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Biggest Upsets in Tony Awards History

06.07.20

BY: JULIA SALKIN

We’re going through some serious Tonys withdrawal this weekend, so we’re sharing a roundup of some of our favorite Tony Awards upsets over the years. Buckle up, buttercups — ’cause there have been some pretty big surprises in Tony Awards history. Some have been heartfelt and some have been hilarious, but on theater’s biggest night, it’s safe to say that you should expect the unexpected.

2004: When Avenue Q beat Wicked for Best Musical.

Wicked was the big blockbuster musical of the season, compared to Avenue Q’s off-Broadway beginnings, small cast, and simple staging. But the hilarious puppet musical prevailed, beating out the retelling of the Wizard of Oz for the night’s top prize. Avenue Q also took home the awards for Best Score and Best Book of a Musical in ‘04 — all of which were expected to go to the Ozians. Avenue Q went on to run on Broadway until September 2009 and then enjoyed an off-Broadway run at New World Stages for several years. Meanwhile, however, Wicked remains a hit on the Great White Way today. There’s more than one way to win, folks.

2018: Once On This Island winning Best Revival of a Musical. 

Even lead producer Ken Davenport couldn’t hide his shock at taking home the night’s big prize, opening his acceptance speech with “This is not how I expected this night to go!” The Ahrens and Flaherty musical was up against the revivals of classic favorites Carousel (which had the power of Scott Rudin behind it) and My Fair Lady.

2006: LaChanze taking home Best Actress in a Musical for The Color Purple.

This was the actress’s first Tony win and second nomination (the first being in 1991 for her role as Ti Moune in the original production of Once On This Island). It wasn’t so much that people thought someone else was a shoe-in that year, but LaChanze was up against a lineup included Patti Lupone, Chita Rivera, Sutton Foster, and Kelli O’Hara. She beat Patti Lupone, folks.

1972: Two Gentlemen of Verona besting Follies for Best Musical.

The underrated rock musical based on Shakespeare’s comedy began at the Delacorte Theatre for Shakespeare in the Park, before making its way 30-odd blocks south to Broadway. Its biggest competitor received a whopping 13 Tony nominations to Two Gentlemen’s nine, and on the big night, Follies was expected to do a full sweep, but ended up leaving with seven Tony Awards in total. Also, unrelated, can we talk about that Playbill artwork? It should have won for that alone, IMHO.

2007: David Hyde Pierce winning Best Actor in a Musical for Curtains.

The title was favored to go to Raul Esparza for his role as Bobby in Company — which is now a fan favorite portrayal of the classic Sondheim character — but David Hyde Pierce’s turn as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi earned the legendary actor both his first Tony nomination and first win.

2020: The Tony Awards are replaced with a Grease singalong broadcast.

In perhaps the biggest upset in history, the 2020 Tony Awards were effectively cancelled due to COVID-19 for the first time in 74 years. Instead, CBS opted to broadcast a Grease “sing-along” which means the network played the original movie with song lyrics inserted along the bottom of the screen.

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