Drama Desk Awards betray reason they were created

Why do the Drama Desk Awards even bother to nominate non-Broadway shows? Is it just so they can take in thousands of dollars from friends and family of nominees, who spend $190 to $850 per ticket to attend the ceremony and watch their loved ones suffer almost inevitable defeat?

At the most recent edition of the awards last May,  71 of the 155 (46%) nominations for plays and musicals went to off-Broadway productions, but just three of the 26 winners hailed from beyond Broadway.

One of those wins was for the lyrics by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb to “The Scottsboro Boys.” That last tuner from the celebrated Tony-winning team (“Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) had already announced a Broadway bow which began last month. The award for book of a musical went to “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which ran at the well-funded Public Theater and is also on Broadway this season. And “When the Rain Stops Falling” — a production by Lincoln Center Theater, which also stages Broadway shows — won sound design of a play.

Unlike the Lucille Lortel Awards, which are devoted exclusively to off-Broadway productions, the Drama Desk kudos consider all theater productions in New York.  The Lortel nominees and winners are decided by a panel of 19 experts drawn from both the theatrical community and academia.

The Drama Desk nominations are determined by just seven scribes: Barbara Siegel (Talkin’ Broadway, Theater Mania), Christopher Byrne (Gay City News), Patrick Christiano (Dan’s Papers, Theater Life), David Kaufman (freelance and author), Gerard Raymond (Back Stage, the Advocate), Richard Ridge (Broadway Beat TV) and Paulanne Simmons (Curtain Up and New York Theatre Wire). The entire membership of the Drama Desk decides the winners. Just who they are remains a mystery as the Drama Desk is the only media award that refuses to list its members.

Over Siegel’s seven years at the helm of the nominating committee, Broadway contenders represented between 47% and 63% of the contenders; this year, it was 54%. In those seven years, Broadway fare took home 167 of the 179 awards bestowed on plays and musicals. When non-Broadway nominees do manage to prevail, they tend to have prestigious reputations, as was the case with last year’s winner of best play. “Ruined” had already won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Among the other non-Broadway champs last year was “Road Show,” which won best lyrics for seven-time Tony champ Stephen Sondheim.

Image: Drama Desk Awards logo (Drama Desk)

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