Audra and Sutton and Danny, Oh My! A Look at Tony Nomination Magnets

Playbill.com looks at the leading ladies and men of the Tony nominations, who have racked up the most nominations and wins over the years. 

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald (Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

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This year’s crop of Tony nominees includes a number of familiar faces and formidable performers. But arguably no categories are as rife with talent and accomplishment as are the leading actress slates, both for play and musical. Together they include what can safely be called the leading musical theatre actresses of the day: Audra McDonald ( Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill), Kelli O’Hara ( The Bridges of Madison County) and Sutton Foster ( Violet).

Aside from being consistent critical darlings, and actresses never far from their next Broadway starring role, these three actresses have something else in common: They are among the most-nominated actors in the history of the Tony Awards.

McDonald’s near-ridiculous prowess as an award-magnet has been legend for two decades now. From 1994 until today, she has won Tony Awards fives times, for Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess. She has been nominated twice more, for Marie Christine and 110 in the Shade.

Sutton Foster’s skill at netting Tonys has been less celebrated. Nonetheless, since 2002, she has collected nominations at an even faster pace than McDonald, drawing six nominations — including Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Shrek the Musical and Anything Goes. She won the Tony for the first and last credits. Kelli O’Hara has done nearly as well as Foster over the past ten years, except that she has yet to win a trophy. Instead, she has been nominated for The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, South Pacific and Nice Work If You Can Get It.

As impressive as the achievements of McDonald, Foster and O’Hara are, none of then have yet managed to surpass the long-reigning champion actor in Tony nominations. That would be Julie Harris, who collected ten nominations during her long career and won five Tonys, plus one Special Tony Award, for a total of six. He first nomination was for I Am a Camera in 1952 (she won); her last was for The Gin Game in 1997 (she lost). (McDonald has to win one more time to tie Harris in victories — a likely occurrence given she has a good ways to go in her career, and wins Tonys more often than not.)

Just behind Harris in Tony nominations is Chita Rivera, who has brought home nine nods, beginning in 1961 with Bye Bye Birdie and ending in 2006 with Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life. She won twice, for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She’s just one nomination from being the musical theatre world’s version of Julie Harris.

Angela Lansbury

Another regular piece of Tony bait is Angela Lansbury, who has won five Tonys — for Mame, Dear World, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and Blithe Spirit. She was nominated twice more, for Deuce and A Little Night Music. Lansbury can also lay claim to having won the most Tonys for leading actress in a musical: four. ( Gwen Verdon won four musical Tonys as well, but only three of them were as leading actress.) Given Lansbury’s late-career spurt of activity, who knows? — she could surpass Harris in nominations or wins. A dark horse to overtake Harris’ record may be Rosemary Harris, the distinguished dramatic actress who took home her first Tony Award in 1966 for The Lion in Winter and has earned eight nominations since, the most recently in 2010 for The Royal Family. Unlike all the actresses named above, Harris has the distinction of having drawn all of her Tony nominations for performances in straight plays. There’s not a musical among them. (Even Julie Harris, never known as a singer, got a nod for a musical, the short-lived Skyscraper.)

Not far behind Harris is Colleen Dewhurst, who also won all eight of her nominations for plays. The first was in 1961 for All the Way Home (she won) and the last was in 1977 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (she lost). During that period, she averaged a Tony nomination every other year.

Other actresses who have made a habit of attracting nominations include Bernadette Peters (seven nominations, two wins, plus a special Tony); Elaine Stritch (five nominations, one win for At Liberty); Maureen Stapleton (six nominations, two wins); Irene Worth (five nominations; two wins); Marian Seldes (five nominations, one win, plus one special Tony); Linda Lavin (six nominations, one win); Stockard Channing (seven nominations, one win); Patti LuPone (six nominations, two wins); Frances Sternhagen (seven nominations, two wins); and Jessica Tandy (six nominations, including a special Tony in 1994 for her and her husband Hume Cronyn. Cronyn didn’t do so badly either, accruing five nominations as an actor, one win, and sharing that same special Tony.)

Frank Langella
Photo by Joe Fornabaio

Actresses you would assume had racked up shelves of Tonys actually have less to show than you’d expect. Ethel Merman, longtime queen of the Broadway musical, collected only three nominations and only one win. (Many of her most famous roles took place before 1947, when the Tonys were founded.) Mary Martin was nominated four times, winning three trophies. She also received an additional Tony in 1948, for “Spreading Theatre to the Country While The Originals Perform in New York.” (Must have been a challenge to get all that on the plaque.) Helen Hayes, the “First Lady of the American Theatre,” was nominated three times, winning twice, plus taking home a special Tony in 1980. Among actors, as far as the business of netting Tony nominations, it seems to help if you’re British or Canadian. High on the list is Canadian-born Christopher Plummer, who has been nominated seven times, winning for playing a couple of hams: Cyrano in 1974 and Barrymore in 1997. Right up there alongside him is the English-born Brian Bedford, who has done considerable work on Canadian stages. He has earned seven Tony nominations and won once.

Still, it’s all-American Jason Robard, Jr., who tops the tally. He took home eight nominations between 1957 and 1978, including a win for The Disenchanted.

Frank Langella has six nominations, three of them converted into wins. Four of those nods were in the last dozen years. Philip Bosco, too, has a half-dozen nominations (one a win), as does John Lithgow (with two wins). In the five-Tony-nomination club are Robert Morse (two wins), Boyd Gaines (four wins), George C. Scott and Danny Burstein, an ever-working supporting played of recent years. If anyone out there is shouting out “ Nathan Lane,” it turns out the ubiquitous marquee name, despite his many credits and regular accolades, has only won four Tony nominations over his career. Two were wins: The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The same number, 4, goes for Zero Mostel.

This article is only about oft-nominated performers. But, for the record, the most-Tony-nominated composer is Stephen Sondheim (8), the most-nominated choreographer is Bob Fosse (8). And the most nominated director? Well, if you don’t know the answer to that, you don’t even have a beginner’s understanding of theatre trivia. It’s Harold Prince, of course, with 21.