Tonys’ greatest hits

A look back at heartfelt speeches, practical jokes

The basic recipe for every awards show, the Tonys included, is the same — wisecracking hosts playing it safe, breathless winners thanking agents and spouses ad nauseum, a mix of dazzling and schlocky performances — and the result is that most are instantly forgettable. Yet occasionally something truly unpredictable happens, and it is those moments, be they spontaneous or scripted, that become etched indelibly into viewers’ minds.

The most beloved Tony speech was given in 1990 by “Grand Hotel” star Michael Jeter. Shortly after his show-stopping dance number, Jeter earned the actor Tony, and told the cameras, “If you’ve got a problem with alcohol or drugs and you think you can’t stop, I stand here as living proof. … It changes a day at a time. And dreams can come true.”

“It was an extraordinary speech,” says Howard Sherman, now executive director of the American Theater Wing, but who was watching on TV at home back then. “Combined with his performance, it was quite a one-two punch.”

Bill Irwin’s 2005 speech for actor was also an instant classic, says Glenn Weiss, executive producer of the Tonys. Without resorting to thank yous, Irwin succinctly and eloquently reminded everyone that each show is a team effort, with equal emphasis on team — from the “proud trade union” to producers to his co-stars — and effort, “This is Broadway; we do this every night.”

“Bill is our poster boy; we show his speech to all the nominees,” says Weiss’ partner Ricky Kirshner. “He spoke passionately and from the heart.”

Weiss and Kirshner can’t write the speeches, of course, so they strive to enliven the shows with surprising moments. “We’re going for pure emotion,” says Weiss. When Irwin was co-presenting with Patricia Neal, the very first Tony recipient in 1947, the producers learned Neal’s award had been stolen, so they had Irwin give an astonished Neal a new one.

The producers also love playing practical jokes on the audience: Having the host introduce, “Ladies and gentlemen … Hugh Jackman,” only to have Billy Crystal emerge in his place. “We had to throw everyone out of Radio City during rehearsal.”

Their finest hour in that department came in 2005 when Christina Applegate was choreography presenter. The “Sweet Charity” star had nearly caused the cancellation of her show by injuring her foot, so producers had her perform a dance number around a lamppost that climaxed when she “accidentally” plunged into the orchestra pit. Much of the audience gasped in genuine concern … and then merriment when she climbed out unharmed.

“We weren’t sure if she or her show’s producers would go for it,” Weiss says. “It took a lot of selling.”

But it was worth it. “Very little in the theater community manages to stay secret, and so much about awards shows is expected,” Sherman says. “so pulling off the unexpected was a real coup.”

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