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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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Comments

The drama leaders must make actions to this,for the sake of the organization,they must make it clear as soon as possible.

Hope they can work it out.

To Anonymous,

It is true I need an editor, something I have never denied. I also wrote this at 4am, though why it says 11:47pm is beyond me. I do not hide who I am, something you seem to do. Instead of correcting my grammar, why not correct what I had to say? That was the point. The Drama Desk members are an amazing group of writers, who are way more prolific and highly respected than I. I am new and incredibly grateful to be a part of them. They take what they do seriously and with love. They care about an industry that according to Richard Rodgers is dying (Me and Juliet) and try with every fiber of their souls to promote theatre beyond Broadway. Did you try calling or writing to see the list of members, or do you just state things that are not true?

Yes, I will defend them when I see something written, that doesn't take this into account. Before you use the word purported, you should know I own a new newspaper (in print and on-line, Check out my Alexa rating), write for several publications (National, Pasadena and San Diego Ca, Boston, Atlanta, London and India) and own a NYC Press Badge (must have written something right). I do not always have the luxury of having my editor correct my writing especially at 4:33pm (time now), I am dyslexic, so unfortunately it does not always come out perfect and I think I slept through grammar class, though I highly regret it now.

I care deeply for this industry and always have. In part, some of the reviews I have written, have helped shows get an audience and run. Right now, I am quoted on four off Broadway posters and a couple off off, as well. I try to the best of my ability to support, say that this is my opinion and show why I came to that conclusion. Like I did in what I wrote here. I am sorry, that all you could see were the mistakes.

The egregious --and rather shocking--grammatical errors and spelling mistakes in Ms. Bowling's post tell us something about the people who are Drama Desk voters. She is a purported writer, though clearly, not a very good one (nor a very careful one.) No wonder they don't release their member list!

"In short, the Drama Desk's three non-Broadway winners were the equivalent of Broadway fare: high profile, glitzy."

I agree with most of this article but this is a completely ridiculous statement. BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON is a scrappy little show by Les Freres Corbusuier, a TINY little company who has forged a relationship with The Public. The Scottsboro Boys, regardless of its Broadway aspirations, was produced at the Vineyard, hardly glitzy. The only one of the three winners that fits that description is Lincoln Center. Shame on a theater blogger who doesn't know the difference between LCT and the likes of the Public and the Vineyard!

Furthermore, the Public is hardly "well funded." They do okay, but one must remember that their theaters are tiny and that their biggest expense, is spent on Shakespeare in the Park, which provides 8 weeks of FREE performances. Yes, they have a large budget but they are hardly sipping champagne and eating caviar over there. As for the Vineyard, one can only imagine the financial sacrifices they made to mount such an ambitious musical. Let's not begrudge a little company like them a Broadway transfer.

Skewing facts to prove a point is not good journalism.

After reading your column, like a good writer I researched who you were. I am a proud member of the Drama Desk. I own the Times Square Chronicles (www.t2conline.com) and write for several other publications as a critic. My background is that of an actress, producer and writer. I have been in this business since I was 8. The fact that off Broadway shows and off off Broadway shows are nominated, against Broadway shows, is a privilege. Tonight, I saw 'The Kid' a terrific show off Broadway and it had an amazing book, music, director and cast. That has been rare this year, sadly to say. Not always, do the pieces fit together and unfortunately that is especially true off and off off Broadway. When they are good, they do come to Broadway. Time Stands Still, Fela, Yank, Scottsboro Boys are prime examples. As a critic, when we judge, we do so on a level playing field and yet, we are told off when we have. You can't have it both way. I have sat through some of the worst theatre of my life off and off off and some of the best. You bring Kristen Johnston to the forefront but Jan Maxwell, who won is nominated for the Tony for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress. Santino Fontana, who won Best Supporting Actor, is a breakout performer and he won, so what if it was on Broadway. I saw your predictions for what will win and though I think your off on several, even you picked some of the winners the Drama Desk nodded to. Let’s face it, awards are political, but the Drama Desk brings to the forefront shows that the public would never hear of or care about. Isn’t that a good thing?

I was at the awards show last night and got to witness first-hand just how happy people were to be nominated? Are the prices too high for a seat? Probably. But to say that the entire process is unfair is untrue. Only one person/show can win in each category. It will probably always be something that has run a long time or is currently very popular. But just hearing their names read last night excited each person and everyone else they are working with. Everyone had a great time. It was a lovely evening and we should all be proud to work in the theatre- off-broadway or on.

I have to agree with Jonathan Bank's post. As the producer of an off-off-off Broadway show - "Lizzie Borden" - I was thrilled that we received three nominations (the same number as American Idiot). While I certainly wished that our nominees would have won, as they did phenomenal work and certainly deserved to, I felt that the nominations were a real tribute for a job well done. Having Carrie Cimma, one of our actresses, nominated alongside Angela Lansbury (among other Broadway stars) was a tremendous privilege.

In short, the Drama Desk nominations gave us recognition that we wouldn't otherwise have received. For that, we're very grateful.

Hillary Richard, Executive Producer, Took An Axe Productions

"The award for book of a musical went to 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,' which just finished a run at the well-funded Public Theatre [sic]"

Incorrect. "Bloody Bloody Jackson" has extended its run and is playing at the Public Theater until June 27. The Public THEATER also uses the American, not British, spelling for its name.

Is there no fact checking and copy editing at the LA Times?

I'm please to see a photo of Kristen Johnston from our four-time nominated production of "So Help Me God!" to illustrate your article, but I think this piece is wrong-headed. Those of us in the off-Broadway world know we can't win--but in this case, the nomination really is the award. For Mint Theater's production to be nominated in the revival category alongside four Broadway shows is flattering and a great honor--we'll take it, happily. Of course we can't win--not enough voters saw our show; after all we only ran for five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 2009.

If the Drama Desk does a better job of policing voters, and I don't know if they need to or not, it won't improve the chances for us little guys, because the numbers are always going to favor the longer running shows and the shows that are still open when the nominations are announced. There's nothing especially nefarious about that. You cite "Ruined", but fail to recognize that the play ran for seven months and was open during the voting period. That's what counts, not reputation or prestige.

I believe the intentions of the Drama Desk are honorable and I'm pleased to have my own work and the work of my company recognized, even though I know we're unlikely ever to win anything.


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