• Gillian Russo

(Tony)ght Belongs to Us

Updated: Jun 20, 2019

Reflecting on five years of theatre awards ceremonies — culminating in Broadway’s biggest night

The Playbill photo that trumps them all.

After years of watching them on TV with starry eyes, I had the honor of attending the 2019 Tony Awards in person at Radio City this year. There aren’t enough positive words to describe the thrill of celebrating Broadway with some of the industry’s biggest names. But before I talk about the Tonys, I need to talk about the Halos. That’s where my Tony dreams all began.

I first attended the Halo Awards five years ago as a high school freshman. Organized by a small regional theater in Connecticut, the ceremony was structured like the Tonys, except they centered on non-famous teenagers. It was our first glimpse at what it was like to be the celebrated Broadway stars we admired. For the next four years, I would put the next year’s Halos on my calendar the minute the current one ended. I waited with impatience that escalated each day the nominations (without fail) were late to come out. I put on my best dresses and tallest heels (that I would trip in two years in a row), and for one night each year, I would feel glamorous and famous and known outside my little auditorium.

In the grander scheme of things, the Halos were frankly insignificant — had I ever won one, flaunting it Dee-Dee-Allen-in-The-Prom-style wouldn’t do me any favors in a casting room or an interview. But to us local theatre kids, being nominated for a Halo was like being nominated for a Tony. Most of our performances were seen by a couple hundred people at best and weren’t quite poised for a Jimmy Award or national recognition. A Halo meant we were seen — really seen. It made us feel like our hard work and our passion meant something to someone beyond us. At least I felt that way.

I was involved in the awards in numerous ways throughout high school. I was nominated twice — for the Gypsy Award for my junior-year ensemble work, and for Best Featured Actress in a Play my senior year for playing (Ms.) Ross in The Elephant Man. Our department’s spring musical, The Mikado, won Best Classic Musical my sophomore year. I participated in the musical performance from Grease in my junior year. But that first year, I simply sat and watched from the back of the orchestra, cheering on my colleagues and friends whose work I admired. I was just happy to be in the room with so many other people in the theatre community, sharing my excitement and my dream.

Attending the Tonys felt like that.

I was physically among close (and equally theatre-obsessed) friends at the ceremony; I sat between two of them in the back of the first mezzanine. But although I was nowhere near as close — physically or otherwise — to the likes of James Corden or any of the celebrities, they felt like friends. The energy in Radio City Music Hall that night belied its massive size. The space became more like a hall for an intimate wedding reception — even if all the guests don’t know each other, they are warm and friendly and united through a common love for the people of honor. “Broadway’s biggest night” and “celebrating the art of theatre” are perfect taglines for a broadcast, but that pure, celebratory spirit really is there (despite what Jeff Daniels’ losing face might suggest). I mean, if that wasn’t evident before, the fact that the camaraderie in the Broadway community became the punchline of a comedy segment made it clear. I doubt the broadcast captured the breadth of the standing ovations or lively chatter in response to the nominees and the winners — no scripting necessary.

Even the shows that received few nominations or weren’t “favorites” received cheers from somewhere in the hall. The collective shout that erupted when Anthony Ramos and Chris Jackson did karaoke to “96,000” exuded so much unbridled enthusiasm and joy, not to mention when Billy Porter hit the stage during his turn, moments after quipping, “I didn’t come here to work tonight!” They love what they do and we love what they do, and never has that been clearer. I could devote this post to gushing about the performances or the speeches (which were of course fantastic), but you can watch those anywhere and smile; you don’t need me to tell you about them. As great as they were, seeing them in person was not what made the Tonys so special. Feeling that spirit, that energy, that next level of large-scale fun in person set it apart.

My dreams have changed since I sat in the Palace Theater at my first Halo Awards. I, of course, thought then of someday sitting in Radio City at the real Tony ceremony. Back then, I dreamed I would attend in order to accept a Tony of my own. Now, I aspire to a journalistic rather than a performance career. Fulfillment of my Tony dreams still involves being on the red carpet, yes, but then spending the night in the press room instead of the hall and interviewing the night’s victors. That being said, I am eternally grateful to have gotten the opportunity to be in the room this year. I’d go so far as to call it the peak of my life until now. Key word: until now. This may have been my first Tonys, but it won’t be my last — whether through student rush again or some other way, I’ll make sure of that. Perhaps we’ll even see each other on the red carpet someday.

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