Will Drama Desk Awards continue to snub their nominated off-Broadway shows?

It is no surprise that six of the top seven shows nominated for this year’s Drama Desk Awards are from Broadway. Despite touting themselves as kudos that celebrate all avenues of New York theater, these awards are firmly focused on the Great White Way. Nearly 60% of the nominees (87 of 151) for plays and musicals are for the few new shows running along the rialto. And if the past is any indication, almost all of the awards will go to this Broadway fare. 

Last year, there was a similar breakdown between Broadway (54%) and off-Broadway (44%) contenders. Yet only three of the 26 winners came from beyond Broadway. One of those wins was by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb for Best Lyrics to “The Scottsboro Boys” which transferred to Broadway this season. Likewise, the award for Best Musical Book went to “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which also moved uptown. The well-financed Lincoln Center Theater production of “When the Rain Stops Falling” won Best Play Sound Design.

Contrast these kudos with Sunday’s Lucille Lortel Awards which are devoted exclusively to off-Broadway productions. Their nominees and winners are decided by a panel of 20 experts drawn from both the theatrical community and academia. Conversely, the Drama Desk nominations are determined by committee chair Barbara Siegel (TalkinBroadway.com, TheaterMania.com) and six other scribes: Jason Clark (Slant Magazine, TheaterOnline.com); Anita Gates (freelance, the New York Times); Lawrence Harbison (senior editor & columnist for Smith & Kraus, Inc.); Gerard Raymond (freelance, Back Stage); Richard Ridge (Broadway Beat TV); and Douglas Strassler (OffOffOnline.com, Show Business Weekly). The entire membership of the Drama Desk, which remains a mystery, votes on the winners.

This marks the eighth year that Siegel has overseen the nominations. During the first seven years of her tenure, Broadway contenders represented between 47% and 63% of the nominees and went on to win all but 12 of the 179 awards bestowed on plays and musicals.

When non-Broadway nominees have managed to prevail, they tend to have prestigious reputations, as was the case with the winner of Best Play in 2009 — “Ruined” had already claimed the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Among the other non-Broadway champs that year was “Road Show,” which won Best Lyrics for seven-time Tony champ Stephen Sondheim. At those 2009 awards, Broadway shows accounted for a staggering 102 of the 161 nominations (63%) and claimed 21 of the 26 prizes.

In 2008, only 84 of the 158 nominations (53%) went to Broadway productions, but 25 of the 26 eventual winners for plays and musicals came from there. The sole exception was the award for Best Featured Play Actress, which went to Tony champ Linda Lavin (“Broadway Bound”) for “The New Century.”

In 2007, Broadway shows accounted for 98 of the 158 nominations (62%), but 25 of the 26 winners. The sole exception: Andy Blankenbuehler, choreographer of the off-Broadway run of “In the Heights.” Just how bad was this bias in favor of Broadway? In the Best Play Actress race Eve Best was the sole nominee appearing in a Broadway production — “A Moon for the Misbegotten” —  and she won.

In 2006, Broadway shows only accounted for 67 of the 144 nominations (47%), but they took 23 of the 25 awards. In 2005, Broadway pulled off a clean sweep, winning all 25 awards, with 80 of the 148 nominations (54%). And in Siegel’s first year at the helm back in 2004, Broadway shows received 80 of the 137 nominations (58%) and won 24 of the 25 awards.

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