Drama Desk Awards spurn off-Broadway nominees once again in favor of Tony Awards contenders

While the Drama Desk Awards nominate a slew of off-Broadway fare, the winners invariably come from Broadway. That was once again the case on Sunday when all 12 of the champs in the play races were for Broadway productions. On the musical front, it was 12 of 16, with only the off-Broadway tuner “The Band’s Visit” breaking through with wins for directions as well as both lyrics and music. (Read the full report on the Drama Desk Awards and see the full list of Drama Desk Awards winners.)

What’s most shocking about this near shut-out of of-Broadway shows 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 contenders 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. The rare exception was two years ago when “Hamilton” swept the Drama Desk Awards two months before it transferred to Broadway.

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