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Backstage brouhaha at the Drama Desk Awards

April 18, 2008 |  5:24 pm

Michael Riedel of the New York Post reports a last-minute blow-up behind the scenes at the Drama Desk Awards on the eve of nominations being announced on April 28.

According to Riedel, "Tony Phillips has left his post, charging in a stinging resignation letter that the committee chairwoman, theater critic Barbara Siegel (of, is 'an imminent danger to the integrity of the organization.' "


Phillips of Edge Publications has "watched with growing alarm" as Siegel has steered "this organization away from its mission statement into some wan, doddering, second-rate mock of the Tony Awards."

"Broadway insiders have noticed that, in recent years, the Drama Desk has been nominating more and more commercial shows, often those featuring famous actors," adds Riedel. "'They're trying to be like the Golden Globes," says a press agent. 'And they certainly want the stars to come to their parties.'"

The main gist of Phillips' argument is that the organization is abandoning its roots, but he is years late in making this point.

While the Tonys, which date back to 1947, celebrate the best of Broadway, the Drama Desk kudos were begun in 1955 to celebrate the entire New York theater world. Indeed, for the first 14 years, winners came 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 5 years, long lists of outstanding performances both on and off-Broadway were named as the year's best.



And when the awards turned 21 in 1975, they seemed to come of age and began naming nominees before announcing the eventual winners. Since then, nominees have tended to be those who would go to compete at the Tonys, leaving the off-Broadway performers in the wings.

Indeed, three of the four lead acting winners in 1975 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" — the proceedings are usually more of a dress rehearsal for the Tony Awards.

Personally, I'm most alarmed and upset over the allegation that Siegel nixed the legitimate nomination of the sexually outrageous rock tuner "Twist" as best musical because it might be a "potential embarrassment." Of course, none of us award-watchers expect the Broadway-fawning Drama Desks to have the guts to ever let a show like "Twist," win, but, if these awards wish to perpetuate the myth that they actually care about off-Broadway, then they must permit the outrageous, edgy stuff to have its occasional nomination in a top category. Because that's why off-Broadway exists — to cultivate and encourage such shows. And those shows thrive on such notice when they, rarely, get it.

Please notice the ultimate, sad, real twist in all of this. CLICK HERE to check out the official website of the musical "Twist." Notice how the show proudly trumpets the one, lesser nomination (let's call it the sole bowl of gruel) it did get from the Drama Desks — for best musical composition — on its home page. How nice that that Siegel (starring as Mr. Bumble?) didn't snatch that away. Now notice the subtitle of this musical: "Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?"


The comments to this entry are closed.


Saw Twist in Los Angeles and thought it was a great show, at least the actors where on the money. Particularly Brandon Ruckdashel, who seems to be making name for himself in the film business. Show should certainly be considered for an award.

I'm East Coast and living West Coast right now and I understand the bias against New York theater out here, but this slash and burn attack against the Drama Desk is beneath contempt. I'm fairly knowledgeable about the theater community in NYC and anyone who knows anything about this world knows that The Siegels are among the most respected and admired people in our world. Barbara Siegel's support of up-and-coming small theater companies is very well-documented so this Know-Nothing attack on her from an obviously dubious source -- a fired nominator who was let go as a malcontent long before he made his attack -- should have been trashed rather than printed. The smearing of Ms. Siegel and the Drama Desk in one felt swoop of mud is something that Mr. O'Neil should retract at once. I agree with the poster above, Mr. Sullivan, that this is very shoddy journalism. The fact of the matter is that the Drama Desk, more so than any other major NY theater award, is the most prestigious one can receive because it is given by the NY theatre press corp with no axe to grind, rather than, let's say the Tony Awards which is simply a Broadway marketing tool. To attack the Drama Desk based on the outlandish charges of vengeful washout is just plain wrong.

Has Mr. O'Neill bothered researching the New York Post article in question? Wasn't Tony Phillips asked to leave the organization? Is the bit about the musical "Twist" true? What's wrong with modern journalism is that some one prints a lie, then everyone responds to that lie without even examining it. We had this earlier this year with the Clintons being called racists. Now in the King of Shallow Journalsm's column we have O'Neill getting hot all under the collar over a letter that is now being proven to be nothing but a disgruntled journalist's fabrications. Now no one in his right mind would expect more from Mr. O'Neill, but it would certainly be nice if we could. I do hope Tommy Boy does follow up and admits his errors. (I'm not alluding to his evaluation of the Awards, which is opinion, and perfectly allowable. I'm referring to everything else.)



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