The Laurence Olivier Awards, or simply the Olivier Awards, are presented annually by the Society of London Theatre to recognise excellence in professional theatre in London at an annual ceremony in the capital. The awards were originally known as the Society of West End Theatre Awards, but they were renamed in honour of the British actor Laurence Olivier in 1984.
The awards are given to individuals involved in West End productions and other leading non-commercial theatres based in London across a range of categories covering plays, musicals, dance, opera and affiliate theatre. A discretionary non-competitive Special Olivier Award is also given each year. The Olivier Awards are recognised internationally as the highest honour in British theatre, equivalent to the BAFTA Awards for film and television, and the BRIT Awards for music. The Olivier Awards are considered equivalent to Broadway's Tony Awards and France's Molière Award.
Since its inception, the awards have been held at various venues and theatres across London, from 2012-2016 at the Royal Opera House, before moving to the Royal Albert Hall in 2017. Television coverage is broadcast in prime time on ITV, who acquired the rights from 2013 onwards with radio coverage by Magic Radio.
The awards were first established in 1976 by the Society of London Theatre as the Society of West End Awards and were designed by artist Tom Merrifield. In 1984, British actor Laurence Olivier gave his consent for the awards to be renamed in his honour and they became known as the Laurence Olivier Awards. The first awards ceremony was held in December 1976 at Café Royal.
Each year, the Olivier Award winners are decided by a group of distinguished industry professionals, theatre luminaries and members of the public speciﬁcally chosen for their passion for London theatre.
Lively and intense debates are conducted by four panels – theatre, opera, dance and afﬁliates – each overseen by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT). The professional panellists are chosen for their knowledge in the selected ﬁeld and each panel is made up of various members including journalists, casting directors, arts administrators and publishers. Each person is chosen by the Chief Executive of SOLT following advice from the SOLT Awards Office and external advisors.
For Affiliates, Dance and Opera, panellists select the shows they consider most worthy of an Olivier Award (to create the nominations in the relevant categories) and vote on a winner at the end of the judging period.
For the Theatre awards, the process happens in two stages. Firstly, a long list is compiled by the Theatre panel, which indicates productions or individuals in a category which the panel deem worthy of particular attention. This long list is then submitted to SOLT members to vote upon; members may still vote outside of this list at this stage, except for in the four Supporting Actor/Actress categories (as these each contain thousands of eligible performers). The members’ votes are collated with those of the panellists to create the list of nominees.
In the second stage, the overall shortlist of nominees is voted on by both members and panellists to produce the winners.
Previous presenters of the Olivier Awards Ceremony include Michael Ball, Imelda Staunton, Anthony Head, James Nesbitt, Richard E. Grant, Richard Wilson, Sue Johnston, Clive Anderson, Angela Lansbury, Barry Norman, Peter Barkworth, Daniel Radcliffe, Anthony Hopkins, Sue Lawley, Diana Rigg, Edward Fox, Tim Rice, Gary Wilmot, Jane Asher, Tom Conti, Denis Quilley, Angela Rippon and Jason Manford.
Notable people who have presented an individual Award include Diana, Princess of Wales, Eddie Izzard, Sir Tom Stoppard and, in 2007, Laurence Olivier's son, Richard.
The venue most associated with the Awards is Grosvenor House Hotel, which has housed the after-show reception nine times and hosted the whole event on four further occasions. As well as at the Grosvenor, the presentations have been held at: Victoria Palace, Lyceum, National Theatre Olivier, Albery (now Noël Coward), Shaftesbury, London Palladium, Dominion, Royalty, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Café Royal, Piccadilly, and The Park Lane Hilton.
From 2012 to 2016 the awards ceremony was held at the Royal Opera House, moving to the Royal Albert Hall in 2017. The 2013 ceremony was the first ceremony to be broadcast on television since 2003.
The first Laurence Olivier Awards to be broadcast on television was the 1981 ceremony, which was broadcast on BBC1, and continued every year until 1992, before switching to BBC2 each year until 2003. The awards ceremony was then only broadcast on radio until 2011, when the BBC broadcast live interactive red-button coverage of the event, while Paul Gambaccini presented a programme on BBC Radio 2 with live coverage and interviews. The same coverage followed in 2012, before ITV secured the broadcast rights which saw the return of the Olivier Awards to mainstream television in 2013. This has continued in recent years, and the ceremony has also been broadcast on Magic Radio.
Some notable records and facts about the Laurence Olivier Awards include the following:
- The most Olivier Awards ever received by a musical was Matilda in 2012 with seven awards including Best New Musical.
