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

While Off-Broadway fare accounted for more than half of the nominees (76 of 150) for plays and musicals at the Drama Desk Awards, they claimed just one of the 24 prizes. 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.)

The one award won by an Off-Broadway production was a biggie — Best Play, which went to “Tribes.” However, all four of this year’s Tony nominees were ineligible as they had contended at these kudos for their Off-Broadway runs.

Such is the love of the Drama Desk voters for all things Broadway that they snubbed both Pulitzer Prize winner “Clybourne Park” and “Venus in Fur” in 2009 in favor of eventual Tony champ “Red” while last year “Other Desert Cities” was edged out by “War Horse” which went on to win the Tony. “Peter and the Starcatcher” did not make the rather long list of seven plays nominated last year.  

Of the 23 Drama Desk Awards won by big budget productions, “Once” took four including Best Musical while its Tony rival “Newsies” won two. Among the play categories, the big surprise was the win for Best Actor by British import James Corden (“One Man Two Guvnors“) over Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Death of a Salesman”). 

Last year, 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”).

Two 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: Suzanna Bowling (Times Square Chronicles); Lawrence Harbison (Smith and Kraus, Inc.); Mark Peikert (Back Stage); Richard Ridge (Broadway Beat TV/BroadwayWorld.com); and Frank Verlizzo (Fraver Design). The entire membership of the Drama Desk, which remains a mystery, votes on the winners.

This marked the ninth year that Siegel oversaw the nominations. During the first eight years of her tenure, Broadway contenders represented between 47% and 63% of the nominees and went on to win all but 14 of the 205 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.

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