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Your guide to the Tony Awards categories

Learn more about what each category means and how nominees are determined for the theatre's biggest awards.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

As you prepare to watch the Tony Awards this year, you might have a few questions. Which shows will win Tony Awards? Will any of my favorite celebrities triumph? And who decides all the Tony nominees and winners?

It all starts with the Tony Awards Administration Committee, a board of 24 total representatives from the American Theatre Wing (which produces the Tonys), the Broadway League (which oversees all 41 Broadway theatres), and other theatre organizations. They determine which shows are eligible each year — usually every play and musical that opened on Broadway since the last Tony Awards, with some exceptions for nontraditional theatre like dance and magic shows — for awards in acting, directing, writing, design, and more.

There's also the Tony nominating committee, a group of about 50 theatre professionals that sees every single eligible show throughout the year and determines the nominees. Among them, a group of about 800 industry voters determines the winners. There are so many because they don't all necessarily see every single show like the nominators do, and each one can only vote in the categories for which they've seen all the nominees. Between them all, though, there are still hundreds of voters to cover each category. Each voter sends in an online ballot with their votes, and the person, team, or show with the majority vote in each category wins!

As you watch the ceremony, you might also be wondering about some of these categories that they're giving awards for. Why are some major actors nominated in the "featured" category? Where's the supporting actor/actress category? What's the difference between a show's score and its orchestrations, and why are they different categories? What is the book of a musical? We've broken down all you need to know about the Tonys categories so you're fully prepared to watch this year's broadcast.

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Best Play and Best Musical

The Best Play and Best Musical honors are the most coveted Tony Awards every year. Each year, the awards go to a new play or musical that hasn't appeared on Broadway before. Shows based on existing media, like a musician's back catalogue or a movie, are considered "new" for Tony nominating purposes, as are shows that first played in London's West End or an Off-Broadway theatre.

For example, in 2022, Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop got 11 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. The show had already won a Pulitzer Prize and multiple other theatre awards for its 2019 Off-Broadway premiere, but since the show appeared on Broadway for the first time in 2022, it's considered a new show at that year's Tonys.

The producers of the Best Play and Musical winners, as well as their writers, jointly receive the award, but the winners' whole cast and creative teams usually get up on stage at the Tony Awards to accept the award and celebrate.

Best Revival of a Play/Musical

A revival is a production of a show that's been on Broadway before, and these productions are considered in different categories from Best Play and Best Musical. There's usually separate Best Play Revival and Best Musical Revival categories, but if there are fewer than three play and/or musical revivals in a particular season, they'll all be considered in one category called Best Revival.

On rare occasions, well-known shows that have been around for a while will be considered in the Best Revival categories even if they haven't been on Broadway before. For example, Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive made its Broadway premiere in spring 2022, but it was considered as a revival because the show premiered off Broadway with the same stars and director 25 years earlier. The Tony Awards Administration Committee makes decisions like these and announces them prior to the nominations.

Best Leading Actor/Actress categories

The nominating categories for lead performers are split up by gender and genre (play vs. musical), so there are four such Tony Awards: Best Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Leading Actor in a Play, Best Leading Actress in a Musical, and Best Leading Actress in a Play. Lead performers in both new shows and revivals are considered together in their respective categories.

An average of five performers are nominated in each of these categories, give or take a couple. Any actor or actress whose name appears above the show's title (for example, "Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night" in 2022) is automatically considered in the "lead" category for Tony nominating purposes. Actors without such billing can still be considered as a "lead" in their appropriate category, and alternatively, famous actors with above-the-title billing are sometimes moved to the Featured category if they have a smaller part. The Tony Awards Administration Committee makes those decisions.

In 2023, two performers, Some Like It Hot's J. Harrison Ghee and Shucked's Alex Newell, made history as the first non-binary performers to be nominated in acting categories and, later, to win. They were able to choose whether they competed as an "actor" or "actress"; both chose "actor" that year.

Best Featured Actor/Actress categories

The Tonys differ from performance awards like the Oscars in that they don't have a "supporting" actor category, but "featured." At the Tonys, all non-lead performances are nominated for awards in the Featured Actor/Actress categories. But like the Oscars, there isn't an exact science to how the difference is determined. Broadly, the difference has to do with the size of the part. But some plays with ensemble casts don't have "leading" actors. Many main performers are instead considered "featured" since they all have a similar amount of stage time and important presence throughout the show.

