The four eligible shows with the highest number of votes automatically win spots as nominees. The only way there can be a fifth nominee is if the accounting firm finds that that the difference in votes between the fourth-highest ranked show and the fifth highest-ranked show is three votes or less. That means that, among the five Best Play nominees, there was a pretty tight horse race; and that, among the Best Musical nominees, whichever show came in fifth was a comparatively distant fifth.
Why, one might ask, not just fill each category with five nominees no matter what the vote tally? The rule was fashioned so as to avoid the potentially embarrassing situation in which a category has five slots, but the season hasn't provided the Tonys with five shows to fill them all.
In the past, there have been seasons that did not feature many new plays or new musicals, resulting in less-than-full catergories. With the new set-up, if there are plenty of new musicals, the Best Musical category has the built-in luxury of inflating itself to five nominees, should the votes for each of the five be sufficient. But if a season only had, say, four new musicals period, the rules can bend to suit that situation as well.
As for the Best Revival of a Musical category, which has only three nominees, an additional rule applies. It states, "Where there are five or fewer eligible shows in a Best Show category, at the Tony Nominating Meeting, the Nominating Committee will be instructed to cast one vote each for three eligible shows as nominees on his/her secret ballot." Just as with the previous rule, the three eligible shows with the highest number of votes automatically make the grade. For there to be a fourth nominee, the difference in votes between the third highest ranked show and the fourth highest ranked show is three votes or less.
A confusing calculus? Definitely. But, still, math — not malice.
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