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My Night at the Tony Awards Thumbnail

My Night at the Tony Awards

Note:  The Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in the Broadway Theatre, commonly referred to as the “Tony Awards”, will be given out Sunday, June 16th.  With the broadcast date fast approaching, we asked Christopher Street’s resident Tony Award nominee Keith Roberts to recall his experience being nominated in 2003.

At 8:30 AM on May 12th, 2003, I turned on the television to watch the Tony Nominations being announced. I was half asleep and only paid attention when I heard “Movin’ Out”, the musical created and conceived by Twyla Tharp, using the music of Billy Joel, that I was dancing in. I was excited when I heard the names of my castmates being nominated in their respective categories. Then they read the names of the nominees for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. I heard them say “Keith Roberts”. I was stunned. In disbelief.  It wasn’t until someone called me to congratulate me that I knew I indeed heard correctly, and it wasn’t a dream.

My dreams had already come true. I came to New York to dance with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). After twelve years at ABT, I fell into Broadway. It’s a funny thing for a dancer to say, “I fell”, but it’s true. I never dreamed of being on the Broadway stage, but it is where I ended up, making my Broadway debut in 1998 in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, then Fosse, then Movin’ Out.  And here I was being nominated for a Tony.

The day of the Tonys began early. I had to meet my cast at the theatre at 7:30 AM. From there we all traveled together to Radio City Music Hall for dress rehearsal for the broadcast. At dress rehearsal, we performed for the camera movement and timing. There were stand-ins for the hosts and announcers.  Fake winners were announced to go to the microphone to make fake speeches. There is nothing glamorous about that morning, especially having to dance at 8:30 AM.

The producers generously gave the principals the matinee off on Tony Sunday and our alternates went on in our place. Except for not having to do my show, I spent the rest of the day in my usual fashion:  I went to the studio to take a ballet class. I ate.  I napped. I ate again. I didn’t want to break my daily routine.  

I began getting ready for the performance at around 5:00 pm. I warmed up my body. I showered. I put on my tuxedo, then took a car service to Radio City where I had to walk the red carpet. Honestly, I thought walking the red carpet would be amazing. I grew up watching the Oscar’s and Tony’s and have always thought it would be so glamorous and fun, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt awkward and out of place. I was terribly nervous, and I just didn’t feel as if I belonged.

Once inside the theatre, while most people headed to their seats, I had to go straight backstage to get into my costume for the show and warm up. Movin’ Out had the honor of opening the 2003 Tony Awards broadcast. There were cameras and technicians everywhere. Stagehands diligently moving sets around. Performers trying to move their bodies in whatever space they had and focus their minds. It was chaos all around. All I knew to do was focus on myself and try not to take on anyone’s energy.

Showtime. The lights dimmed and the theatre went dark.  Billy Joel sat at a piano in the middle of Times Square and sang “New York State of Mind”. The adrenaline pumping through my body was immense.  Pure nervousness and excitement wrapped up in terror.  With the opening beats of “River of Dreams”, the broadcast cut from Times Square to the cast onstage at Radio City. My heart started pumping in my throat. The cast went out onstage and danced like we’ve never danced before. It was thrilling, terrifying, exciting, and FUN!  I have been on some of the most majestic stages in the world, but nothing compared to dancing at Radio City Music Hall. To say it was overwhelming to look out into the audience from the stage is an understatement.  We were so shocked at the standing ovation. It was incredible; one of the best moments of my life. In that moment, we didn’t need a statue to know the show we created was award-winning. In that moment, we were winners.

We exited the stage and hurried back to the dressing rooms to put on our formal wear. Unfortunately, I chose to wear a silk shirt. Have you ever tried to put on silk shirt while you’re sweating? It wasn’t easy! I had to hurry out to the audience because my award category was one of the first two categories to be announced. I arrived at my seat and became nervous all over again. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t stop sweating. All I could think was that the camera would focus on me when my name was announced, and I’d look like the pilot in Airplane when he’s trying to land the plane. I had no expectations that I would win. In fact, I knew in my heart that Dick Latessa from Hairspray was going to go home with the trophy. I just didn’t want to look like a hot, sweaty mess on national television!

I was relieved that my category was announced early, and I could now just enjoy the rest of the show. Twyla Tharp won the Tony for Best Choreography and Billy Joel  and Stuart Malina won for Best Orchestrations. It was amazing just to experience the buzz that was in the theatre and to think that somehow, I was part of it. There was a fancy afterparty at the Marriott Marquis which was a great experience and fun but nothing outrageous. After a whirlwind of a day, I went home to bed to finally have a good night’s sleep.

As I reflect on that day, the moment I felt most victorious was when the cast was standing onstage while the audience applauded us. Here we were - a collection of misfit dancers that came together to create magic through our show. That night, we were giants on that legendary Radio City stage, standing there, holding hands. For me, a Tony nomination is not an individual honor; it’s an honor to be shared with all the people you worked with to get there - a reflection of the team effort to create the art. In that moment, we won our Tony award, even if we didn’t receive a statue.