Framed Playbills adorn the walls of Eila Mell's home.

Framed Playbills adorn the walls of Eila Mell's home. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Many people know about Broadway and the Tony Awards, but Eila Mell literally wrote the book on both. Her tabletop tome “The Tony Awards: A Celebration of Excellence in Theatre” (Black Dog & Leventhal, $55), which was commissioned by the American Theatre Wing, chronicles the awards from their first presentation in 1947 through last year. (This year's ceremony will air June 16 at 8 p.m. on CBS and stream on Paramount+.)

Mell interviewed more than 140 winners, whose thoughts are here along with a foreword by Audra McDonald and an introduction by American Theatre Wing CEO Heather Hitchens and chair Emilio Sosa. There are also hundreds of rare photographs, many taken from the wing’s collection.

This is the second theater-themed book for Mell, who previously penned “Designing Broadway” in 2022 with set designer Derek McLane. Mell spoke about her love of theater and what she learned putting this book together.

How did you become interested in theater?

I always loved theater. That was my first love. It was really honed at Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts [in Wheatley Heights] for four summers. It was life-changing for me. It was the first time I met other people my age who had the same passion I had for the arts. A full circle moment is that one of the people I interviewed for the book is a campmate who is now a Tony winner, J.T. Rogers, the playwright who wrote “Oslo.”

Were you ever interested in acting yourself?

I was an actor as a kid for 10 years. I was up for a role in a soap opera. It came down to me and an unknown actress named Parker Posey. When she got the role and I didn’t, it gave me the idea to write a book about people who were almost cast in things. That led to “Casting Might-Have-Beens” in the early 2000s. I knew that my passion really was in writing. I loved that more than anything.

Why did you decide to do this book largely in winners’ voices?

I felt who better to tell the story than direct quotes from people involved. I would much rather read that than have someone else interpret their words.

The cover of “The Tony Awards: A Celebration of Excellent...

The cover of “The Tony Awards: A Celebration of Excellent in Theatre,” by Long Islander Eila Mell. Credit: Black Dog & Leventhal

Why did you organize the book chronologically?

I thought having a chronological style was the best way to tell the history of it. The history is important to see how the awards voted and changed over time. That’s why I thought it was important to do year by year. The chapter heads are the decades. Within each decade is every single year.

Did winning change people’s lives and careers?

In some cases, it did and in some cases, it didn’t. For Audra McDonald, it meant everything for her career. It catapulted her. She was an unknown entity in “Carousel.” The next thing she knew, she was having a meeting with Terence McNally and starring in his next play, “Master Class.”

What’s something you learned from doing the book?

One thing I learned is how much people appreciate the sense of community you get on Broadway. Everyone has to be together all the time. You could be in a movie with someone and never even meet them.

How important were the awards to people “before” winning?

Growing up in New York and having access to theater, I learned what it’s like for people who don’t have that, which is most people. I learned for so many kids, the Tony Awards is one of the few chances they have to see what happens on Broadway.

Can you mention one story that stands out?

There are so many. How “The Producers” came to be is an interesting story I heard from Mel Brooks and Nathan Lane. Mel Brooks originally wanted it to be a stage play. He wrote it and showed it to his friend Kermit Bloomgarden, a huge producer who said, “This is not a play. It’s a movie.” There were scenes in different places and sets. He made it as a movie instead. David Geffen kept nagging Mel Brooks to make this into a musical and he finally did.

How did you interview people and did you meet any or many?

I have met them, but people don’t really get together for interviews. It was primarily Zoom. I feel if you can see each other, you can have a better conversation. Some people only wanted to do phone calls. I met some of the people before and since in person like Carol Burnett, J. Harrison Ghee, an actor who won for “Some Like It Hot.” I knew a lot of the designers from “Designing Broadway.”

What’s your next book?

I don’t know just yet. I have an idea, but I can’t really say, but I have a next project related to this book, a weekly companion podcast on the Broadway Podcast Network called “Behind the Awards.” My co-host is Bruce Gotlieb. It’s interviews with award winners, but not just Tonys. It’s Tony winners, Grammy winners, Oscars — all of it.

The Tony Awards

WHEN 8 p.m. June 16

WHERE 8 p.m. on CBS and Paramount+

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