How Often Do Summer Shows Win a Tony Award?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Jul. 16, 2023
How Often Do Summer Shows Win a Tony Award?
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Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This month, the reader question was: How often do shows that open on Broadway in the summer go on to become Tony Award winners for Best Musical?

The Broadway season has been shaped around the Tony Awards and awards season in general for many years. It is also shaped around tourism patterns and live event sales patterns otherwise.

Most of our current Broadway theaters were built in a time before air conditioning! When this was the case, most theaters would cease or slow operations during the summer months. Summer was deemed too uncomfortable for audience members and production staff to inhabit an indoor venue.

Even after air conditioning was instituted at all Broadway houses, it was still customary for New Yorkers to largely spend the summer on vacation, out of the city. Before Broadway was as tourist-driven, when a show’s success was largely dependent on New Yorkers and those in the immediate area attending, it still made sense to slow down during the summer.

So, between the Tony Awards (which began in 1947) taking place in late spring/ early summer, putting a grand finale on the preceding year of new Broadway shows, and long-standing seasonal patterns otherwise, summer became known as a time on Broadway when new shows would open more rarely.

In the last half-century, as Broadway audiences have become increasingly filled with tourists from all across America as well as from all across the world, the dynamics of summer sales have been one thing that’s adjusted. New York City is filled with out-of-towners visiting the Big Apple during the summer, and Broadway ticket sales are affected by this.

Summer tourists are somewhat more likely than other ticket buyers to want to spend their money on shows that are already proven hits, or based on well known brands. (Or, in the case of international audiences, shows that can be understood by non-English speakers.) The recent Best Musical winner, the long-running spectacle, and the show based on an existing popular film or song catalogue can thrive in June, but a new original musical in June, considered less proven, will have a harder time. In most cases, new original musicals are dependent on reviews and award season to make them a “must-see”, so if they open during the summer, they will have to do well enough to stay open for nearly a year, in order to make it to awards season, and thus be propelled into the next level of success.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at new Broadway musicals that have opened in the summer, during the 21st century.

218 original musical productions opened or will open on Broadway between the beginning of June in the first year of the new century, 2001, and the end of August in 2023. Of these 218, only 26 opened or will open during the months of June, July, or August. These shows were [title of show], Amazing Grace, Avenue Q, Back to the Future, Bring It On, Burn the Floor, Cirque Dreams, Dracula, Fela!, First Date, Gettin’ The Band Back Together, Hairspray, Hamilton, Head Over Heels, Here Lies Love, Holler If Ya Hear Me, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, Motown The Musical, Moulin Rouge!, Once Upon a One More Time, Pretty Woman, Prince Of Broadway, Soul Doctor, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, The Frogs, and Xanadu.

Falling into their own category are dance and circus shows Burn The Floor and Cirque Dreams. Not playing by quite the same rules as traditional musicals, productions in these categories seek to attract tourists without the accolades that are dependent on awards season.

How Often Do Summer Shows Win a Tony Award?
Scene from Prince of Broadway

Similarly in their own category are productions presented by non-profit organizations on Broadway. Significantly dependent on subscription audiences and donors, these shows are scheduled based on the larger picture of the given non-profit organization’s season, and their success is not as driven by individual ticket sales. The Frogs, produced at Lincoln Center in 2004, and Prince of Broadway, produced at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2017, fall under this umbrella. The organizations placed those shows in the summer where they did not compete with the slate of new spring musicals or new fall musicals.

We’ll also say that Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is in its own category—in many ways! The production that previewed on Broadway for an unprecedented 182 previews (more than half a year) before officially opening in June 2011 bucked all Broadway patterns and norms. Working on a historically expensive show, based on an incredibly popular property, and facilitating major changes continually, for six months in front of paying Broadway audiences meant different consideration in terms of award season and ticket-buying patterns. (For the record though, the show was not nominated for Best Musical at the 2012 Tony Awards, but managed to ran for 1,066 performances.)

How Often Do Summer Shows Win a Tony Award?
Scene from Once Upon a One More Time

And finally, Back to the Future and Here Lies Love, both currently in previews, open later this summer, while Once Upon a One More Time opened just recently this June. Their award season fates and places in Broadway history have yet to be seen!

In the group of 26 musicals, we have 4 mega-hits that were the Best Musical Tony Award winner in their season. Hairspray (2003), Avenue Q (2004), Hamilton (2016), and Moulin Rouge! (2020) all won the big prize in their respective seasons. Hairspray was a strong enough contender to power through the entire 2003-2004 season on great reviews and word-of-mouth before winning the 2003 Tony Award for Best Musical. Avenue Q, the little musical that could, had a similar journey the following year. Hamilton gained enough traction during its monumentally acclaimed downtown run off-Broadway at The Public Theater to power it through a Broadway season and beyond, including winning the 2016 Tony Award for Best Musical, and many other awards. Moulin Rouge! gained the odd distinction of being the Best Musical winner that opened before the COVID-19 shutdown, in July 2019, shut down in March 2020 along with the rest of Broadway, resumed in September 2021, and won the Tony in a ceremony that same month.  (Because of the pandemic, the 2020 Tony Awards were an outlier, held in September 2021.)

How Often Do Summer Shows Win a Tony Award?
Scene from Hamilton

That leaves us with 14 more musicals. 3 were Best Musical Tony Award nominees in their seasons (Bring It On, Fela!, Xanadu), and the other 11 were not nominated for the main Tony Award musical prize. Several were strategically aimed at summer tourists looking for fun, including several with well known brands on their side like Motown The Musical and Pretty Woman, which eventually toured and became hits.

In many cases, during an era where there are more shows that want theaters than there are theaters to put them, producers have to take what they can get in terms of show-opening timeline. Of course theater owners want all of their productions to be a success, but they also want their theaters filled and their house staff employed. So, in many instances, the “choice” to  open in the summer may just be a necessity borne of venue scarcity and taking the slot one can get, based on what else has closed!

Of the 21 award seasons we’ve experienced for shows that have opened during the summer in the 21st century (2021 Tony Awards being eliminated, and 2024 Tony Awards not having happened yet for the summer 2023 shows), 4 of the musicals that won the big prize were summer openers. So while only approximately 12% of new Broadway musicals during the 21st century have been summer openers, approximately 19% of the Best Musical Tony winners have been summer openers. A musical opening in the spring still has a better chance of winning Best Musical at the Tony Awards, but summer winners do happen.

The four Best Musical winners of the 21st century that have opened in the summer prove that it’s possible! No matter when a show opens, there’s a possibility of awards, acclaim, and success—even if a summer opening may make overall success more rare.