Jeff McCarthy with Spencer Kaydenin Urinetown(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jeff McCarthy with Spencer Kayden
in Urinetown
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As the Drama Desk Awards show on May 20 approaches, the nominees have been sharing their thoughts and feelings about the recognition they received for their work this year. Amid clinking glasses, hugs and kisses from colleagues, and the flash of cameras going off, I talked with some of the most talented people in the world at the Drama Desk Award nominees' reception at the Hilton Hotel on 42nd Street.

When I asked the female star of Bat Boy, Kaitlin Hopkins (Outstanding Actress in a Musical) if she was surprised to get a nomination, she said, "I was beyond surprised. I actually didn't know till my agent called to congratulate me. I asked, 'On what?' He said, 'You've just been nominated for a Drama Desk Award,' and I burst into tears. I already feel so lucky doing this show; honestly, I waited 20 years to have a part like this. But to get nominated for it, especially in the company I'm in...I just couldn't believe it. It's really thrilling for me." Hopkins went on to say that, when she left New York 10 years ago to move to Los Angeles, "there wasn't that much that interested me in musical-land. Now, the whole scene has changed. There's so much wonderful work out! It's exciting to be back."

It isn't just the musical scene that's looking smart these days; straight plays are doing considerable business as well, and this just a few short years after they were declared dead on Broadway. "What a good time to be an actor in New York," said Charles Brown, an Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play nominee for the hit August Wilson drama King Hedley II. And Lewis J. Stadlen, nominated in the same category for his work in The Man Who Came to Dinner, couldn't help but agree. "I have the lead in the new Neil Simon play 45 Seconds From Broadway," Stadlen said. "It goes into rehearsal Sept 10, so this is a very good time for me." It's also a good time for The Good Thief's Brian d'Arcy James (Outstanding Solo Performance nominee), who begins rehearsals in November for the long-anticipated Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success.

Some of the performers marveled at the turn of events that led them to their Drama Desk nominations. Jeff McCarthy (Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical) of Urinetown recalled how hard he tried to avoid being cast in the show. "I turned down the audition the first, second, and third time," he said wryly. "They said, 'Please, please, come in.' I read the script. I thought, 'No, I don't like this. I don't think it works'. Finally, because I needed to do a comedy and because my agent said it would keep me in town, I said, 'Alright, I'll do it.'" Even then it was touch and go. "During the first two weeks of rehearsal," he recalled, "I debated whether I should stay with it. But slowly, day by day in rehearsals, we started chuckling. Then we started chuckling a little bit more, until we were laughing our heads off. I thought, 'Well, if nothing else, it's healthy to be laughing every day.'"

If McCarthy was surprised by his nomination, imagine how the creators of Urinetown felt. Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics), both of whom were nominated in their respective categories, were stunned. "We didn't even know we were eligible for this, because we hadn't opened yet," Kotis told me. "It was a bizarre, wonderful surprise. Mark called me at work and said, 'We have nine Drama Desk nominations. Did you know that?'" Kotis' reply? "What are you talking about?"

Urinetown is selling out thanks to great word-of-mouth and excellent reviews...and, no doubt, because it was so highly honored with Drama Desk nominations. In fact, lots of shows experienced a bump in ticket sales after the DD nominees were announced. KT Sullivan, who stars in American Rhapsody (Outstanding Musical Revue), noted. "We've picked up 25 percent since the nomination. It's amazing! These things do help." Her co-star Mark Nadler added, "The Drama Desk is major. It gives us validation for booking the show on the road." The Full Monty's Andre DeShields (Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical) can see the cumulative effect of awards season. "The few seats we hadn't been selling are now filled," he said. "There's a butt in every seat now."

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Nominations For a Full Season's Worth of Plays

One thing the Drama Desk nominating commitee does that the Tony Award committee tends not to do is nominate shows from the entire year, rather than only those that are still up and running. Sally Mayes, from the shuttered Pete 'n' Keely (Outstanding Actress in a Musical) candidly said of her nomination, "I hope it just means I can get another job!"

Drama Desk recognition even means a lot to Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey. The actor went to see the play Cobb (about baseball legend Ty Cobb) just before it was to close in its initial run in a small theater in the very early part of the season. So enamored was he of the performances that he put up his own money to extend the show in order that backers could see it and potentially move it to an open-ended run in a larger house. Cobb later played for months at the Lucille Lortel, and its cast received a special DD Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. One of the show's producers, Larry Hirschon, reported that Spacey was "happy and excited" to learn of the award. "That show was all about the actors for him," said Hirschon, "so this is the exact award he would have given."

Another DD-recognized play that is no longer with us is Rob Ackerman's Tabletop. Not only was it honored with a nomination for its set design, but the entire cast (like that of Cobb) was given an award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. The irony is that Tabletop is about a team of workers who don't work well together. One of the actors in the show, Dean Nolen, said, "It was a thrill to realize that [the Drama Desk] had remembered us. And a total shock." Another cast member, Jeremy Webb, explained just how much of a shock it was: "I was at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens [on the morning the nominations were announced]. When I call in for messages, it's usually, 'You have no messages.' That morning it was 'You have 18 messages.' They were from my legit agent, my commercial agent, the press agent for the show...This is not an easy business that we're in, so it's a great feeling to be remembered." Nolen added that "Tabletop was my first gig out of grad school, and I could not have begged for a better experience. My graduation anniversary is May 20th, the night of the Drama Desk Awards!"

Marian Seldes
Marian Seldes
On the opposite end of the theatrical continuum from Dean Nolen is Polly Bergen (Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical). Nominated for her work in Follies, she joked, "If I'd known it was going to happen at age 70, I would have tried to do it younger when I looked better." [Note to Polly: You look stunning!] Marian Seldes, nominated as both Outstanding Actress and Featured Actress in a Play (for The Play About the Baby and The Butterfly Collection, respectively), said simply, "I couldn't believe it. I know it's a terrible cliché, but I think the nomination is very important. Not everyone can win; we've known that since we were children. But to share this happiness is wonderful." Another elder stateswoman, The Full Monty's Kathleen Freeman (also up for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical), was not at all jaded about her nomination, either: "After all the years cavorting around this nation for the people, to come here and get this kind of recognition is just extraordinary," she said. "It makes you really want to get up tomorrow and do the show."

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, nominated for his solo performance in Lackawanna Blues, was not singing the blues at the party. Understanding that awards are great marketing opportunities, he made sure to spread the word about his show at The Public. "You can either spend $100 and go see 50 people do a show," he said, "or you can spend $40 and come see me do 50 people." Santiago-Hudson further noted that Lackawanna Blues had been extended to May 20th.

Faith Prince, nominated as Outstanding Actress in a Musical for her performance in Bells Are Ringing, spoke for most everyone when she blurted, "I was, like, wow! There are so many shows! I want to get out there and see them. Where have I been?"