From South Pacific to The Producers, The Shows That Swept on Tony Night

Tony Awards   From South Pacific to The Producers, The Shows That Swept on Tony Night Many think Hamilton is poised to make Tony Awards history this weekend, but what shows are the biggest winners in Tony history?
Gary Beach, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Roger Bart
Gary Beach, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Roger Bart in The Producers Paul Kolnik

No one knows for certain who will win the 24 Tony Awards up for grabs this year, but many theatre fans think Hamilton will have quite a successful night. The show already nabbed a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations, and it has the potential to break records for wins as well. With nominations in all musical acting, creative and writing categories, Hamilton could sweep the entire ceremony (except for the play categories, of course).

And though it might end up breaking some records, Hamilton would be far from the first production to sweep the Tonys. While we wait for the awards this Sunday, we’re taking a look back at some of the biggest winners in Tony history.

In 1950, the fifth year the Tony Awards were given, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s South Pacific took home nine awards, including Best Musical. Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin won as Leading Actor and Actress, and Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall won as Featured Actor and Actress, completing a sweep of that year’s musical acting categories. The production also took home awards for direction, authors (kin to today’s book category), composer (kin to today’s score category) and producer (then separate from the Best Musical category). South Pacific beat out many shows that year, including Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Regina.

Damn Yankees Playbill - Aug 1956
Damn Yankees Playbill - Aug 1956

Damn Yankees nearly swept the acting categories six years later; Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon won awards for Leading Actor and Actress, and Russ Brown took home the award for Best Featured Actor. Rae Allen was nominated for Best Featured Actress for her performance as Gloria Thorpe, but the award went to Lotte Lenya for her performance in The Threepenny Opera. The production also won awards for Best Conductor/Musical director (Hal Hastings), Choreography (Bob Fosse) and Best Musical, bringing their total that evening to six Tony Awards, seven if you count Harry Green's win for best stage technician (he also worked on Middle of the Night that season).

The Music Man fared similarly in 1958, winning three out of four musical acting categories (Robert Preston, David Burns and Barbara Cook won Best Leading Actor, Featured Actor and Featured Actress respectively), Best Conductor/Musical director (Herbert Greene) and Best Musical, beating out West Side Story for the title—a total of five awards.

While South Pacific, Damn Yankees and The Music Man may have swept (or nearly swept) the acting categories, all were noticeably lacking when it came to the design awards. This may partially be because the design categories used to be treated differently. Individual designers would be nominated, and the nomination could be considered for their entire season of work, which often included multiple shows.

Even within those parameters, Hello, Dolly! won Tonys for Oliver Smith’s scenic design and Freddy Wittop’s costumes, a sweep for the design categories in 1964 (lighting design wasn't honored until 1970). Along with its awards for best leading actress (Carol Channing), author (Michael Stewart), choreographer and director (Gower Champion), composer/lyricist (Jerry Herman), conductor/musical director (Shepard Coleman), producer (David Merrick) and musical, the production brought home ten Tonys that night—half of the total awards handed out. It also bares mentioning that Dolly wasn’t exactly running unopposed; its competition that season included She Loves Me, 110 in the Shade and Funny Girl.

A Chorus Line.
A Chorus Line. Photo by Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown

Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret were big winners in 1965 and 1967 respectively (Fiddler won nine Tonys and Cabaret won eight), but A Chorus Line in 1976 was the next big Tony sweep, even though the producer award had been fully absorbed into best musical by this point. In addition to winning Best Musical, the production won Best Leading Actress (Donna McKechnie), Featured Actor (Sammy Williams) and Actress (Carole Bishop, now Kelly Bishop), Director (Michael Bennett), Book (James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante), Score (Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban), Lighting Design (Tharon Musser) and Choreography (Michael Bennett and Bob Avian), a total of nine awards.

This was bad news for Chicago, which opened the same season and walked away from that year’s Tony Awards ceremony completely empty-handed. A Chorus Line went on to hold the record for Broadway’s longest-running musical for many years, a record the current revival of Chicago surpassed in 2011.

Sweeney Todd (with eight Tonys) and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (with six) were big winners in 1979 and 1989 respectively, but, for the most part, awards were more evenly spread between different productions in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

That all changed in 2001 when The Producers hit the scene. The show, a musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ film of the same name, was universally loved by audiences and critics, and that year it received a then-record breaking 15 Tony nominations (a record that was broken just this year by Hamilton). It didn’t win all 15 (it couldn’t have—it received multiple nominations in both the Leading and Featured Actor categories), but it won in every category it was nominated for, 12 in total. It was the first true sweep of the Tony Awards, winning in every category that new musicals are eligible for with the exception of Best Leading Actress.

And so far, Producers has been able to hold on to its title as the most Tony-winning production in history. Billy Elliot: The Musical matched its nomination record in 2009, but ended up winning ten Tonys, losing Score to Next to Normal, Costume Design to Shrek the Musical and Featured Actress to Karen Olivo in West Side Story. With ten Tony wins, however, it still did pretty well for itself.

The Book of Mormon was a big winner in 2011, winning Best Musical, Featured Actress (Nikki M. James), Book and Score (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone), Scenic Design (Scott Pask), Lighting Design (Brian MacDevitt), Sound Design (Brian Ronan), Direction (Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker) and Orchestrations (Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus), but it fell just one nomination short of matching The Producers and Billy Elliot’s record.

Which brings us to the 70th Annual Tony Awards this weekend. Will Hamilton make Tony history? We’ll all have to watch and find out.

Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.

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