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The Tony Awards' Most Memorable Opening Acts

Host James Corden performs onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City.

Photo Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images.

The Tonys' opening numbers are worthy of their own awards.

By Gina McIntyre

No one puts on a show quite like Broadway's best, so it's hardly surprising that the theater world's biggest night—the Tony Awards—has gifted us with countless outstanding performances from the most talented entertainers to grace the stage.

With the show postponed due to the coronavirus this year, it's the perfect time to look back at some of the most memorable opening acts over the ceremony's illustrious 73-year history, and anticipate the fun to come with the 74th.

“Willkommen” from Cabaret (1967)

Film still of Joel Grey in Cabaret

Joel Grey in the film adaption of Cabaret (circa 1972).

Photo Credit: Everett Collection.

Joel Grey put the imp in impresario as he gracefully leaped across the stage while performing the opening song from John Kander and Fred Ebb's famed musical Cabaret. Life truly was beautiful that night for Grey, who won the Tony for Featured Actor in a Musical for his turn as the master of ceremonies at a risqué Berlin nightclub. (He would go on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for reprising the role in director Bob Fosse's 1972 film adaptation.) Also noteworthy: This was the first year that the Tonys were broadcast on television.

“I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line (1976)

A Chorus Line playbill

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Broadway.

The backstage musical went in to the ceremony as the clear front-runner with an astonishing 12 nominations, eventually winning an impressive nine awards. A Chorus Line also gave the show its opening and closing numbers. The ceremony kicked off with a seven-plus-minute sequence from the Michael Bennett–directed production in which the stage was transformed into a minimalist rehearsal space where 17 dancers learn a complicated routine under the ever-critical eye of their choreographer. The exacting Bennett reportedly even oversaw the way the sequence was shot for television.

“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy (1989)

Angela Lansbury in a red gown.

Angela Lansbury during 43rd Annual Tony Awards Party at New York Hilton in New York City.

Photo Credit: Ron Galella/Getty Images.

Dressed in a flattering rose-red, tea-length dress, host Angela Lansbury kicked off the 43rd show with a rousing rendition of the Gypsy showstopper, belting out the lyrics with verve and gusto. It takes a true talent to hold the stage on her own, and in her fifth outing as mistress of ceremonies, Lansbury blew the roof off the theater with her incredible pipes.

“Broadway Divas” (1998)

Rosie O'Donnell performing at the Tony Awards, circa 1998.\u200b

Rosie O'Donnell performing at the Tony Awards, circa 1998.

Photo Credit: Jeff Christensen/Getty Images.

Three of Broadway's indisputable queens joined host Rosie O'Donnell and the Chicago dancers onstage for a showstopping medley of iconic songs: Patti LuPone sang "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from Evita; Jennifer Holliday performed "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls, and Betty Buckley delivered "Memory" from Cats. It was an astonishing collection of talent showing what the Tonys do best.

“One Night Only” from Dreamgirls (2004)

Actor Hugh Jackman performs with members of the Rockettes on stage at the Tony Awards

Actor Hugh Jackman performs with members of the Rockettes on stage during the 58th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 6, 2004 in New York City.

Photo Credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.

It takes a special man to high-kick alongside the Rockettes, but second-time host Hugh Jackman proved more than up to the task during the spectacular opening number for the 58th ceremony. The four-minute sequence featured talent from shows including Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, and Caroline, or Change. Jackman also won Best Actor in a Musical for The Boy from Oz, which marked the Australian's Broadway debut.

“Circle of Life” from The Lion King (2008)

\u200bCast of "The Lion King" perform on stage at the Tony Awards

Cast of The Lion King perform on stage during the 62nd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 15, 2008 in New York City.

Photo Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images.

The unmistakable Zulu call of Lesotho-born singer Tsidii Le Loka swept the audience away to the African plains, where director Julie Taymor set her stage adaptation of Disney's much-beloved 1994 animated film. The sequence marked the 10th anniversary of the hit production, but as the musical's animal puppets ambled up the aisles to congregate onstage, the spectacle felt just as transporting as the day the show debuted.

“Bigger” (2013)

Neil Patrick Harris and casts of Broadway shows perform onstage at the Tony Awards

Host Neil Patrick Harris and casts of Broadway shows perform onstage at the 67th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 9, 2013 in New York City.

Photo Credit: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images.

Four-time host Neil Patrick Harris went "bigger" than ever with cheerleaders, contortionists, and even former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson gracing the stage during his jampacked opening number, which also featured appearances by performers in almost every nominated production—from Newsies to Kinky Boots. His return engagement was no less than magical: At one point, he vanished in an illusionist's trick cabinet, only to reappear moments later at the back of the theater.

“That Could Be Me/This Could Be You” (2016)

The nominees perform onstage with host James Corden during the 70th Annual Tony Awards

The nominees perform onstage with host James Corden during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City.

Photo Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The evening began with an appropriately solemn offer of condolences to all those affected by the tragic mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that had taken place early that morning, but host James Corden managed to lift the audience's spirits with a rousing tribute to the inspirational power of theater and his own journey toward success (Corden won a Tony Award in 2012 for Best Actor in a Play for his turn as Francis Henshall in One Man, Two Guvnors).

Broadway classics including Les Misérables, Fiddler on the Roof, and Annie all got well-deserved shoutouts, though the evening unquestionably belonged to pop culture juggernaut Hamilton, which earned a record-breaking 16 nominations, winning 11 awards.

Originally published in Watch Magazine, May-June 2020.

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