Tony nominations mean nothing

Someone writes:

I searched up *Tony nominations mean nothing* and I found nothing. So I had to write this.

There are currently 41 theaters that the Tony awards accept when nominating their choices. If we are being as generous as possible, we could say that every one of those theaters will be hosting a performance that fits all of the requirements for an award. The Tony awards have 26 different categories. There are 129 nominations this year, not including the special categories. For a play in this day and age to not get a single nomination is just a testament to its mediocrity. Plays or People can even get multiple nominations in the same category. The Best Featured Actress in a Musical has these marvelous nominations:
Lilli Cooper, “Tootsie”
Amber Gray, “Hadestown”
Sarah Stiles, “Tootsie”
Ali Stroker, “Oklahoma!”
Mary Testa, “Oklahoma!”
People will frequently get nominated twice in the same category for different pieces!

According to the official Tony Awards website, “A show is only eligible in the season when it first opens, no matter how long it runs on Broadway.” This immediately gets rid of many current shows, and leaves only 21 shows by my counting. I may be slightly wrong, but that is still a very small number. If there are 129 possible nominations for your piece, and you are only 1 out of 29 possibilities, receiving a tony nomination is not a badge of honor, but a badge of shame. There was recently an article in the New York Times about how King Lear, a show that received mixed reviews, was disappointed that it only got 1 nomination. I’d like to see if anyone else can help me figure this out.

My reply: OK, so here’s the question. Why so many Tonys for so few shows, which would seem to reduce its value?

The most natural answer is that Tonys and Tony nominations give value to “Broadway theatre” more generally: the different shows are in friendly competition, and more awards and more nominations get the butts in the seats.

But that doesn’t really answer the question, as at some point there have to be diminishing returns. The real question is where’s the equilibrium.

Remember that post from a few years ago about the economist who argued that the members of the Motion Picture Academy were irrational because they were giving Oscars to insufficiently popular movies: “One would hope the Academy would at least pay a bit more attention to the people paying the bills. Not only does it seem wrong (at least to this economist) to argue that movies many people like are simply not that good, focusing on the box office would seem to make good financial sense for the Oscars as well”?

The discussion there led to familiar territory in econ-talk: How much should we think that an institution (e.g., the Oscars, the Tonys) is at a sensible equilibrium, kept there by a mixture of rational calculation and the discipline of the market, and how much should we focus on the institution’s imperfections (slowness to change, principal-agent problems, etc.) and suggest improvements?

One comparison point is academic awards. Different academic fields seem to have different rates of giving awards. It would just about always seem to make sense to add an award: for example, if the Columbia stat dept added a best research paper award for its Ph.D. students, I think this would at the margin help the recipients get jobs, more than it would hurt the prospects of the students who didn’t get the award. On balance it would benefit our program. But we don’t have such an award—or, at least, I don’t think we have. Maybe we should. The point is that it doesn’t seem that statistics academia has reached equilibrium when it comes to awards. Political science, that’s another story: they have zillions of awards, all over the place. Equilibrium may well have been reached in that case.

Dan Simpson or Brian Pike might have more thoughts on the specific case of the Tonys. Maybe someone could “at” them?

P.S. When I was a kid, nobody cared about the Tonys, Emmys, or Grammys. But every year we watched the Oscars, Miss America, and the Wizard of Oz.