What’s most shocking about off-Broadway shows having won only 19 out of the 254 Drama Desk Awards bestowed over the last 11 years is that these kudos were created to do just the opposite.
While the Tony Awards, which date back to 1947, celebrate the best of Broadway, the Drama Desk kudos were begun in 1955 to celebrate the rest of the New York theater world. And for the first 14 years they did just that with winners coming exclusively from the burgeoning off-Broadway scene.
However, beginning with the 15th festivities in 1968, those appearing on Broadway became eligible for consideration. For the next five years, long lists of outstanding performances both on and off-Broadway were named as the year’s best.
When the awards turned 21 in 1975, they began naming nominees before announcing the eventual winners. Since then, these nominees have tended to be those who would go to compete at the Tonys, leaving the off-Broadway performers in the wings.
Indeed, in 1975 three of the four lead-acting winners at the Drama Desk took home Tonys too: Angela Lansbury (“Gypsy”), Ellen Burstyn (“Same Time Next Year”), and John Cullum (“Shenandoah”).
While a performer from an off-Broadway show will still win the occasional Drama Desk award — as did Christine Ebersole in 2006 for the original run of “Grey Gardens” and Linda Lavin in 2008 for “The New Century”– the proceedings are now little more than a dress rehearsal for the Tony Awards.