- The most Olivier Awards ever received by a play was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in 2017 with nine awards including Best New Play.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2013) received seven Olivier Awards. Nicholas Nickleby (1980) received six. Chimerica (2014), Sunday in the Park with George (2007), She Loves Me (1995) and Guys and Dolls (1982) received five. Gypsy (2016), The Book of Mormon (2014), After the Dance (2011), Spring Awakening (2010), Black Watch (2009), Hairspray (2008), Jerry Springer (2004), All My Sons (2001), Billy Elliot (2006), Hedda Gabler (2006), Oklahoma (1999), Stanley (1997), Machinal (1994), Sweeney Todd (1994), An Inspector Calls (1993) and Carousel (1993) received four.
- The most nominations ever received by a production is 13 with Hamilton (2018). Hairspray (2008) and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2017) received 11. Follies (2017) had 10. Memphis (2015), Matilda (2012), Billy Elliot (2006), Mary Poppins (2005), Kiss Me, Kate (2002), Oklahoma (1999) and Carousel (1993) received nine. Groundhog Day (2017), Gypsy (2016), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (2015), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2013), The Producers (2005), Guys and Dolls (2006), Jerry Springer (2004), Pacific Overtures (2004), Ragtime (2004), My Fair Lady (2002), Spend, Spend, Spend (2000), The Lion King (2000), Tommy (1997) and She Loves Me (1995) received eight.
- Kiss Me, Kate (2002) holds the record for most nominations without any wins at nine.
- William Dudley (designer), Judi Dench (actress) and Matthew Bourne (choreographer) are tied for the record for the most competitive wins by an individual with seven each. Dench also won a Special Olivier Award in 2004. Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer/producer) has won six plus the Special Olivier Award in 2008.
- Ian McKellen, Alan Bennett, Richard Eyre and Stephen Sondheim have all won five competitive awards plus the Special Olivier Award.
- Five wins: Declan Donnellan, Mark Henderson, Mark Thompson.
- Four wins: Michael Bryant, Darcey Bussell, Michael Frayn, Michael Gambon, Tim Goodchild, Clare Higgins, Alex Jennings, Sam Mendes, John Napier, Trevor Nunn, Philip Quast, Willy Russell, Simon Russell Beale, Imelda Staunton, Frances de la Tour, Paule Constable.
- Performers who have won Olivier Awards in both the play and musical categories are: Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Pryce, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench, Sheridan Smith and Janie Dee.
- Maggie Smith has never won the award despite being nominated a total of six times. She did receive the Special Olivier Award in 2010.
- Judi Dench holds the distinction of being the only actress to win both dramatic and musical Olivier acting awards in the same year (1996) - for her performances in Absolute Hell and A Little Night Music.
- Philip Quast has won the Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical on three occasions, while Michael Crawford, Robert Lindsay, Daniel Evans and Michael Ball have all won the award twice.
- Imelda Staunton has won the Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical three times. Julia McKenzie, Joanna Riding, Maria Friedman and Samantha Spiro have all won twice. Imelda Staunton also holds the record for the most Olivier nominations in the Best Actress in a Musical category, with seven nominations. Maria Friedman is next, with six nominations.
- Jenny Galloway and Tracie Bennett have both won the Olivier for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical twice.
- Shows that have won Olivier Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress in a Musical: Barbara Dickson and Con O'Neill in Blood Brothers (1988), Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon (1990), Alun Armstrong and Julia McKenzie in Sweeney Todd (1993), Daniel Evans and Samantha Spiro in Merrily We Roll Along (2001), Alex Jennings and Joanna Riding in My Fair Lady (2003), Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell in Sunday in the Park with George (2007), Michael Ball and Leanne Jones in Hairspray (2008), Bertie Carvel and all four Matildas in Matilda (2012) and Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd (2013)
- Jessica Lange is the first American actress nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress for her performance in Long Day's Journey Into Night
- Hairspray holds the distinction of winning all three musical acting awards in 2008: Best Actor and Actress in a Musical for Michael Ball and Leanne Jones and Best Supporting Performance in a Musical for Tracie Bennett.
- Roles that have won awards for actors on more than one occasion include: Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls (1982 and 2006), George in Sunday in the Park with George (1991 and 2007), The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods (1991 and 1999), Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls (1982 and 1997), Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd (1980, 1994 and 2013), Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd (1980, 1994 and 2013), Frau Schneider in Cabaret (1994 and 2007) and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (2002 and 2003).
- Michael Ball and Bertie Carvel both won Oliviers for playing roles of the opposite sex, in 2008 for Hairspray and 2012 for Matilda, respectively.
- Shared wins: In 2006, all three actors sharing the role of Billy Elliot received the Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical and in 2012, all four actresses sharing the role of Matilda received the Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical.
- Shared nominations: In 2017, the eight members of the cast of Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour were jointly nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and in the same year, six cast members from The Girls were jointly nominated in the Best Actress in a Musical category.
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