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The 15 Most "Diva-licious" Tony Awards Performances Of All-Time

Being a "diva" is about so much more than simply "being fierce." Let's honor the performances at the Tonys that were triumphant for reasons beyond just talent.

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15. BARBARA HARRIS - THE APPLE TREE (1967)

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After you get through this whirlwind of delight, keep watching during the applause. Harris completely drops character and trudges off-stage as if the comedic brilliance she just served everyone never happened. That’s because she was painfully uncomfortable with living in the limelight. After retiring early in her career to teach acting, she admitted in interviews that she resented having to perform every night because it meant the rehearsal process (which is what she really loved) had to stop.

I'd call this performance “diva-licious” because of that “Barbara Harris Chill."

“Oh, yeah, that masterclass I just taught y’all? It’s whatev. I’m heading to the green room to chillax and read some Moliére. Let me know when it’s time for me to come back and collect my Tony.”

She’s way cooler than my desperate-for-attention-self will ever be.

14. CATHY RIGBY - PETER PAN (1999)

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Sure, any version of “I’m Flying” is thrilling and magical... BUT CAN WE TALK ABOUT THE FACT THAT THIS WOMAN IS ALMOST FIFTY YEARS OLD, HERE? When I’m fifty, my body will likely be a creaky machine, wafting dust with every move it makes. Not Queen Cathy. She spent her fifties (and sixties) being flung across stages, making audiences wet themselves as she flew above them. At the 4:47 mark, you’ll be pressed to find a dry seat in the house.

This level of badassery is beyond comprehension.

13. PEARL BAILEY - HELLO, DOLLY! (1968)

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A while after Carol passed on the "Dolly Crown," producers of Hello, Dolly! decided to shake things up with a new, all-black cast. There was no one better suited for the title role than Madame Pearl. It was the first time a black woman was nationally broadcast playing what was, up until then, a traditionally white role. And how did she perform under the pressure? By simply throwing down and doing her thing.

When she sings her “Goodbye’s” to Horace Vandergelder, she’s really saying, “Peace out, convention. This role is mine now, and y’all racists can suck it.”

12. FANTASIA - THE COLOR PURPLE (2007)

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When it was announced that the American Idol winner was going to be Broadway’s next Celie, theatre snobs were all set to write her off as cheap stunt casting. Before her performances began, critics wondered what business the R&B singer had acting on a Broadway stage. Many even went so far as to make snarky (and deeply offensive) comments about her real-life struggles with literacy--jokingly asking, “How’s Fantasia ever going to remember her lines if she can’t even read the script?”

Enter Tasia to deliver a can of whoop-ass.

What Broadway ended up with was one of the most memorable performances by a replacement in recent years. Despite it being her first time acting on the stage, audiences and critics agreed that the emotional connection Fantasia had to the role of Celie was nothing short of spellbinding. They saw a woman whose own life experiences (sexual abuse, being degraded because of her looks, etc.) paralleled those of the woman she was portraying, and the awareness of that brought a stunning and specific gravitas to the role.

When she was asked to perform on the Tonys, she was no longer considered just a "gimmick" used to up the ratings. She was asked to perform as a legitimately great Broadway performer, showing America what the Great White Way had to offer.

11. KATHARINE HEPBURN - COCO (1970)

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“Hey, guys, I know there’s supposed to be a melody, but I’m just gonna Rex Harrison this shit. That cool? Also, we’re going to perform an infinitely long scene before this infinitely long song. Don’t like it? Don’t care.”

That’s right, baby. You'd better TAKE your time as you make America sit through practically the entire damn second act of Coco. We will watch. And we will love you. Because you are Katharine F*cking Hepburn.

10. TONYA PINKINS - CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (2004)

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While every voice teacher across America was having a stroke, Tonya Pinkins was busy living her damn truth. She fearlessly shatters into bits as she bulldozes through the devastating aria, paying no mind to any viewer who doesn’t think she “sounds pretty.” "PRETTY?!" We don’t have time for “pretty” when we’re slamming that iron!

Like every great diva, this Tony winner is absolutely unapologetic as she makes you listen. Caroline, or Change is a tour-de-force, and Pinkins manages to wring every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears from the great writing and composition.

9. SHARON McKNIGHT - STARMITES (1989)

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What the hell is happening here?

What is this plot?

What are these costumes?

What is this music?

Do you think Sharon McKnight asked these questions?

Hell, no.

She just came on stage to own this entire number. Not only did she own this number, she owned the 1989 Tonys and owned our souls.

Watch as she ponies as if she’s trampling all over her h8terz. Watch as she twirls her wand as if she’s swinging all the wigs she just snatched. Watch as she zooms off stage like a witch in the night sky--never breaking character, even for the applause.

