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Drama Desk Awards outrage: Off-Broadway shows snubbed again [Updated]

May 24, 2010 | 10:46 am

Why do the Drama Desk Awards even bother to nominate non-Broadway shows? Just so they can earn thousands of dollars from friends and family of nominees, who spend $190 to $850 per ticket to attend the ceremony and watch their loved ones suffer almost inevitable defeat? The suspicion that the Drama Desk Awards are essentially unfair was bolstered again Sunday night when winners were announced -- and non-Broadway nominees got skunked as usual.

Drama desk awards

[Updated at 2:38 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name Public Theater as Public Theatre. It also said that "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" had ended its run. It will be at the Public Theater through June 27.]

Although 71 of the 155 (46%) nominations for plays and musicals went to off-Broadway productions, just three winners out of 26 came from beyond Broadway. One of these wins was for the lyrics by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb to "The Scottsboro Boys." This last tuner from the celebrated Tony-winning team ("Cabaret," "Kiss of the Spider Woman") is coming to Broadway next season.

The award for book of a musical went to "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which will finish a run at the well-funded Public Theater on June 27, while the Lincoln Center Theater production of "When the Rain Stops Falling" won sound design of a play. In short, the Drama Desk's three non-Broadway winners were the equivalent of Broadway fare: high profile, glitzy. None of the real off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway nominees triumphed. Rarely do they ever break through.

Of the 23 awards that went to Broadway shows, "Memphis" won four, including best musical and lead actress in a musical (Montego Glover tied with Catherine Zeta-Jones from "A Little Night Music") as well as music (David Bryan) and orchestrations while "Red" took three awards, including best play, director (Michael Grandage) and lighting design. "Fences" -- which tied "A View From the Bridge" for best play revival -- also won for featured actress (Viola Davis) and music in a play (Branford Marsalis) while "Bridge" star Liev Schreiber won lead actor in a play. "La Cage aux Folles" won best musical revival and lead actor in a musical (Douglas Hodge) as well as best costume design. 

Unlike the Lucille Lortel Awards, which are devoted exclusively to off-Broadway productions, the Drama Desk kudos consider all theater productions in New York. Though the Lortel nominees and winners are decided  by a panel of 19 experts drawn from both the theatrical community and academia, the Drama Desk nominations are determined by just seven scribes: Barbara Siegel (Talkin' Broadway, Theater Mania), Christopher Byrne (Gay City News), Patrick Christiano (Dan's Papers, Theater Life), David Kaufman (freelance and author), Gerard Raymond (Back Stage, the Advocate), Richard Ridge (Broadway Beat TV) and Paulanne Simmons (Curtain Up and New York Theatre Wire). The entire membership of the Drama Desk decides the winners. Just who these folks are remains a mystery as the Drama Desk is the only media award that refuses to list its members.

Over Siegel's seven years at the helm of the nominating committee, Broadway contenders represented between 47% and 63% of the contenders; this year, it was 54%. They went on to win all but 12 of the 179 awards bestowed on plays and musicals. When non-Broadway nominees do manage to prevail, they tend to have prestigious reputations, as was the case with last year's winner of best play: "Ruined" had already won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Among the other non-Broadway champs last year was "Road Show," which won best lyrics for seven-time Tony champ Stephen Sondheim. At last year's Drama Desk Awards, Broadway shows won 21 of the 26 prizes and accounted for a staggering 102 of the 161 nominations (63%).

Two years ago, only 84 of the 158 nominations (53%) went to Broadway productions, but 25 of the 26 eventual winners for plays and musicals came from the Great White Way. The sole exception was the award for best featured actress in a play, which went to Tony winner Linda Lavin ("Broadway Bound") for "The New Century."

This consistent, longstanding bias against off-Broadway shows is concrete evidence that the Drama Desk voting process is unfair. Why not reform it? Suspicion that greed over ticket revenue is behind the current system is bolstered by the group's shocking policy of charging its own members to attend, albeit at a partially discounted price. As a result, most journalists who vote on the awards can't be present to see them bestowed because they can't afford the ticket.

It's clear what needs to be done to reform the process. The Drama Desk needs to do one of two things:

1.) Its awards should be broken up into Broadway and non-Broadway (off and off-off) categories. Only journalists who have seen all nominees in a category may be permitted to vote. Or

2.) Keep the awards as they are, but only permit members to vote if they've seen all nominees. Currently, voters are asked to abstain if they haven't seen everything in a given category, but they're not policed as they are at some other award shows. (The Oscars, for example, only permit voting in races like best foreign film and documentary if voters prove they attended special screenings. The Emmys only permit voters to cast ballots in a few races and are strict with voters about proving they viewed sample video of each nominee.) Drama Desk leaders must employ random monitoring. They must ask publicists of various non-Broadway shows to give them a list of Drama Desk members who attended productions of certain nominees, then confront members who aren't on the list, but voted in that category anyway. If it's established that members broke Drama Desk rules, those members' voting rights should be pulled. This problem is so drastic at the Drama Desk Awards that a drastic remedy is needed.

Why don't Drama Desk leaders fix this obvious problem? Such changes could upset members, causing them to resign, which would result in the loss of dues revenue. Most members don't bother to attend most non-Broadway shows -- that's a widely accepted fact -- and belong to the Drama Desk just to get free Broadway tickets. Not surprisingly they vote for the shows they've seen. Thus, non-Broadway nominees have no realistic chance of winning.

As the Drama Desk Awards stand now they are grossly unfair and in drastic need of a major, honest overhaul. It's time for Drama Desk leaders to take dramatic action.

Photo: Kristen Johnston and Matthew Waterston in the Mint Theater Company's production of 'So Help Me God!' (Lucille Lortel Theatre)

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