The One Thing You Might Not Know About The Tonys
Like many other genres of entertainment, Broadway theater is no stranger to sexism. Women make up less than 9% of sound designers, HowlRound reports, for instance — despite the fact that women make up the majority of the theater-going, ticket-buying audience, according to the Broadway League. But like any of the other art forms out there, like film, music, and television, the conversations about women's impact on theater are gaining in volume, and people are demanding change. The gender issues in entertainment resonate especially strong now, as we approach this season's upcoming Tony Awards, and it might surprise many theater fans to know that the person who started it all — the inspiration behind the Tony Awards — was, in fact, a woman.
The Tony Awards are named after Antoinette Perry, an actor, director, and the co-founder of The American Theatre Wing. "The Wing," as it's called, started out in 1917 as "The Stage Women's War Relief," which was founded by seven women of theatre to aid during WWI. As the Wing's website history details, the women sewed uniforms, ran clothing and food collection centers, started a canteen on Broadway for servicemen, and sent Broadway entertainers to perform for troops. During WWII, Antoinette Perry joined Rachel Crothers (one of the original seven founders) and the group started up again, changing its name to The American Theatre Wing. As the Wing's site explains, "When the war ended, the Wing changed its focus to two purposes – to further the welfare of the theatre itself and to utilize the resources of the theatre in the service of the community."
When Perry passed away in 1947 at the age of 58, Wing co-founder Brock Pemberton proposed an awards ceremony in her honor, and in 1947, the Tonys (due to her first name) were born. As Time reported of the first Tony Awards in 1947, "The American Theater Wing handed out memorial awards for Director Antoinette Perry (Harvey, Kiss the Boys Goodbye), who died last year. Among the recipients: Helen Hayes, Ingrid Bergman, Jose Ferrer and Fredric March, for their Broadway performances this season; Mr. & Mrs. Ira Katzenberg for their durability as first-nighters; Restaurateur Vincent Sardi Sr., 'for providing a . . . comfort station for theater folk. . . ' The men got gold money clips, the women Tiffany compacts with 'little automatic windshield wipers on the mirrors.'"
The Tonys have come a long way since then, not just in its choice of awards statuettes, but in representation as well. In 2013, Cyndi Lauper became the first solo woman to win Best Original Score for writing the music and lyrics for Kinky Boots. Two years later, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori made history when Fun Home became the first show written entirely by women to win the Tony for Best Musical. And this year, there's even more progress: the musical Waitress features an all-female creative team, and the acclaimed play Eclipsed, which stars Lupita Nyong'o, is as Forbes reports, "the first in Broadway history to feature a cast and creative team that is not only all-female, but all-black, and led by Broadway’s only two black lead producers."
As a powerful female force in theatre history, and one of Broadway's earliest successful female directors, Perry would no doubt be thrilled that so many women are making waves in theater these days. So many pop culture fans dutifully tune into awards ceremonies every year, but of all the major awards — the Oscars, the Grammys, the Emmys, etc. — only one, the Tonys, is named in honor of a real person who had such an impact on the industry. And the fact that it's in honor of a trail-blazing woman, given to women who continue to push boundaries and break glass ceilings in theater, makes the idea that much more important.