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

Nominations for this year’s Drama Desk Awards are divided almost evenly between Broadway (74) and off-Broadway (76) fare. However,  if the past is any indication, almost all of the awards handed out on June 3 will go to those shows and performers that played on the Great White Way. (Full list of nominations here.)

Last year, off-Broadway fare 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. 

Two 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: 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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