As part of the show’s effort to celebrate musicals of the past and present during its 74th annual ceremony, theater legends graced the stage throughout the evening, delivering one showstopping number after another.
But no one came close to matching the power of Holliday ― who in 1982 won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Effie White in “Dreamgirls” ― taking the stage midway through the ceremony as part of a tribute to the groundbreaking musical’s 40th anniversary.
After a hilarious and moving introduction from her fellow Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee Ralph ― who starred alongside Holliday for years in the musical about the rise of an all-girl group modeled on the Supremes ― Holliday unleashed her tremendous talents on stage.
— The McCallum Theatre (@McCallumTheatre) September 27, 2021
Singing the torch song that’s become her signature number for the past four decades, Holliday brilliantly communicated the anguish and pain behind the heartbreaking ballad, which felt as alive as ever on the Tonys stage.
Midway through the song, cheers erupted from the audience of masked and vaccinated attendees ― a requirement for this year’s ceremony ― who stood on their feet for the majority of the number before giving Holliday a standing ovation.
Holliday’s performance was so stirring that host Audra McDonald said she needed some time to recover before she introduced the next segment.
Winners went on to to thank Holliday in their own speeches long after she left the stage, with Mary-Louise Parker saying she was “still crying” from the performance some time later.
— Rebecca Rubin (@rebeccaarubin) September 27, 2021
The tribute was something of a full-circle moment for Holliday, who performed the song at the 36th annual ceremony in 1982, in what’s remembered as one of the most iconic moments in Tonys history.
Viewers watching the four-hour celebration, which aired in two parts across Paramount+ and CBS, also had raves for Holliday on Twitter.
Jennifer Holliday bringing the heat like only she can. Probably the greatest showstopper I ever experienced on Broadway. #tonyawards
— Charles McNulty (@CharlesMcNulty) September 27, 2021
Can you imagine having so much talent and stage presence that you make the same song sound thrilling and new every time you sing it for 40 years?
— R. Eric Thomas (@oureric) September 27, 2021
Okay Jennifer Holliday. Still got it, I see.
— roxane gay (@rgay) September 27, 2021
Send the mother f***ing ambulance right now to save me.
— Javier Muñoz (@JMunozActor) September 27, 2021
God bless Jennifer Holliday's vocals, god bless Jennifer Holliday's jaw. #TonyAwards
— Louis Peitzman (@LouisPeitzman) September 27, 2021
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.