Number of f*cks given: Zero.

8. JUDY KUHN - RAGS (1987)

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Imagine losing a Tony Award in the first few minutes of the night. Then imagine having to perform TWICE after that--once for Les Mis and the other for this show that closed earlier in the season after four performances. Then imagine having very little rehearsal time for that latter number after you hadn’t performed the material for months (and have been busy performing in your current, hit show). THEN imagine messing up your lyrics mid-song on national television because you were forced to sing a weird abridged version.

Then imagine no one even noticing your mistake because your vocals and acting slayed everyone into oblivion.

You can’t imagine that last part, can you? Because you’re not a warrior like Judy Kuhn. Only she can pull that off. Bow down, folks.

7. LISA HOWARD - IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU (2015)

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It Shoulda Been You was considered DOA by the time the Tonys came. Despite audiences finding it deliciously charming, relatable, and hysterical, the show got zero nominations. While there had been no official statement, inside marketing sources say that producers were all set to announce the show's closing notice the day after the Tonys.

Then, with no mercy, Lisa Howard entered Radio City Music Hall. She then exited with the entire damn Tony ceremony wrapped around her finger. After her firecracker performance, Twitter blew up like Patti LuPone in the presence of a camera. It Shoulda Been You's performance was the most talked about of the night, and due to the increase in ticket sales, producers extended the show for another two months.

In two minutes, Mama Howard single-handedly saved an entire Broadway show from shuttering. Your faves could never.

6. DEBBIE ALLEN - WEST SIDE STORY (1980)

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::Music Begins::

You: “Debbie, isn’t Anita supposed to be Puerto Rican?”

Debbie: “Literally don’t care.”

You: “Debbie, maybe you should work on your accent.”

Debbie: “Literally don’t care.”

You: "Debbie, you're breaking all the rules!"

Debbie: "Literally don't care."

You: “Debbie, what are you even doing?”

Debbie: “LITERALLY. WHATEVER. I. WANT.”

::You Watch Debbie Dance::

::Debbie’s Dancing Suckerpunches You In The Face::

::Debbie Is Forgiven Of All Flaws And Becomes Your New Religion::

5. VIOLA DAVIS - KING HEDLEY II (2001)

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Admit it. When you watched the Tonys as a kids, you took your bathroom breaks whenever the straight plays were discussed. You thought that plays were just always so seeeerious and confuuuuusing and nowhere near as fun as the musical performances.

At the 2001 ceremony, an unknown actress stood beside Brian Stokes Mitchell to perform a scene from King Hedley II. The only reason you didn’t take your bathroom break was because you sure did love that Brian in Ragtime. Then, without any warning, this unknown actress proceeded to blow up your television so hard that it almost caused a neighborhood power outage. With emotions raging and the snot flying, America caught its first glimpse of one of the most powerful and respected actresses of today. In a minute and a half, that unknown actress made you hang your head in shame for not giving the plays the respect and attention they deserve.

Later in the night, she collected her Tony for Featured Actress in a Play, and all of America, wide-eyed and in unison, said aloud, “Oh, yeah. I didn’t see that show… or any of the other nominees… but… she earned that sh*t.”

4. KRISTIN CHENOWETH - YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN (1999)

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There are very few instances where the second you see a future icon perform, you immediately say to yourself, “THAT is an ICON." This is one of those times.

In 1999, a lot of people didn’t have access to the internet, and their only big source of info on what’s happening on Broadway was the Tony Awards. Most people didn’t know who Kristin Chenoweth was at the beginning of the night. They sure knew who she was the second she opened her mouth. It was a sidesplittingly hysterical number done to perfection by a performer unlike any other. In a matter of moments, this nobody became Broadway royalty.

Literally, thirty seconds later, she ran on stage to accept her Tony, proclaiming, “I’ve never changed my clothes so fast in my life.” The only thing that would make this performance even better than it already is would be if she just said, "Screw the quick change!" and accepted the award dressed as a four-year-old cartoon.

3. EMILY SKINNER & ALICE RIPLEY - SIDE SHOW (1998)

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The 1997-1998 Broadway season was full of landmark achievements. You had three innovative and critically lauded productions that would forever go down in theatre history: “The Lion King,” “Ragtime,” and Sam Mendes’ revival of “Cabaret.”

But if you ask any young theatre fan what they remember from that night, their answer will be:

“EMILY SKINNER AND ALICE RIPLEY!”

Side Show was a big flop that closed long before the Tonys. All that was in budget to perform was the show’s simple eleven o’clock number, which consisted of the show’s two stars just standing next to each other and belting their faces off.

