Calculated, But Not Capricious: How the Number of Tony Play/Musical Nods Are Decided

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02 May 2014

The Tony Award
The Tony Award

Playbill.com looks at the rules, and resulting math, behind the Tony Award nominations.

When the Tony Award nominations for 2013-14 season were announced on April 29, many observers were confused by discrepancies among the top four categories. The Best Play category contained five nominees: James Lapine's Act One, Robert Schenkkan's All the Way, Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina, Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons and John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar.

Best Musical, however, only included four shows: After Midnight, Aladdin, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Best Revival of a Play, meanwhile, had four nominees, while Best Revival of a Musical had a mere three.

Was the Tony nominating committee being capricious? Inconsistent? Had they forgotten to name a fifth musical? Or had they not named a fifth simply because they didn't like any of the other contenders?

None of the above, it turns out. No drama was involved, no petty emotions, no urge to "snub" (a very popular word among Tony observers, including critics and reporters, in the days following the Tony nominations).

According to official Tony rules that were instigated in 2013, the number of nominees can vary between three and five in each of the four Best Show categories. That number is determined not by a fit of pique or acts of persuasion on the part of some nominators, but by a mathematical equation.

As the Tony rules state, "Where there are nine or more eligible shows in a Best Show category, at the Tony Nominating Meeting, the Nominating Committee will be instructed to cast one vote each for four eligible shows as nominees on his/her secret ballot. Such ballots shall be collected and tabulated by a representative of the Accounting Firm."

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.

Only four shows were eligible for Best Revival of a Musical and one, Cabaret — which some thought shouldn't be considered since it was a reproduction of a staging of the musical that previously been honored by the Tonys — simply didn't earn enough votes to make the cut.

A confusing calculus? Definitely. But, still, math — not malice.