Tony Awards: Will Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Sweat’ take Best Play without director nomination?

In the weeks leading up to this year’s Tony Awards nominations, new drama “Sweat” seemed to be the show to beat in the Best Play category, not only because it marks the long-awaited Broadway debut of acclaimed playwright Lynn Nottage, but also because it had just claimed the 2017 Pulitzer for Drama, Nottage’s second. “Sweat” lost a lot of momentum, trailing “Oslo” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2” in sheer number of nominations, but on par with “Indecent” with three bids.

Its snub in the Best Direction of a Play category for Kate Whoriskey’s work in particular seemed to indicate the play’s dwindling Tony prospects, as the other three nominated Best Plays earned bids in that category. In spite of “Sweat” underperforming in total nominations, might recent Tony history point to the outside possibility of a win?

Unfortunately for “Sweat,” new plays rarely, if ever, win the top honor without at least a corresponding Best Direction of a Play nomination. The only instance of a play pulling off such a feat since 2000 occurred in 2014, when “All the Way” prevailed. While that case may suggest hope for “Sweat,” it’s not a directly comparable situation as none of the four nominated directors that year helmed new plays; nominees Tim Carroll (“Twelfth Night”), Michael Grandage (“The Cripple of Inishmaan”), John Tiffany (“The Glass Menagerie”) and winner Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun”) all received their bids for revivals.

One might think that the Pulitzer Prize could offset the disadvantage of missing a Direction nomination, but recent Tony trends also suggest that the prestigious honor has little bearing on the Tony contest. Since 2000, eight Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, excluding “Sweat,” received nominations for the Best Play Tony. Five of those works (“Proof” [2001], “I Am My Own Wife” [2004], “Doubt” [2005], “August: Osage County” [2008], and “Clybourne Park” [2012]) went on to win the award, but each one had at least a Best Direction nomination and three of them prevailed in that category, too. As for the three Pulitzer-winning dramas that lost Best Play (“Topdog/Underdog” [2002], “Rabbit Hole” [2006], and “Disgraced” [2015]), only “Rabbit Hole” had a Direction nomination.

Despite the recent Tony history that seems to stand in the way of a “Sweat” victory, Tony nominations often only provide a small indication of which shows have a leg up on the competition. Each year, a small and selective group of industry insiders commit to see all of the eligible productions and determine the Tony nominees; this year’s nominating committee comprised of only 43 voters, according to the official Tony website. Once the nomination phase concludes, however, voting on the winners opens up to the approximately 846 eligible Tony voters. Should the collective taste of the whole voting body significantly diverge from that of the nominating committee, “Sweat” may have a better chance at pulling off a victory than the trends suggest.

According to Gold Derby’s current Tony Awards experts’ predictions, only 2 of 15 predict “Sweat” will win Best Play. “Oslo” leads in the category with the most support as the choice of 11 of the experts, while 2 go out on a limb for “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

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