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

Off-Broadway shows dominate this year’s Drama Desk Awards nominations with 83 bids versus 69 for fare found on the rialto. (Full list of nominations here.)

However, if the past is any indication, almost all of the awards handed out on May 19 at Gotham’s Town Hall will go to those shows and performers that played on the Great White Way.

Last year, the split was almost even between Broadway (74) and off-Broadway (76) productions. However, when it came to the winners, only one of the 24 races went to an off-Broadway production as “Tribes won Best Play. 

And that race was skewed as all four of the year’s Tony nominees were ineligible at the Drama Desks as they had contended at these kudos for their Off-Broadway runs. 

Indeed, such is the love of the Drama Desk voters for all things Broadway that these Tony contenders all lost when nominated here for their off-Broadway versions. Pulitzer Prize and eventual Tony winner “Clybourne Park” as well as “Venus in Fur” lost the Drama Desk prize in 2009 to Tony champ “Red” while 2010 Drama Desk nominee “Other Desert Cities” was edged out by “War Horse” which went on to take the Tony. And “Peter and the Starcatcher” did not even make the rather long list of seven plays nominated in 2011. 

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In 2011, off-Broadway accounted for 42% of the nominees (64 of 151) yet claimed just two wins — Best Musical Book (“See Rock City and Other Destinations”) and Best Play Music (“Peter and the Starcatcher”). Of the two dozen races won by big budget productions, “The Book of Mormon” took five including Best Musical as did “Anything Goes” which won, among others, Best Musical Revival and Best Musical Actress (Sutton Foster). “War Horse” won Best Play while “The Normal Heart” was named Best Play Revival with its cast receiving a special award as well. All of these productions went on to repeat in the top races at the Tony Awards. 

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

Contrast these kudos with the 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 five others: David Kaufman (author and freelance), Samuel L. Leiter (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theatre, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center), Martha Wade Steketee (urbanexcavations.com; editor and contributor, Chance Magazine), Adrian Wattenmaker (Theater Faculty, Brooklyn College; Director, School of Creative and Performing Arts) and James Wilson (Professor of Theatre, CUNY; co-editor of Journal of American Drama and Theatre).

This marks the 10th year that Siegel oversaw the nominations. During the first nine years of her tenure, Broadway contenders represented between 47% and 63% of the nominees and went on to win all but 16 of the 229 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%) and 25 of the 26 winners. The one outlier: 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.

One thought on “Will Drama Desk Awards continue to snub nominated off-Broadway shows?

  1. As predictable as the coming of the spring is the annual Gold Derby post about the Drama Desk and the mean-spirited attempt to lay the ultimate decision of the Drama Desk voters at the feet of the nominators, criticizing them for snubbing Off-Broadway.

    The logic of this fails on three counts. First, the nominators serve at the discretion of the board, so it is the organization that bears the responsibility for the nominations and the results, not the nominators. Second, with more than 130 voting members, it is their taste that is reflected in the final results, not those of the nominators. Finally, every year is different, so the attempt to draw an analogy between something as variable as theater seasons renders the statistics meaningless and any kind of, to put it simplistically, apples-to-apples comparison impossible.

    What boggles the mind, however, is the persistent, annual attack on Barbara Siegel as the head of the nominating committee. I’ve served as a nominator and work with Barbara, and there is no one in the New York theater who is as passionate about the Off- and Off-Broadway shows as she is. There is no one who works harder to ensure that these shows achieve their due. To somehow try to imply–or baldly state–that Siegel and her team are in anyway responsible for the results of the votes is either ignorant or malicious, or both.

    Criticize the taste of the voting membership if you must, but an ad hominem attack on the nominators with no basis in fact is simply wrong.

    The column even acknowledges that this year Off-Broadway “dominates” the nominations. That alone should attest to the work that Siegel and her intrepid team have done to ferret out the outstanding in what might otherwise have been left in obscurity. The sublime “That Play: A Solo Macbeth,” which has never been eligible before or the performance of Reed Birney in “Uncle Vanya” leap to mind. Without the work of Siegel and her team, these might have gone unnoticed. Why they are not lauded for their effort boggles the mind.

    Argue the subjective as much as you want. That’s a question of taste and preference. (And be sure to put it in the most hostile language you can if you’re one of the self-important buffoons practicing verbal onanism on All That Chat.) What is inarguable is what the statistics actually point to is the Drama Desk’s commitment to considering works on stages large and small, and Barbara Siegel’s consistently unimpeachable record of ensuring that for a decade is as unique as it is representative of the integrity she demands of herself and inspires in those who work with her.

    To suggest anything else is simply tabloid chatter bordering on the unethical.

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