Broadway cast albums are great, but there’s nothing like actually seeing a musical, with all those fancy details like dancing and staging and facial expressions. The only problem is that if you’re not in New York, actually getting to a show can be cost prohibitive, even if the show’s not already sold out into eternity like Hamilton.
That’s part of what makes the Tony Awards so valuable. Every year, the telecast features excerpts and medleys from all the musicals nominated for Best Musical or Best Revival — and for thousands of theater kids around the country, it’s the closest they’ll get to actually seeing the current season’s shows.
So to prep for Sunday’s 71st annual Tony Awards, here are the eight best Tonys performances of the past 15 years.
“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd/The Worst Pies in London/My Friends,” Sweeney Todd, 2006
John Doyle’s minimalist production of Sweeney Todd makes the already dark show pitch black. In this stripped-down production, the actors tote around instruments to accompany themselves as they tell the story of the demon barber who kills his customers and bakes them into pies.
Both Michael Cerveris, who plays Sweeney, and Patti LuPone, who plays his accomplice Mrs. Lovett, appear again later in this list, and in this 2006 Tonys performance it’s easy to understand why: They have the kind of rich, plummy voices and unforced stage presence that Broadway dreams are made of.
“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” Gypsy, 2008
Mama Rose, the controlling and conniving stage mother of Gypsy, is a classic diva part. To really pull it off, you need someone with the kind of charisma that can bring the house down. So thank goodness for Patti LuPone, who won her second Tony for the role and in this 2008 performance brought the audience to its feet the moment she started singing. Listen to the barely controlled shake in her voice as she starts in on the last “Everything’s coming up roses and daffodils,” and the way it builds into a full-on snarl as she rips her letters apart. The number concludes with a beautifully nasty moment of emotional unraveling that lets you see right into Rose’s cold, indomitable heart.
“In the Heights/96,000,” In the Heights, 2008
Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical about a Latino community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. A lot of other performances on this list are dominated by a single brilliant singer, but this 2008 medley is, like most of Miranda’s best work, a true ensemble performance. Its most thrilling moment comes at the end of the number, when all of the individual melodies that have been building throughout the song come together in a single wall of sound.
“I Believe,” The Book of Mormon, 2012
Six years after its 2011 debut, The Book of Mormon, by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and composer Robert Lopez, is still one of the funniest shows on Broadway. And as you’ll see in this performance from the 2012 Tonys, from the stalwart, aw-shucks earnestness on Andrew Rannells’s face as he outlines his beliefs to the blank amazement on Brian Tyree Henry’s face as Rannells bursts into his camp to the deadpan simplicity of the musical’s joke structure — everything just works. Plus, that deceptively simple melody is such an earworm that you’ll catch yourself singing, “I belieeeeeeeve that plan involves me getting my own planet!” all day.
“Always Starting Over,” If/Then, 2014
Idina Menzel’s powerhouse voice is a mixed blessing: Composers love writing big, belty power ballads for her to murder at top volume, but they tax her voice so much that the live performances she does for awards shows don’t always showcase what she can do when she’s at her best. So her performance of Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” at the 2004 Tonys was just okay; her rendition of Frozen’s “Let It Go” at the 2014 Oscars was, you know, nothing special. (Of course, she had the Adele Dazeem thing as an excuse in that latter case.)
But she’s in top form during this number from the 2014 Tonys, playing a grieving widow who is deciding at long last to give up her grief. (One might even say she’s … letting it go.) (I’m sorry.) That final, soaring note has the audience standing for a reason.
“Sugar Daddy,” Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 2014
At the 2014 Tonys, Neil Patrick Harris shows us all why he won that year’s Best Leading Actor award for his starring turn in John Cameron Mitchell’s weird and lovely rock musical about a genderqueer singer from East Berlin named Hedwig (music and lyrics by Stephen Trask). As Hedwig sings about the American GI who gave her favors in exchange for sex, Harris, fully in character in fishnet stockings and skyscraper heels, gives Sting a lap dance and licks Samuel L. Jackson’s glasses (Jackson’s look of utter shock in response may be the best moment of the whole thing). And that’s Harris’s real-life husband, David Burtka, he’s kissing at the end there. It’s a live performance that’s queer and anarchic and awkward and sexy — everything Hedwig is at its best.
“Ring of Keys,” Fun Home, 2015
Be honest: This clip made you cry. Fun Home was the 2015 season’s runaway hit, and as you watch pint-size Sydney Lucas’s Alison experience her first moment of identification as she sees a butch lesbian, it’s easy to see why. Listen to her sing, “I thought it was s’posed to be wrong, but you seem okay with being strong,” and just try to keep your eyes dry while you wonder where someone that small keeps so much emotion.
“The Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton, 2016
Hamilton’s official Tonys performance last year — “The Battle of Yorktown / World Turned Upside Down,” in costume and with full choreography — was great, but for sheer joy and elation, you can’t beat their surprise closing number. Fresh off of winning 11 Tonys, including Best Musical, the cast came out to perform an abbreviated version of “The Schuyler Sisters” in their formalwear, voices shaking just a little with excitement. It was a celebration not just of their enormous achievement, but of Broadway itself, and of the joy of being alive right now in New York City.