In the 2022 revival of Take Me Out, for example, Jesse Williams played the "lead" character of Darren Lemming, but he, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Michael Oberholtzer were all nominated in the Best Featured Actor in a Play category. The same thing happened with the 2002 Broadway premiere, when the actors playing Williams's and Ferguson's roles were nominated. As with the lead performers, the Tony Awards Administration Committee makes these determinations in its meetings.

Best Book of a Musical

No, this isn't an award for a literal companion novel for a musical. The "book" is another word for the musical's script, or all the non-sung dialogue between the songs. The book writer is like the show's playwright, and there can be multiple writers on one show. In such cases, all the book writers are jointly nominated and would jointly win. 

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

The Best Original Score Tony Award is the same as the Best Original Score Oscar. It's given to artists who wrote outstanding original music for a show. Most of the nominees are usually musical writers, and if a musical wins, the composers and lyricists win the award together, no matter how many there are. Some plays also contain original music, though, which underscores the action like a film score does. Those composers (and lyricists, if there are any) can also be nominated. That's why it's not called the "Best Original Score of a Musical" category!

In 2020, all five nominees for Best Original Score were plays (A Christmas Carolwhich won; The Inheritance, The Rose Tattoo, Slave Play, The Sound Inside), since most of the few eligible musicals used existing pop music. In 2022, though, all five were musicals (SixFlying Over SunsetParadise SquareA Strange LoopMr. Saturday Night). Many ceremonies see a combination of both.

Best Orchestrations

Orchestrator Charlie Rosen, a 2022 Best Orchestrations Tony nominee for A Strange Loop, described composers as sketch artists and orchestrators as painters with a full color palette (the "Bob Ross" of theatre music, he said). A composer makes the outline, writing the notes and melodies that can be played on any instrument. The orchestrator figures out which instruments or sections will play each note and harmony in the live Broadway band.

Jason Michael Webb and David Holgenberg, for example, were nominated for orchestrating MJ The MusicalThe orchestra playing Michael Jackson's songs on Broadway is different than the musicians on the recording, and the duo had to figure out where each instrument fits in. This category and its nominees are separate from the composers who get nominated for Best Original Score, since orchestrators take that score and adapt it for a specific collection of instruments. Tons of different orchestrations could come out of the same score based on the particular band at a show's disposal and the director's vision.

Best Direction of a Play/Musical

Two directors get Tony Awards each year: a play director and a musical director. Directors of new shows and revivals are all considered in their respective categories together.

No two directors' styles and work are the same, so "best directing" is an especially subjective and broad category unlike something like best costumes or best choreography, where there's a tangible, specific thing being judged. A winning director might be considered excellent because their staging is aesthetically striking; because their actors' performances all feel cohesive and clear; because they shed a new, unique light on a well-known story; or any combination of these and other factors.

Marianne Elliott, for example, won in 2022 for her revival of Company that recasts the leading bachelor Bobby as the bachelorette Bobbie, bringing a whole new perspective and urgency to the story of a character who wonders whether to settle down as they're getting older.

Best Choreography

This award is fairly self-explanatory; it's given to the choreographer who created the best dancing on the Broadway stage that year. Like the Best Original Score category, the nominees often represent musicals, but some plays contain choreography and can also be nominated. Director/choreographer Camille A. Brown, for example, has been nominated for Best Choreography twice, both times for her work on plays: Choir Boy in 2019 and for colored girls in 2022.

Theatre design categories

Tony Awards are given in four areas of theatre design: sets, costumes, sound, and lighting. There are eight design awards total, as nominees are split up between plays and musicals. For example, there's a Best Sound Design of a Musical category and Best Sound Design of a Play category, and it's the same for the other three areas. Unlike performers in the acting categories, designers are not split up by gender for these nominations.

There's also flexibility regarding who gets nominated in these categories — since there's no projection design category, for example, a projection designer and set designer might get jointly nominated for a show. This was the case for Life of Pi in 2023, whose costume designer was nominated jointly with the puppet designers.

If you're watching the Tony Awards from home, you might not see the design awards presentations. These awards are usually given out before the main broadcast starts, and the winners' names are displayed for a short time on screen after a commercial break. But that doesn't mean they should be forgotten — their sets, costumes, lights, and sound immerse you in a whole new world while watching a show. The theatre experience wouldn't be the same without these unseen creators.

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