Tony Awards: Predicting the Musical Winners Using Math

6:15 AM 6/8/2018

by Ben Zauzmer

Crunching the numbers: The musical 'The Band's Visit' and the revival of 'My Fair Lady' are the favorites in their categories.

'The Band's Visit' and 'My Fair Lady'
'The Band's Visit' and 'My Fair Lady'
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy; Joan Marcus

“It is what it is,” Dina sings in The Band’s Visit. “Wouldn’t it be loverly?” Eliza asks in My Fair Lady. Those two women moved the hearts of Broadway theatergoers in 2018 by singing of their desires for a better life. But on Sunday night, their dreams could fixate on a more concrete objective: a Tony Award for best musical or best musical revival.

Will they get their wish? It’s possible to predict the answer to that question with the help of statistics. In part one of this article, I outlined my method for data-based Tony prognostication, and listed my model’s picks for the 11 play categories. Today, I will reveal the frontrunners for the 15 musical categories, beginning with the biggest one of all.

  • Best Musical

    The Band’s Visit premiered off-Broadway a year ago before moving to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 2017. That means it was eligible for other awards for its off-Broadway run last year, but not eligible at the Tonys until this season. That makes the math more challenging, because this year’s Tony nominees in the musical categories never went head-to-head in earlier contests, but The Band’s Visit won enough awards a year ago to make it the favorite in 2018.

  • Best Revival of a Musical

    Best revival of a musical is much more straightforward. Only three musical revivals opened this year: Carousel, My Fair Lady, and Once on this Island. All three were nominated by default. When it came time for the precursor awards to hand out their honors, My Fair Lady made it a clean sweep, winning the Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk honors.

  • Leading Actor in a Musical

    Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Quite possibly the next winner of the Tony Award for best actor in a musical. Ethan Slater, a Broadway novice in a category featuring some New York veterans, won both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for playing everyone’s favorite sponge in SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical, and is hoping to parlay those wins into a Tony victory.

  • Leading Actress in a Musical

    The race for the top musical actress, on the other hand, is extremely close. Katrina Lenk wowed critics as a welcoming café owner in best musical frontrunner The Band’s Visit. But don’t count out Lauren Ambrose, an Outer Critics Circle winner for her take on the working-class Eliza Doolittle in best musical revival leader My Fair Lady.

  • Featured Actor in a Musical

    Norbert Leo Butz, in the role of Eliza’s father Alfred in My Fair Lady, is in a curious Tonys position. He leads most critic predictions, and he won the Outer Critics Circle Awards. And yet, he was the only one of these five nominees to not even be nominated at the Drama Desk Awards. The math says he’s a favorite, but not a strong one. Still, “with a little bit of luck,” Butz will win his third Tony.

  • Featured Actress in a Musical

    Carousel is just the third musical revival ever to have five or more acting nominations, along with Show Boat (1995) and Kiss Me, Kate (2000). So it sure feels right that the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is poised to claim at least one of the acting awards. Lindsay Mendez, in the role of Carrie, is favored by math to win featured actress in a musical, though surely her nominated co-stars are hoping that she doesn’t “walk alone” to the stage.

  • Direction of a Musical

    Five of the last seven winners for best musical also won best direction of a musical, and the math expects that pattern to reappear this year. Though Tina Landau impressed audiences and critics with her sprightly SpongeBob SquarePants, fellow Chicago director David Cromer’s meaningful The Band’s Visit is poised for a stronger night on Sunday.

  • Costume Design in a Musical

    Catherine Zuber has “only” one Tony win in the last seven years for The King and I (2015), a cold streak by her standards, after winning five in a six-year stretch from 2005-2010. She’s favored to win her seventh for My Fair Lady, which would set the all-time record among costume designers, currently shared with William Ivey Long and Florence Klotz.

  • Lighting Design in a Musical

    Lighting designers don’t achieve the celebrity status of actors and directors, but if they did, Kevin Adams might be approaching household-name recognition. He’s the only person to have won best lighting design in a musical three times since the category split into plays and musicals, and he now stands a good chance at making that number four with SpongeBob SquarePants. He previously won for Spring Awakening (2007), American Idiot (2010), and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2014), and was also nominated twice in one year for Hair (2009) and Next to Normal (2009).

  • Scenic Design in a Musical

    Speaking of SpongeBob’s talented designers, David Zinn is one of eight people this year with multiple nominations, and also the only one of those eight who enters the night as the mathematical frontrunner in any category. Zinn masterfully recreated Bikini Bottom on stage, and while he might not come away with a second trophy for costume design, he enjoys a 43 percent chance to win one for scenic design.

  • Sound Design of a Musical

    Sound design of a musical is challenging — and therefore quite worthy of its restored place on the Tony stage after a three-year absence. But it’s even more challenging when the band takes leave of its standard confinements and becomes a part of the onstage show. Kai Harada figured out a way to work around the unique issues poised by a band quite literally visiting the stage, such that the audience still manages to hear everything they’re supposed to. It’s tough to predict a category after a furlough, but the math is barely going with The Band’s Visit.

  • Book

    Mean Girls is tied with SpongeBob SquarePants for the most nominations, with 12, but it risks being shut out entirely. That would match The Scottsboro Boys (2011) for the most nominations without a win. Fortunately, Tina Fey’s show is favored in one category, best book. Fey cleverly weaved together new jokes written for the musical with iconic lines from her classic film. In a category where all four nominees based their writing on previously existing work, that might be enough for the victory.

  • Choreography

    Carousel lends itself to great choreography, interrupting the second act with a mid-show ballet. In fact, the 1994 revival already won this category, meaning Carousel could join Wonderful Town (1953, 2004), The Pajama Game (1955, 2006), and Anything Goes (1988, 2011) as one of the few shows to win best choreography twice. Justin Peck, a ballet dancer himself, certainly confirmed he is just as adept at arranging dance as he is at performing it.

  • Orchestrations

    While best orchestrations goes to how a score is arranged, and best score goes to the music itself, the two awards have been handed to the same show in nine of the last 11 years. Evidently, if Tony voters find the music pleasing to the ear, they’ll honor it up and down the ticket. That’s a key part of why the math makes The Band’s Visit, which won by far the most accolades for its score, the frontrunner in this category as well.

  • Original Score

    Best score can sometimes be a tricky category to divine from the precursor awards, since the Drama Desk splits their corresponding category in two, one for music and one for lyrics. No problem this year: The Band’s Visit won both, as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award for best score, and four-time nominee David Yazbeck appears favored to finally get that first victory.