Drama Desk Awards: Will ‘Hamilton’ break bias against Off-Broadway nominees?

In the Drama Desk Awards nominations announced Thursday, Off and off-off-Broadway productions account for 86 bids while Broadway fare reaped 78 across 26 categories for plays and musicals. Leading the pack with 13 nominations is the Public Theater’s “Hamilton,” which is packing them in downtown and is slated to transfer to the rialto this summer. But it will be hard pressed to win any awards, given the ongoing love affair that these kudos have with Broadway.

In the 11 years that Barbara Siegel has chaired the nominating committee, only 19 of the 282 awards (6.7%) for plays and musicals have been bestowed on shows that ran off-Broadway. Last year was particularily egregious. While such fare accounted for 41% of the nominees (68/165), they were completely shut out of the 27 races. Among the shows blanked was “Fun Home,” the Broadway transfer of which leads our predictions for Best Musical at the Tonys

This wholesale snubbing is nothing new at these awards that boast of being the only ones to fete productions both on the rialto and elsewhere in the city. 

In 2013, Off and off-off-Broadway shows comprised for more than half of the nominees (83 of 152) for plays and musicals at the Drama Desk Awards. However, just one Off-Broadway show — “Here Lies Love” — prevailed winning three of the 25 awards. That was a high profile musical about Imelda Marcos by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. It won for its music as well as both lighting and production design. 

In 2012, they numbered 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. 

In 2011, they 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”).

In 2010, 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 later that year. 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.

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, just 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.

4 thoughts on “Drama Desk Awards: Will ‘Hamilton’ break bias against Off-Broadway nominees?

  1. “Sure as a June comes right after May…” to quote “The Fantasticks,” the announcement of the Drama Desk Nominations is followed by an ad hominem attack on Barbara Siegel, as if she were personally responsible for the nominations and the awards. This cynical column tries to be statistical, but like all statistics, context is important, and is woefully absent here. Moreover, this whole article is tiresome in that every year the intention is to say that the Drama Desk ignores anything not on Broadway, or minimizes it. Aside from asking to what end, the column ignores the work the Drama Desk does in evaluating productions. Siegel is one of 6 or 7 nominators (depending on the season), and the committee sees and evaluates nearly 275 productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off. At most, Siegel’s personal opinion represents 14% of the total. The Drama Desk itself has approximately 130 voting members, so Siegel’s opinion is at best .7% of the total. So, the conclusion that somehow Siegel’s stewardship has anything to do with the outcome of the votes is implausible.

    You want to make a point about what the Drama Desk recognizes? Go ahead. I might even agree with you on some points. But to lay the results to any one person or organization is ridiculous. And what do these numbers mean, anyway? You can’t compare seasons year-over-year as if they were sales of commodities. This whole exercise is mean-spirited and intellectually questionable. Moreover, a fair analysis would break the nominations down by category and show, for example, that 5 out of 7 nominees for Featured Actor in a Play come from Off and Off-Off Broadway productions.

    And, I’ll say, as I do every year, I have the pleasure of working with Siegel throughout the year, and there has never been anyone with more integrity about the nomination process, more committed to the fairness of the process or that shows at Here, Ars Nova and unique events in bars on the Lower East Side, get evaluated equally with multimillion-dollar Broadway shows. The chance to work with Barbara and be a small part of the commitment she brings to the task and her passion for all New York theater is the reason I keep working with the Drama Desk.

    Unlike this annual mean-spirited adventure, Siegel’s continued work with the Drama Desk is what gives the process its value. She has very little control over the nominations and virtually none over the final votes. Say what you will, her character is unimpeachable in this venal method. And her integrity in the process, and overall, is Olivia says to Viola of her beauty, “Tis in grain, sir./’Twill endure wind and weather.”

  2. You could at least freshen your act: “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.” “This season” was several seasons back. In future update your tired copy; I don’t expect Gold Derby to ever change its tune about the Drama Desks, even if Hamilton wins (and I can already see that headline: “Future Tony nominee wins Drama Desks,” with Hamilton somehow discounted as an Off Broadway show, a common tactic here).

  3. Robert, thanks for catching that typo on “Scottsboro.” We don’t discount off-Broadway shows. The same cannot be said of Drama Desk voters. The facts speak for themselves: only 19 of 282 awards in 11 years. “Fun Home” lost all eight of its bids last year. However, it won three Lortels (Best Musical, Actor for Michael Ceveris and Featured Actress for Judy Kuhn). Neither of those performers was even nominated at the Drama Desk. Indeed, the entire Best Musical Actor lineup at the Drama Desk was drawn from Broadway shows.

  4. I don’t understand this preoccupation with the Lortels, which are Off Broadway only. Kuhn and Cerveris, who are three-time Drama Desk and Tony nominees, were not even nominated for Lortels until last year, when they won. Why weren’t they nominated last year? I don’t know–I wasn’t in the room with the nominators. Why didn’t their show win any awards? I don’t know–I only know how I vote.

    We can throw stats and metrics and charts around all day. That’s what you do (always, I note, with heavy disdain toward the Drama Desk, unlike any other awards organization you cover). What’s missing is the practical and emotional impact a nomination itself has on nominees–they help careers, and they help shows get productions elsewhere. Obsessed as this site is with winning, it’s blind to the very real value of nominations in and of themselves.

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