the categories (and four of the five nominations), missing only for the performance in Journey's End.
Raúl Esparza was the second performer to be nominated in all four categories (no wins), achieving this over a mere six seasons: Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Taboo (2004), Best Actor in a Musical for Company (2007), Best Featured Actor in a Play for The Homecoming (2008), and Best Actor in a Play for Speed-the-Plow (2009).
Performers Playing Opposite Sex: While several performers have won Tonys for roles that have involved cross-dressing, only four have won for playing a character of the opposite sex: Mary Martin in the title role of Peter Pan (1955), Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2003), Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night (2014), and Lena Hall as Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2014). In 2000, Australian actor Barry Humphries won the Special Tony Award for a live theatrical event at the 55th Annual Tony Awards for Dame Edna: The Royal Tour.
Writing and performing: Two people have won Tonys as an author and as a performer. Harvey Fierstein won Best Play and Best Lead Actor in a Play for Torch Song Trilogy (1983), Best Book of a Musical for La Cage aux Folles, and Best Lead Actor in a Musical for Hairspray. Tracy Letts, the author of 2008 Best Play August: Osage County, won Best Lead Actor in a Play for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2013).