As the Drama Desk Awards telecast draws near (Sunday, May 14, at 9:00pm, broadcast live on New York 1), this most inclusive of all theatrical awards becomes the focus of the New York theater community. Drama Desk members are the critics, journalists, and editors who cover New York theater, and they make no distinction in their awards between Broadway and Off-Broadway. Notable productions from Off-Off Broadway also receive consideration under the organization's big umbrella. Good work is good work wherever it may be found.
We talked with a great many of this year's nominees at a party generously thrown in their honor by The Palm on West 50th Street. At that rare get-together of theater artists and theater writers, a number of the nominees commented upon the unique distinction of a Drama Desk nomination. Boyd Gaines, a nominee for Outstanding Actor in a Musical for his work in Contact said, "It's a completely different body of nominators and voters than the Tonys. These are the critics. After they chew you up, it's good to get a pat on the back."
The Case for the Drama Desk Awards
David Sheward, president of the Drama Desk and one of the seven members of the nominating committee, provided a quick history lesson about how those "pats on the back" came into being. "Though the Drama Desk was founded in 1949," said Sheward, "awards were first given in 1955 for Off-Broadway because, at that time, those plays did not receive wide recognition. In the early 1970s, a decision was made to include Broadway and treat all shows equally, because the quality of Off-Broadway productions had equalized with the bigger shows."
Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter critic and chairman of the Drama Desk nominating committee, went a step further, calling the DDs "the only relevant theatrical awards, precisely because of their inclusiveness. The Tonys don't consider 90 percent of what goes on in this town, and are clearly a relic of the past. And the Obies don't consider the quality theater that does occur on Broadway." [Full disclosure: One of the authors of this piece, Barbara Siegel of TheaterMania, was among the seven members of the 2000 Drama Desk nominating committee.]
This year's Drama Desk nominations are, indeed, spread widely across the canvas of New York theater. Broadway tends to dominate on the musicals side of the ledger, but Off-Broadway more than holds its own in the straight play arena. Consider, for instance, that the prestigious Outstanding Actress in a Play category features six nominees, all from Off-Broadway shows (Claudia Shear's performance in Broadway's Dirty Blonde was first seen earlier this season at the New York Theater Workshop on East 4th Street). Look further and you'll find that the Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play category is also a wipeout for Broadway.
In most cases, however, "integrated" categories abound. This leads to important, career-boosting nominations, particularly among people involved in smaller shows. "I've been doing theater downtown for so long," said Coyote on a Fence actor Paul Sparks, nominated in the Outstanding Actor in a Play category. "But this is uptown. This is big-time. I'm so taken aback. You think about these awards and people say it's all political, but there was nothing to be gained by nominating me." Competing against the likes of Derek Jacobi and Gabriel Byrne, Sparks said, "I'm humbled by the whole thing. And thankful."
Bob Berger is one of the founders of The Collective Unconscious, a company with the mission of bringing low-cost stage productions to the public. He is also a co-producer/co-director of the Off-Off Broadway hit Charlie Victor Romeo. "To be recognized by the Drama Desk when we're asking $10 per ticket is enormously important," Berger told us. And, no, the show hasn't raised its ticket prices. (Originally scheduled to run 15 performances, CVR is now in its seventh month.)
From a practical standpoint, many of the Off and Off-Off Broadway nominees don't have a chance of winning against nominated contenders from Broadway because the 130 members of the Drama Desk may not, in sufficient numbers, have gotten to the smaller shows before they closed. That doesn't seem to bother lesser-known nominees a bit. Nancy Anderson, a DD nominee for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for her work in the long-closed York Theatre Company production of Jolson and Co., said, "I thought Drama Desk nominations were what other people had in their bios. I feel like I've already won."
Musicals, Old and New
As was the case last season, the relative lack of quality musicals has led to a narrowed field this year. Among revivals, the Drama Desk nominators could only come up with two contenders, Kiss Me, Kate. Though the latter is fresh in voters' minds, having just opened, Kate's star and DD nominee Marin Mazzie said, "I don't think people are forgetting about our show. We got 10 nominations, more than The Music Man [which received eight], so I think Kate is in people's minds." Her co-star, DD nominee Brian Stokes Mitchell, said, "It takes me two or three months to own a role. We've been doing this for six months now, and it's a well-oiled machine, which is to our advantage this time of year." Ironically, if things had turned out differently, Mitchell might have been nominated for The Music Man. "There were some early discussions about that," he said, "but Kiss Me Kate was ready to go first, so this is the one I jumped on."
