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As part of our ongoing celebration of Women in Theatre, we’re showcasing actresses making extraordinary, enduring contributions on stage. Perhaps there’s no better place to hear about these achievements in their own impassioned words than an awards show.
So we’re taking a look back at some of the Tony winners for best performances by an actress in a leading role and reliving their heartfelt speeches. While overflowing with joy, these women often share stories of trials and triumphs. Plus, they generously spread love and admiration for the women who’ve come before them, worked alongside them and are following in their footsteps.
After having been nominated for a Tony five times previously, Kelli O’Hara finally won in 2015 for playing fearless Anna Leonowens in The King and I. (You can actually see her reprise that role when it opens at the London Palladium this June – read our chat with her about it here!) We love the sheer glee O’Hara exudes in her acceptance speech. She gushes praise on the other women in her category, calling them “legends and future legends” while adding she’s “proud to be part of their air tonight”. What also stole our hearts is O’Hara’s wackiness at the very end when she promises to do “the worm” and then shuffles offstage. (True to her word, two days later, O’Hara got on the ground and did the wriggly breakdance move, sharing the video with her Twitter fans.)
Nominated in 1996 for Rent, Idina Menzel took home her first Tony in 2004 for her tour de force performance as Elphaba in the original musical Wicked. Menzel’s speech opens as a testament to women everywhere: “I am so proud to be in a musical that celebrates women, that celebrates their strengths and their differences. And to be in the company of these women this evening is just a dream.” We also applaud her shout-out to Wicked’s bookwriter Winnie Holzman “for giving the green girl a heart”.
Bebe Neuwirth won a Tony in 1997 for her portrayal of glamorous hubby-and-sister killer Velma Kelly in the hit revival of Chicago. Bookending her speech with gratitude, Neuwirth opens by saying, “I love the stage more than any other place in the world,” and closes by emphatically stating, “I LOVE my job, I LOVE my work.” Then in between she humbly acknowledges Chita Rivera from Chicago’s original cast: “She’s a goddess of theatre and I bow to her when I accept this, and I thank her for creating such a delicious role, and I remember watching her from the mezzanine and going, ‘How did she do that with that chair just now?’, and inspiring me until this day.”
Philippines-born actress Lea Salonga was 20 years old when she accepted a Tony in 1991 for her heartbreaking portrayal of Kim, an orphan in the tragic love story Miss Saigon. Although young, she was perfectly poised when she took to the podium. Salonga recalls watching the Tonys on TV as a little girl in Manila, and then thanks everyone from God to Actors’ Equity. Ending with a moment of raw emotion, she dedicates her award to “everybody back home who dreams of winning a Tony. I got one and the dream can come true for someone else.”
Among the slew of music and theatre awards she claimed in 1982, Jennifer Holliday bagged a Tony for her performance as Effie White in the original Dreamgirls cast. And we’re telling you we can’t say enough about Holliday’s powerful pipes or her fierceness! During the show’s development, she struggled with director Michael Bennett, because she felt the role of Effie was too small and not worthy of her talents. Although Bennett fired her, he sought to win her back by promising to rewrite the role. In her Tony speech, Holliday thanks Bennett for teaching her so much about theatre and then playfully jabs, “You wanna fight again?” Now that’s a woman we’re gonna love!