Trying to Make Sense of First Time Tony Winners and Repeat Nominees

Kasie Tiler Patlove

This past Sunday, I watched as Broadway beauty Kelli O’Hara took home her first tony for her performance as Anna in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, currently in its 4th Broadway revival at Lincoln Center. Although it was her first win, Ms. O’Hara is no stranger to the Great White Way or the Tonys. She has jokingly been named the “Leo DiCaprio of Broadway”. Out of her 10 Broadway Appearances, the powerful singer and actress has been nominated 6 times, all of which happened with each consecutive roles she has played in ‘05, ‘06, ‘08, ‘12, ‘14 and ‘15.  Having seen her as a top billing in The Bridges of Madison County, Nice Work If You Can Get it, and South Pacific, It can’t be denied that Ms. O’Hara is truly a storytelling aficionado. Her flourishing voice captures audiences and makes them hang on her every word.  So it was no surprise to viewers, industry professionals, or to Ms. O’Hara herself when she took home the coveted award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. But think about this: was Ms. O’Hara’s victory based solely on her performance in The King and I, or maybe did it have something to do with the incredible range and depth of roles she has played-and yet to be recognized for- over the past 10 years?

Helen Mirren’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II in the historical drama The Queen earned her a Golden Globe, Oscar, SAG, BAFTA and nine other awards for Best Actress in 2006. Clearly, the entire industry came to a consensus that her performance as the reigning Monarch was impeccable. So it was no surprised that her performance as Queen Elizabeth II would be just as appealing in this year’s The Audience, coincidentally written by Peter Morgan, the screenwriter of The Queen. Clearly Dame Mirren and Mr. Morgan are quite the team as Ms. Mirren took home her first Tony for Actress in a Lead role In a Play on Sunday evening. An interview with Dame Mirren states that although Morgan wrote both works, the stories and journeys Queen Elizabeth II are quite different. Regardless, the same question stands: Was Dame Mirren a tony recipient based on her performance in The Audience on Broadway, or could Tony voters have been influenced by her great success as the same character in The Audience n in London, and The Queen?

Jeanine Tesori surely has gotten her name in the theatrical history books; being half of the first all female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score for the groundbreaking musical Fun Home, an adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her experiences coming to terms with her sexuality. However, Ms. Tesori has been nominated four other times. Caroline, or Change, Shrek, Violet, and Thoroughly Modern Millie all received critical praise and various Drama Critic Circle awards an nominations. She has also written music for various animated sequels and trilogies. Taking home the Tony for Best Musical, Score, Direction, Lead Actor and Book; Fun Home is proven to be a masterpiece, much is owed to Ms. Tesori for her moving and unique score.  But again, is her Tony to commemorate all of the groundbreaking, intricate work she has done for Broadway since 2000? Or was Fun Home her golden ticket to the Tony?

The Tony’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” is a non competitive, honorary award given each year to an individual who “body of work” is to be celebrated. Recent winners include Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim, Alan Ayckbourn and this year’s Tommy Tune. However this award seems to recognize artists who are toward the end of their careers and have already won multiple competitive Tonys, unlike O’Hara, Mirren and Tesori, whose work is still thriving and have only received nominations.

Additionally, we can investigate artists whose work continues to be recognized with Tony wins year after year. Audra McDonald holds the most Tony Awards for any actress; having won 6 titles since 1994 (she’s only lost one tony she was nominated for, Marie Christine in 2000.  Sondheim has received 8 Tonys for his work as a composer and Hal Prince has 21 Tonys for his directing and producing endeavors.  How can we distinguish when someone’s achievements become worth of the “Lifetime Achievement Award” and not just a regular old Tony?
And what about the newcomers? 26 year old Alexander Sharp took home the Tony for Best Actor in a play- his first professional role and the youngest in his category! Or how about the 3 Billy Elliot’s who took home the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical back in 2008?  Surely their performances deserved, but these young men haven’t had the time to develop their careers.

They just gave some kick ass performances. 

So how do the voters decide? Do we accept the fact that people like O’Hara and Tesori eventually will get what they deserve when the timing is right? Or was their work not “exceptional” enough until this year? I would think it is nearly impossible to isolate a performer, composer, or director in the one show from that particular year. When we evaluate a performance, song, set design, we think about what the artist has done in the past, how they have improved on their past projects, and interpreted the work at hand. 

What do you think? Post in the comments below! Also, go watch Kelli O’Hara’s acceptance speech. It’s just amazing.