The relative paucity of choices continues among new musicals. Of course there was no shortage of Wild Party musicals, but the Drama Desk nominators threw their support largely toward the Off-Broadway version at the Manhattan Theatre Club, giving it a staggering 13 nominations--the most of any production this year. It was bittersweet recognition for the now-shuttered show. "No matter what people say," DD nominee Alix Korey offered, "there were not many critics who derided our show. It was just the [bad review in] The New York Times. Most of the reviews were wonderful. I am so glad about all the Drama Desk nominations, because it's a fabulous piece of theater." The show's composer and lyricist, Andrew Lippa, notrf that because of the recognition, "There is a 120 percent chance we will find a new home for [the show]. These nominations certainly lend a great amount of credibility. We're grateful and thrilled and looking forward to revving it up again."
Precisely because the Drama Desk throws such a wide net--the nominators considered more than 260 shows--performers can find themselves truly surprised by their nomination. Lee Wilkof, who plays one of the two gangsters in Kiss Me, Kate said, "I was in my therapist's office and I called my wife from my session. She picked up the phone and said, 'Congratulations!' And I said, 'Was Michael [Mulheren, his fellow gangster] nominated?' I was glad to hear that we both were." (So was his therapist.)
We spoke with the four guys nominated for Outstanding Lyrics for their work in The Bomb-itty of Errors. Jason Catalano of the group said, "When I heard 'Drama Desk,' I thought, 'Okay.' Then I heard Stephen Sondheim [nominated in the same category for Saturday Night] and my pants fell right off." Co-nominee Erik Weiner said, "I can attest to that; and he wasn't quick to put them back on, either."
Jason Antoon, DD nominated for his dual roles as brutish husband and wild-haired bartender in Contact, said, "I woke up one minute before the nominations were announced on New York 1. Mine was the first name mentioned. I thought I was still asleep! My girlfriend was jumping up and down, and I was in awe."
Celebrated actors are no less appreciative of a Drama Desk nomination than the up-and-comers. Sinead Cusack, nominated in the Outstanding Actress in a Play category for her performance in Our Lady of Sligo at the Irish Rep, said, "For a start, I had no idea when I came to New York that I was eligible for anything. So the Drama Desk nomination was a complete surprise to me. It was like being given a nice present." Ever so modestly, she added, "Sometimes a part comes along that makes you look 'Best,' but it takes that perfect collaboration of play, director, actor, and audience before it works."
The same is true for celebrated playwrights. Frank D. Gilroy, who wrote the nominated play Contact with the Enemy said, "I didn't know anybody saw us. We were doing a four-week showcase; it was very brief. So this came out of the blue."
Lincoln Center's Bernard Gersten, an old hand at awards like this, noted that his shows received a total of eight DD nominations. "I saw that in an ad," he said, "so I know it's right." Speaking to the importance of awards like these, Gersten said, "If you go down the list of shows that have endured over a number of years, everybody has latched on to some award. I think that people look for the kind of authentication that award provide. I don't know that casual visitors to the theater sort out which are the Tonys and which are the Drama Desks; they just want the shows [they see] to be award-heavy."
And Now to the Show
The Drama Desk Awards show itself promises to be entertainment-heavy. Mulheren and Wilkof will kick off the proceedings with a revised version of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." And speaking of Shakespeare, the Bomb-itty boys will also bombard the Bard with their rap attack. According to DD show director, Jeff Kalpak, we'll also be seeing quite a lot of the cast of Naked Boys Singing.
In other words, there will be plenty of surprises--like having Bruce Vilanch on stage to present an award. "I'm actually on an awards show and not writing it," said the star of Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous. "No one's asked me to write anything for Bebe Neuwirth [the show's emcee] yet. That's usually my job. My God," he said with a laugh, "even the non-paying gigs are drying up."