Tonys: Predicting the Play Winners by the Math

Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

'Oslo' leads in the best play category, according to the mathematical model.

There are many ways to try and predict the Tony Awards. You could see as many shows as possible and judge for yourself. You could read reviews and evaluate which artists get the highest praise. You could even try and guess based on which shows’ names earn the loudest applause during Kevin Spacey’s opening monologue when the Tony Awards are broadcast Sunday night on CBS. Or then … there’s math.

Yes, math. Last year, I built a mathematical model that combines the results of other theater awards and critic predictions, weighted by how well each of those inputs has matched the Tony results in each category over the past 20 years. The initial returns were quite encouraging: Out of 24 categories, the nominee that statistics placed in the lead went on to win 18 times. I don’t know if the model will replicate that success this year — by the very definition of an upset, I can’t say for sure how many upsets are going to occur. But I do know that these numbers below reflect my computer’s best estimate of the likelihood that each nominee wins in each category.

If these predictions do come true, it looks like the Tonys might be spreading the wealth around this year. Seven plays are projected to win at least one Tony. Surprisingly, none of those seven are A Doll’s House, Part 2, the most nominated play of the year with eight nominations. But the spinoff of Henrik Ibsen’s classic does land the second or third highest percentage in five different categories, so it only needs to convert one of those five upsets to walk away with a trophy.

Who else might head home with hardware? Let’s ask the data for a sneak peek:

Best Play

We lead off with an easy one. Oslo, a story of the behind-the-scenes dealmaking that led to the Oslo Peace Accords, earned the coveted trifecta of pre-Tony awards season: the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League. It even won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle to boot. If you’re sniffing for an upset, go with A Doll’s House, Part 2, as it bested Oslo in total nomination count, 8-7. But don’t overthink this one — it’s Oslo’s to lose.

Best Play Revival

The revival category is a little bit closer, but let’s give Jitney its fair share of credit. Like Oslo, Jitney, the last of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle to receive a Broadway premiere, also went three-for-three in the major pre-Tony awards shows. But don’t count out The Little Foxes: The turn-of-the-century Alabama tale matched Jitney’s six nominations, and unlike Jitney, The Little Foxes grabbed an Outer Critics Circle nod for best director.

Best Direction of a Play

If you only focus on the precursor awards for best director, this prediction may seem strange. The Drama Desk picked Jitney, the Outer Critics Circle chose Indecent and neither even nominated Oslo. But look a little deeper: It’s been 15 years since a best play director winner didn’t also take home either best play or best play revival. As noted above, Oslo has the most commanding lead of any best play or best revival nominee, and that helps it barely jump to the top of these rankings as well.

Best Lead Actor in a Play

Along with the two best play categories, this is the only other race in which one nominee exceeds a 50% chance to win. Kevin Kline already has a pair of Tonys on the mantle, but don’t think for a second that will prevent the body from voting for him again — his last victory came in 1981, for The Pirates of Penzance. His widely-praised role in Noel Coward’s comedy Present Laughter marks him as the frontrunner for Tony No. 3.

Best Lead Actress in a Play

Of the 10 play categories, this is the closest race of the night. The math slightly favors Laura Linney, for The Little Foxes, thanks to her Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle victories against Laurie Metcalf of A Doll’s House, Part 2. But most critics are rallying behind Metcalf, and some may even be surprised to see that this is a close race at all. Fans of both actresses claim their favorite is “due,” as each leading lady has lost all three of her previous Tony nominations.

Best Featured Actor in a Play

Collectively, Arthur Miller’s The Price is zero-for-four at the Tonys. The original production lost for play and scenic design in 1968, and both the 1992 and 1999 revivals lost for best revival of a play. This year, the latest revival only gets one shot: Danny DeVito, in his Broadway debut, for best featured actor in a play. Fortunately, it’s looking like a pretty good shot after DeVito claimed both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.

Best Featured Actress in a Play

Critics adored Cynthia Nixon’s performance in The Little Foxes, as did the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. Nixon already has one Tony under her belt, but so does one of her chief competitors, defending Tony champion Jayne Houdyshell, appearing this year in A Doll’s House, Part 2. Only Judith Light has won this category in consecutive years, from 2012-13, so Houdyshell is looking to join a rather exclusive club. But she risks splitting the votes of Doll’s House supporters with co-star Condola Rashad. Indeed, last year in this race there were two nominees from Eclipsed, and two from Noises Off, and none of those four took home the prize.

Best Costume Design of a Play

As a rule, I try to avoid writing that a nominee is “due,” unless I’m quoting others. Personally, I feel the award ought to go to the best work among that year’s contenders, regardless of past history. That said, I’ll admit I’ve got a soft spot for Jane Greenwood, costume designer of The Little Foxes. This is her 21st nomination, the most of all time, yet she’s never won. Not once, unless you count her well-deserved lifetime achievement award in 2014. It’s quite possible that voters are ready to give her a competitive trophy to go alongside that honorary one — the math says it’s between Greenwood and Present Laughter designer Susan Hilferty, a Tony winner for Wicked.

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Indecent is a play about a play — and not just any play. It deals with the 1922 Broadway show God of Vengeance, whose original Yiddish performance impressed audiences, but whose English translation scandalized New York with its depictions of brothels and lesbian romance. It was so controversial that the actors, producer and theater owner were tried for obscenity (they were convicted, but the convictions were overturned on appeal). In order to revive these Yiddish-speaking thespians from another era, the show makes clever use of lighting, giving it its best chance to pick up a win over top contender Oslo.

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Imagine you do set design for a living. The director informs you that your set must cause all sorts of problems throughout the performance, and eventually collapse by the end of the play. But somehow, the set has to be ready to go again by the next curtain. That’s the challenge of The Play That Goes Wrong, and it’s why that production’s only nomination came in scenic design. But that in and of itself is a challenge: Since the Tonys split scenic design into two categories (play and musical) in 2005, every play winner has had at least five nominations. That gives Jitney and Oslo a decent shot of coming from behind to take this category.

Coming tomorrow: Predictions in the 14 musical categories.

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) uses math to predict and write about the entertainment awards for The Hollywood Reporter. He recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied math, and he now works as a baseball analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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