Drama Desk Awards shun Off-Broadway shows again as Tony frontrunners dominate

Off-Broadway fare accounted for more than half of the nominees (83 of 152) for plays and musicals at the Drama Desk Awards. However, as in years past, they were virtually shut out as just one Off-Broadway show — “Here Lies Love” — prevailed winning three of the 25 awards.

Otherwise, only Broadway shows and stars took to the stage of the Town Hall Sunday night to claim their awards. (See full list of winners here.)

“Here Lies Love” is the high profile new musical about Imelda Marcos by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. It won for its music as well as both lighting and production design. 

Of the 22 Drama Desk Awards won by big budget productions, five went to “Matilda” including Best Musical while “Pippin” won four including Best Musical Revival and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” claimed three, including Best Play Revival. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” won its only bid, but it was a biggie – Best Play. 

Last year, Off-Broadway fare accounted for just over half of the nominees (76 of 150) for plays and musicals at the Drama Desk Awards, but claimed just one of the 25 prizes. “Tribes” won Best Play but 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. 

Two years, Off-Broadway productions made up more than 40% of the nominees (64 of 151) but won just two of the 26 prizes. Those wins came in two of the creative categories — Best Musical Book (“See Rock City and Other Destinations”) and Best Play Music (“Peter and the Starcatcher”).

Three years ago, 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 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.

3 thoughts on “Drama Desk Awards shun Off-Broadway shows again as Tony frontrunners dominate

  1. I must confess that I don’t know exactly how the Drama Desk Awards voting works, but isn’t the nominating committee’s job to put forth the shows to be voted upon and then it’s up to the Drama Desk voting membership to decide by majority who gets the award? I assume this because that’s how the Tonys works. If this is the case, I think Barbara Siegel and her committee should be applauded for putting so many Off-B’way shows in the running. It becomes purely a numbers game. Not as many voters will have the chance to see an Off-B’way show, especially if its a hot ticket like HERE LIES LOVE, with venues only able to accommodate less than 200 people per show. A broadway show on the other hand capable of seating over 1000 patrons per performance, can accommodate voters at their leisure. I believe that the Drama Desks are admirable by making a statement that Off-B’way creative values are just as good as Broadway by lumping everyone into the same pool, but if it is a numbers game, they are ultimately doing productions in smaller houses a disservice. I’m frankly shocked that any Off-B’way show walks away with a prize given the number of voters who can actually see the production.

  2. Orville’s response is absolutely correct. Why this article singles out the nominating committee instead of the DD membership is unclear. And what in the world does comparing the DD Awards with the Lortels prove? The Lortels consider ONLY Off Broadway, so one need not be an Einstein to realize that ONLY Off Broadway shows will be winners. I notice, by the way, that this article is a near clone of last year’s on the same subject.

  3. Do you have a template for this inaccurate story you trot out every year? This annual post is based on the faulty premise that the Drama Desk nominating committee somehow determines the vote. To understand the breadth of what the Drama Desk covers, a better measure are the nominations, which really do cover all of New York Theater. Furthermore, trying to make the analogy between the Drama Desk the Lortel Awards that cover only Off-Broadway doesn’t make sense. One of the unique elements of the Drama Desk is that it places productions of very different venues, budgets and types in direct competition with one another. The fact of the matter is though, that at the Drama Desk, there are six nominators and nearly 130 voting members. The nominators work very closely with the board and they are diligent in trying to ensure coverage of productions on stages large and small, with productions funded on credit cards and capitalized at millions of dollars. These six intrepid professionals consistently go where many of the voting members don’t go. (And they see a lot of truly wretched theater–as well as unforgettable events like “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” which received a handful of nominations, though no wins.) The nominations, as has been cited here in the past, have reflected a cross-section of the theater community. And this year, the awards had some surprises. For example, you don’t mention that Michael Urie beat out TV and movie stars for Solo Performance in a highly competitive category, full of deserving performers, all of whom competed on the same plane and were judged not for star power but for the quality and integrity of their performances. (It was a tough vote.) Urie’s show is at the tiny Rattlestick Theater.

    But at the end of the day, it’s the voters whose taste determines the awards. Siegel and her crew have been tireless in seeking out productions that would otherwise have been ignored. Would the incredible “The Man Who Laughed” or the stunningly creative “That Play: A Solo Macbeth” (in a 30-seat theater) have been singled out as some of the most creative work of the year without them? No other awards program even acknowledges the existence of these shows, let alone nominates them alongside Broadway shows and, indeed, nominates them over the Broadway shows.

    Yes, it’s very tempting to cite statistics, but statistics don’t reveal the passion or the devotion to the theater at the heart of the Drama Desk, or of the nominators. Statistics also are subject to misinterpretation as here. I would support the premise that the voting members have given more awards to Broadway; that’s a fact. The voting members may prefer those shows, and I know they are less likely to attend a play in a 30-seat theater. But to use these numbers to suggest that the nominators have snubbed Off- and Off-Brodway is incorrect. Moreover, the president and the board are all conscientious about ensuring these smaller shws are covered. Having served on the committee for four years with Barbara Siegel, I can attest to the fact that the nominators embrace these smaller shows with a passion that bespeaks a true love of the art form. Take companies like Godlight or Wakka Wakka who so such extraordinary and unconventional work. Their Drama Desk nomination or, in these two cases a special award–voted by the nominators–gives them a level of attention they could get nowhere else. Finding and celebrating these gems is what Siegel and the nominating committee do. To say that the results over which the nominating committee has no control are somehow their responsibility simply makes no sense.

    Take the members to task if you will, but you owe it to the nominators and Barbara Siegel in particular to acknowledge the work they do and place it in a correct context. They considered more than 250 productions, gave up nights, weekends, holidays and family time in service to the theater. There is so much really good and creative theater happening in New York, we should be grateful that there are people who are willing to be its champions. Sometimes it’s not just about winning, though I know that that’s what this blog is primarily concerned with. Sometimes it’s about supporting the art, and to those at last night’s ceremony, nominees, winners and those who reveled in the celebration of theater that has made all the difference. These are people who live to do the work, not to win. That’s what the Drama Desk celebrates, and will continue to do. I can tell you from direct conversations with many of the nominees, everyone considered him or herself a winner for getting the nomination.

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