It was a performance that could have easily gotten overshadowed by all the razzle dazzle of that night. After all, there were no bells. There were no whistles. There were no elephants marching down the aisles. There were no massive ensembles singing sweeping, epic scores. There were no edgy sexually-ambiguous emcees adding shock value.

But the song was the most unforgettable of the night, proving that there are just two things you need for an impactful musical number: Great material and great performers.

To put it into perspective, imagine a Broadway season that included THREE Hamiltons… and then a show no one’s heard of performs at the Tonys and makes America go, “Hamilton who?” That was what Queens Emily and Alice did.

2. JENNIFER HOLLIDAY - DREAMGIRLS (1982)

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Don’t trust any ranking of any kind having to do with the Tonys that doesn’t include Miss Effie White.

We all know what there is to know about the actual performance. It speaks for itself.

What makes the performance and Holliday’s involvement with Dreamgirls so "diva-licious" is the fact that, throughout the show’s development, she didn’t even want to be in it. Holliday felt the role of Effie, which was originally written to disappear for almost the entirety of act two, was too small and not worthy of her talents. Michael Bennett, the show’s director, was furious over her attitude and fired her. Holliday was the one who got the last laugh, though, because Bennett soon came crawling back to Mama, begging Holliday to re-join the production on the promise that they’d rewrite the role.

Imagine having one of the most powerful people in the theatre desperately giving in to your demands--not because you’re at all a star yet, but because you are just THAT good.

This entire performance represents that entire sentiment. Holliday doesn’t care who you THINK you are. She is telling you, “You’re gonna love me.”

“You wanna fight again?”

—Holliday to Michael Bennett while thanking him in her Tony speech. Get him, Jenny.

1. BERNADETTE PETERS - GYPSY (2003)

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The biggest metaphorical middle finger ever given in the history of American theatre.

When Bernadette Peters was given the most coveted role in the musical theatre canon, it seemed like everyone had some sort of sour opinion on it: “She’s all wrong for the part!” “She’s too cute!” “She’s too sweet!” “She’s too sexy!” “She doesn’t have the voice!” “It should be Patti!” Even before performances began, it was going to be an uphill battle.

Then, right when previews started, Bernadette got bronchitis.

She missed a number of performances, and for those she didn’t miss, it was reported she was coughing and struggling to maintain her voice. A water bottle she had hidden in her character’s purse even once fell onto the stage mid-show. The press was beyond harsh. In fact, I’ve never seen so much negative press surrounding a single performance in my lifetime--not just about how sick she was, but about how she should never have been cast in the first place. I can’t imagine how Peters was feeling.

Gypsy opened right before the nominations were announced, and while it was said that Bernadette seemed to be getting healthier, the damage of the press seemed irreversible. Theatergoers still had their doubts over whether or not she could handle the role.

When it was announced that Peters would perform “Rose’s Turn” at the Tonys, people thought that the producers of Gypsy had lost their minds. Up until that time, even the most dramatic musicals would showcase their lighter or more uplifting numbers at the Tonys for fear that something too dramatic would scare potential ticket buyers away. Because of that, along with the harsh reviews, people were fully anticipating a disaster.

And then Bernie slayed.

She slayed so hard that we’re still feeling the effects.

Peters hardly moves from center stage, but she fills Radio City Music Hall with every ounce of ferocity, panic, and desperation that she has in her itty bitty body. With each stamping of the foot, clawing of the hands, and slithering of her hips, she drags every single naysayer and critic who dared to doubt her. It was quite a different Bernadette Peters from the adorably cheeky kewpie doll everyone was used to. Here was a woman who had been done wrong and who had something to say about it.

There are so many things that make this rendition of “Rose’s Turn” so stunningly specific and unforgettable.

That death stare she gives at 0:10 that could practically turn the audience into stone.

Her off-kilter and childlike humming along to the music at 0:58.

The chillingly realistic realization at 1:23, followed by her heartbreaking determination to go on.

The gasp-inducing pause at 2:45 where she takes the breath she needs to make her demands.

I could deconstruct it until the end of time.

If anything, that combination of dress, body, lighting, and movement at the 3:06 mark is enough to make you rise to your feet.

When the trumpets gave their final blasts, and the audience burst into flames, the narrative of Bernadette Peters in Gypsy completely shifted. Audiences and press were hailing her performance as the best Broadway had to offer. The show ran for a year with word of mouth reporting that Peters only got better and better as time went on.

Even if she’s still not your ideal pick for Mama Rose, you cannot deny that this performance is anything less than a triumph.

Bernadette Peters may not have won that Tony that night, but she won something that any diva would find much more valuable:

Vindication. Sweet, sweet, "diva-licious" vindication.

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