The Tony Award: Worth Its Weight in Gold?
It’s a pleasure to be nominated, but the payoff goes beyond bragging rights. Here is what nomination means for a show—and for theater goers
On April 29, the fate of several Broadway shows will be altered. That’s the morning that Lucy Liu and Jonathan Groff will announce the nominees for the 68th annual Tony Awards. It’s not just the prestige of being up for the highest honor in New York theater that makes the announcement so anxiety-producing, it’s the impact a nomination can have at the box office.
The box office bump
And that impact can be great, adding millions to the show’s box office take over the course of the year. Last year’s two main contenders for Best Musical, Kinky Boots and Matilda, saw increases in sales after receiving multiple nominations. Ticket sales for Kinky Boots went up 20% to $1,340,238 the week just before the awards. Matilda had a smaller increase for the same period of about 4.5% to $1,157,633, but it had a bigger initial advance. And that’s before the winners were even announced. The nomination affect lasted past the show itself as well. Eventual Best Musical winner Kinky Boots steadily rose at the box office, continuing on after the Tony broadcast. This went on (with a few slight dips) until the holiday week of December 29 when it raked in $2.24 million (almost twice the total for the initial post-nomination bump). Matilda‘s bump only lasted from just after the nomination until the end of the summer, seeing slight weekly gains until the week after Labor Day. Since then its box office charts have gone up and down, reaching a peak the December holiday week with $1.7 million. So winning does have its benefits.
What’s in it for the winner?
That shiny Tony isn’t just a gold-colored trophy for the mantelpiece – it translates to lasting box office gold for the winners. Shows that earn the coveted Best Musical award typically see a significant increase in weekly grosses. The week after winning the top prize of Best Musical, Kinky Boots’ weekly take rose 20% from its pre-Tony season gross to $1,411,574. The show continued to kick much of the competition to the curb over the course of the year, reaching an all-time high of $2.2 million during the week between Christmas and New Years. That translates to a total of $83 million as of April 13, 2014. And keep in mind that the success doesn’t stop at Broadway. Within a couple months of the Tony broadcast, plans were announced for a Kinky Boots national tour, which is set to begin this September in Las Vegas. In comparison, Matilda, which lost Best Musical to Kinky Boots but did win four awards including Best Book of a Musical, received only a slightly higher bump and has taken in $66 million altogether. Best Musical Revival winner Pippin was the other big beneficiary at last year’s awards. The flashy circus-like show jumped over the $1 million mark two weeks after the win. The shows stayed over the million mark until the end of the summer, with some bumps around the holidays.
Non-winners can still be winners
Even non-winning shows can gain converts among Tony viewers if their production selection is strong enough. The most dramatic bump so far came back in 1994 for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Despite only winning an award for costume design, the show’s box office took in $1.3 million the day after the Tonys thanks to its show-stopping production, including the energetic “Be Our Guest.” For the 2013 Tony Awards, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella smartly staged an excerpt that included Cinderella’s amazing costume change from rags to riches, leading to a five-percent increase per week in the month following the awards broadcast (the box office zigzagged after that, reaching a peak of $1.4 million the week after Christmas). Though the show was nominated for nine awards, like Beauty and the Beast it also only took home the Tony for costume design.
The genre that benefits the least
The Tony bump doesn’t factor as much for plays, though there can be benefits. For example, the 2013 Best Play win for Christopher Durang’s satiric comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike did provide a spike at the box office and the play extended its limited engagement for another month. There was also a Los Angeles staging directed by Broadway cast member David Hyde Pierce. But the show still closed by the end of the summer. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the winner for Best Revival of a Play and Actor in a Play (Tracey Letts), had already closed by the time of the awards. There is a major reason that musicals usually reap more box office gold from the Tonys than plays: the opportunity to stage elaborate numbers during the broadcast. An exciting song-and-dance routine will draw more attention than a scene from a play, which tends not to have as much impact when taken out of context.
Which shows stand to benefit the most this year?
The 2014 nominations could have a big impact on current shows seeking a bump. Best Musical contenders A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, After Midnight, Rocky and The Bridges of Madison County are playing well below their earning potential. Meanwhile, Disney’s Aladdin is selling out while Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Bullets Over Broadway, Cabaret, If/Then, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Les Miserables are doing close to capacity business.
Among plays, revivals of A Raisin in the Sun, Of Mice and Men, and The Cripple of Inishmaan are performing the strongest, probably thanks to movie stars Denzel Washington, James Franco and Daniel Radcliffe headlining, respectively. Despite mixed reviews, The Realistic Joneses is keep up with its neighbors thanks to an all-star cast. Emmy-winning TV stars Bryan Cranston and Tyne Daly are not as big draws for All the Way and Mothers and Sons. Both shows could definitely use some Tony love, as could The Velocity of Autumn. Act One from Lincoln Center Theater, Casa Valentina from Manhattan Theater Club and the musical Violet from Roundabout Theatre Company are all at non-profit houses with subscribers, so they are not as dependent on the whims of the Tony nominators.
One show that’s almost guaranteed a nomination won’t even have to wait until the 29th for a benefit. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill — a play with music — stars five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald in a highly-praised, near-solo lead performance as the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. The show is packing audiences into the Circle in the Square Theatre, and many experts are predicting not only a nomination, but a record-breaking sixth award for McDonald herself. Lady Day has already been extended from the planned June 1 end date to August 10.
What does this mean for theater goers?
All these accolades can add up to one thing: Higher ticket prices. The Book of Mormon was already a standing-room only smash before winning nine Tonys in 2011, including Best Musical. After the win, top non-premium ticket for orchestra and front mezzanine rose from $142 to $155. All those Tonys also prolonged the show’s status as a hot ticket, and those who waited for the awards to book seats found not only higher prices, but even more dates that were completely sold out. So if a show receives a raft of nominations, it’s usually a good idea to snatch up your tickets before the awards broadcast, just in case.