Tony Awards: Predicting the Play Winners Using Math

The Ferryman-Publicity Still 1- H 2018
Jez Butterworth

'The Ferryman' is the clear favorite to nab the top play honor, according to a mathematical model.

The wonder of live theater is that we never know for sure what will happen. If we’ve seen the show dozens of times, we have a pretty good guess, but no live production is precisely predictable. So it is with the Tony Awards — we don’t know for sure who will Sunday night, but we can take a pretty good guess with the help of math.

Every year, I gather data on which categories each show was nominated in, which contenders have won previous theater awards, and what various critics are predicting. I weight each of these factors by how well they’ve predicted each Tony category in the past, and then apply those weights to this year’s nominees to determine the percentage chance each nominee will emerge victorious.

Last year, out of 26 categories, the nominee my model identified as the mathematical favorite won 20 of them. But these are percentages, not guarantees. Often the favorites win, and occasionally they lose. And that’s what makes the Tonys exciting.

Best Play

My model is more confident about this result than any other among the 26 Tony races. The main reason is that there’s more data in this category: In addition to Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle wins, The Ferryman picked up honors from the Drama League and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. Those factors enter into my model for best play but don’t provide precursors for most other categories, allowing a clear best play favorite like The Ferryman to become an even stronger frontrunner than would be possible elsewhere on the ballot.

Best Revival of a Play

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is already a Tony champion in this category, winning for best revival (back when plays and musical competed against one another) in 1987. The math favors it just ahead of The Waverly Gallery to win again this year, which would make All My Sons one of only three plays to win a Tony for multiple revivals, along with Miller’s A View From the Bridge and Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Hmmm… I think I’m noticing a trend here.

Leading Actor in a Play

Four characters have “won” both best actor at the Oscars and best lead actor in a Play at the Tonys: Cyrano de Bergerac, Sir Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons), Antonio Salieri (Amadeus) and Hamlet. There’s a two-thirds shot we’ll have a fifth this year: Either Howard Beale (played by Bryan Cranston in Network) or Atticus Finch (played by Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird).

Leading Actress in a Play

When they make the movie of Elaine May’s life, they’ll have to cram over 80 years’ worth of entertainment into just a couple of hours. But surely, they’ll save some minutes for the trials and triumphs of 2019: Earlier this year, she lost her longtime companion Stanley Donen (of Singin’ in the Rain fame). A couple months later, May received her first-ever Tony nomination, and now looks poised to win it for her role The Waverly Gallery.

Featured Actor in a Play

This one is extremely close, with the two Outer Critics Circle nominees repeating their duel at the Tonys: Benjamin Walker (All My Sons) and Bertie Carvel (Ink). Walker won the OCC honor, but that doesn’t mean much here, as that body has a poor track record in this category, forecasting only two of the last 15 winners. The critic predictions give the slight edge to Carvel.

Featured Actress in a Play

In 2005, Celia Keenan-Bolger received her first of four Tony nominations for playing a middle school student in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Fourteen years later, she’s playing an even younger role: that of Scout Finch, the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird. And with all the accolades coming her way, Keenan-Bolger is favored to convert her fourth trip into her first win.

Direction of a Play

Two decades after losing a directing Tony for Cabaret (1998), and winning a directing Oscar for American Beauty (1999), Sam Mendes is aiming to add to his trophy collection for The Ferryman. As the winner of both the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle awards, he’s the odds-on favorite heading down the stretch.

Costume Design of a Play

Though Toni-Leslie James did win the Drama Desk Award for her costume design of Bernhardt/Hamlet, it’s been 14 years since a play with only two total nominations won this category. That’s part of why the math favors much more nominated shows The Ferryman (nine nominations), To Kill a Mockingbird (nine), and Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (seven).

Lighting Design of a Play

The Tony Awards have been handing out trophies for lighting design since 1970, but no designer has ever won the award for a pair of plays in consecutive years. We might be witnessing Tony history in the making: Neil Austin won best lighting design of a play a year ago for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and is currently in the lead to repeat for his work on Ink.

Scenic Design of a Play

Though the design categories never receive the attention of some the races listed earlier, scenic design nominee Rob Howell (The Ferryman) has a chance to pull off the most impressive accomplishment of the night. He is favored to win not only this category (though it’s quite close) but also for costume design of a play, which would make him just the third person to win both a costume and scenic design Tony for the same show. The others are Desmond Heeley (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1968) and Maria Bjornson (The Phantom of the Opera, 1988).

Sound Design of a Play

The good news keeps on coming for The Ferryman, the 1980s Northern Irish tale favored by statistics in five categories. After best play and best direction of a play, the math is a lot less confident in The Ferryman’s other three potential wins, but sound designer Nick Powell hopes his Drama Desk victory parlays him to another celebration on Sunday.

Tomorrow: Part II of this article will look at the musical categories at this year’s Tonys.

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) uses data to write about awards shows for The Hollywood Reporter, including his mathematical Tony predictions which went 20 for 26 last year. He works as a baseball analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers.