Tonys: Predicting the Musical Winners by the Math
In a very competitive year, 'Dear Evan Hansen' has an edge when it comes to the top prize.
Best musical is always the most hyped category heading into the Tony Awards, which will be broadcast Sunday night on CBS. But let’s face it: In many years, the race isn’t really a race. Consider recent runaway winners, such as Billy Elliot (2009), The Book of Mormon (2011), Once (2012), A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (2014) and Hamilton (2016). All of those victories were rather clear from the outset. Among recent ceremonies, only the eventual victories of Kinky Boots (2013) and Fun Home (2015) were truly in doubt.
But this year, boy, oh boy, do we have a race: Dear Evan Hansen vs. Come From Away vs. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, and perhaps even a Groundhog Day upset. Just how close is it? For that, we need math, and that’s where I come in. As I described in Thursday’s article, which contains predictions in the 10 play categories, I use nothing but statistics and data to calculate the chance that each nominee will win each race. And we’ve got 14 great ones on the musical side, so let’s dive in:
Following a relatively easy year for best musical prediction (in which Hamilton was clearly poised to win the top prize in a landslide), we are now faced with an extremely difficult one. Not only are there three legitimate contenders — no offense to Groundhog Day — but two of them opened off-Broadway in years past. So, even though Come From Away, about how the residents of a remote town in Newfoundland welcomed stranded airline passengers in the wake of 9/11, won this category at the Drama Desk Awards, it didn’t have to compete with either Dear Evan Hansen, which revolves around an anxiety-ridden teen, or Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which is based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In the one contest where the trio did go head-to-head, the Drama League Awards, Dear Evan Hansen came out on top, so it is slightly favored to do so again Sunday night.
Best Musical Revival
Hello, Dolly! is about to be “overjoyed and overwhelmed and over par.” At 75%, the revival of the classic Jerry Herman show is by far the strongest contender in any category of the evening. Short of a major upset, this will mark the second time this decade that a musical revival winner had previously won best musical for its original production (The King and I managed the same feat a couple years ago).
Best Direction of a Musical
This is a thrilling three-way race between the same three shows duking it out for best musical. Come From Away won the Outer Critics Circle Award, and Dear Evan Hansen has received an awful lot of plaudits for its direction. But, an important fact to keep in mind: Over the past eight years, the show with the most nominations won this category seven times. The only exception was 2013, when Diane Paulus’ Pippin edged out a pair of more-nominated competitors. This year, the most nominated show is Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.
Best Lead Actor in a Musical
A tie?! Not quite, but it’s as close as can be. The graphic only displays the first decimal place, but on my computer, Groundhog Day’s Andy Karl has a 34.220% chance, while Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt has a 34.214% chance. So, technically, my official prediction is Karl. But allow me a moment of humility: No model created to predict something as subjective as the Tonys could possibly be accurate within 1%, let alone 0.006%. For all intents and purposes, this race is nearly tied. While Platt’s main strength comes from his critical praise, Karl’s comes from his prior awards. Since Platt was ineligible for those awards this year, I’d actually give the edge to Platt, despite that 0.006% deficit.
Best Lead Actress in a Musical
This shouldn’t be nearly as much of a nail-biter as lead actor. Bette Midler’s already got a couple Oscar nominations, four Golden Globes, three Grammys and three Emmys. After winning a special Tony Award back in 1974, it’s time for her to finally add a competitive Tony to that ever-expanding collection.
Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Hello, Dolly! isn’t finished yet. Alongside its expected wins for musical revival and lead actress, Gavin Creel sits at the pole position for featured actor. He won the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle awards, and may even benefit from a little vote splitting among Falsettos' backers.
Best Featured Actress in a Musical
The other race for a supporting role is a thriller. Rachel Bay Jones, who portrays Evan’s mother Heidi in Dear Evan Hansen, is a strong contender. But Jenn Colella, who like every actor and actress in Come From Away plays myriad characters, may be just a bit stronger. However, Colella’s 7% lead is largely due to her other award wins, and again, Dear Evan Hansen was only eligible in its off-Broadway run a year ago. So like best musical and best actor in a musical, this could be another race that manages to fool the math.
Best Costume Design of a Musical
This is far and away War Paint’s best chance to win a Tony. Two of its four nominations are for the lead actresses, Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, up against Bette Midler, and the other is in the scenic design race in which it currently sits in last place. But the very fact that it only has four nominations may ultimately be its demise. Ever since the musical costumes category was established, only one winner (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) had fewer than eight total nominations. Hello, Dolly!, which features a whole song about dressing up in “Sunday clothes,” has the edge.
Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Playbill reports that Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 uses 998 bulbs to light its unique set. Why, even the poster next to the bar chart seems to be bursting with light! Precursor awards and theater critics alike have taken notice, and that’s why my model gives the War and Peace spinoff nearly as much of a chance to win as the other three nominees combined.
Best Scenic Design of a Musical
If you’re wondering why all of the predictors I use to calculate these percentages have rallied around Mimi Lien’s scenic design, go ahead and search on Google Images, “Great Comet of 1812 set.” I’ll wait. Ok, now that you’re back, you probably agree that it’s one of the more innovative uses of theater space for a Broadway show in quite some time. It’s a rare year when scenic design is an easier race to call than best musical, but welcome to the 2017 Tonys.
Dear Evan Hansen pulled off an impressive feat at the Outer Critics Circle Awards, not this year but last. Eligible as an off-Broadway musical, it toppled on-Broadway rivals to win Best Book. Though little noted at the time, as all the attention was on Hamilton and the other Broadway shows in the run-up to the Tonys, Evan Hansen’s win a year ago has come back to propel it up the standings in this year’s Tony race.
Speaking of off-Broadway hits stealing the show, that’s the situation facing us this year in the race for best score. Both the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle lent their honors to The Band’s Visit, an off-Broadway adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name. It’s opening in November at the Barrymore, so perhaps we’ll be seeing The Band’s Visit atop these standings in 2018. For now, the strongest entrant is Dear Evan Hansen, which won the Drama Desk Award for best lyrics a year ago.
Can Andy Blankenbuehler (Bandstand) win two in a row, fresh off his victory for Hamilton? The data suggests it’s going to be painfully close. It’s only been done three times before: Bob Fosse for The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees (1955-56), Tommy Tune for Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies (1990-91) and Susan Stroman for Contact and The Producers (2000-01). But working against Blankenbuehler is the fact that his show did not receive a best musical or musical revival nomination. The last show to win choreography without one of those nominations was Swan Lake, back in 1999. That leaves an opening for another Natasha win.
This is another true nail-biter. The biggest win for Hello, Dolly! would be its Outer Critics Circle honor … if this were any other category. However, the OCC Awards just introduced an orchestration category this year, so my model doesn’t give it any weight, as all weights are based on how well a predictor has matched the Tonys in prior years. Still, enough critics preferred Dolly’s orchestrations to give it the tiniest of leads, giving Larry Hochman a chance at his second Tony after Book of Mormon.
While I of course hope to get as many categories correct as possible, at the end of the day my ultimate goal is the same as that of a Broadway show — to entertain. I hope that knowing the mathematical favorites in each category will make it that much more exciting when the inevitable upsets occur Sunday night. Math can never perfectly capture all the nuances of the Tony Awards, nor should it. But if it manages to add a little intrigue to an already intriguing night, then math has done its job.
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.