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5 Takeaways From the 2016 Drama Desk Awards

What did we learn from the Drama Desks and what does it mean for Tony next week? logo

It was a somewhat egalitarian year at the Drama Desk Awards, with no real runaway winner: Shuffle Along and She Loves Me took home the most trophies (4 each), with American Psycho and The Humans also performing well (3 awards apiece). Here are 5 things to take away from the Awards, which were held Sunday night at The Town Hall in Manhattan:

The Humans actors Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele, director Joe Mantello, and playwright Stephen Karam.
(© David Gordon)

1. The Humans is the favorite to win Best Play at the Tony Awards this coming Sunday.
Having picked up the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and now the Drama Desk, Stephen Karam's The Humans goes into next week's Tony Awards the clear favorite to win the top prize in drama. The intimate and disquieting play, set during a family Thanksgiving in Chinatown, has received near-unanimous praise from critics and is doing brisk business at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Danai Gurira's Eclipsed (which was not considered in the Outstanding Play Drama Desk category) could still come from behind to win, but at this point it would certainly be considered an upset.

Playwright Danai Gurira won the 2016 Sam Norkin Award for her plays Eclipsed and Familiar.
(© David Gordon)

2. New York theater is a lot more diverse than Hollywood.
In a year in which The Academy Awards were criticized by the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign, New York theater seems to offer the perfect contrast. This was one of the most racially diverse seasons in recent memory and the Drama Desks reflect that with awards for Shuffle Along, Eclipsed, The Color Purple, and The Royale. Playwright Danai Gurira (who won the Sam Norkin Award) proudly points out that her show, Eclipsed, features a cast, writer, and director who are all women of color. "This year has shown the possibilities of range of subject matter and casting," says Gurira. "Now we've got to shore it up and build on it. It can't be a one-time event. This is what we can be."

Benjamin Walker leads the cast of the now-closed American Psycho.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

3. Closing a show is not a barrier to winning a Drama Desk Award.
Cynical observers might argue that awards are just a way to boost business for currently running productions (mostly on Broadway), but this isn't exactly true of the Drama Desks: Of the 32 competitive categories, 8 were won by shows that have shuttered, with a 9th (Daddy Long Legs) set to end its run tonight. On the eve of its final bow on Broadway, American Psycho received three Drama Desk Awards (that's just one fewer than big winner, Shuffle Along). Clearly, the voters have long memories and will reward the work they feel was truly the best of the year.

Bartlett Sher is a 2016 Drama Desk Award winner (in a tie with John Doyle for The Color Purple) for Outstanding Director of a Musical for the revival of Fiddler on the Roof.
(© David Gordon)

4. The theater is plugged into the zeitgeist.
The passion and intellectual energy coming from the "Outstanding Play" category alone is proof that the stage is really contending with the big issues of the day: economic anxiety in The Humans, redefined religion in The Christians, and the legacy of racism in The Royale, to highlight a few. "Theater artists are talking about the important questions," says Bartlett Sher, who picked up the Outstanding Director of a Musical Drama Desk for the revival of Fiddler on the Roof (in a tie with John Doyle for his revival of The Color Purple). Sher adds, "Over the last couple of years, Broadway has started to become a central part of the actual conversation going on in America." Look no further than current Broadway megahit Hamilton for proof.

Lin-Manuel Miranda won three 2015 Drama Desk Awards for the off-Broadway run of Hamilton.
(© David Gordon)

5. The predictive power of the Drama Desks is limited this year because of Hamilton.
This was a strange year for musicals at the Drama Desks, with the awards for Outstanding Music, Lyrics, and Book split among three shows: Bright Star, Dear Evan Hansen, and Daddy Long Legs. Of the new musicals under consideration, Shuffle Along took home the most prizes, including the Outstanding Musical Award. One major Broadway show, however, was notably absent: Hamilton. That's because Hamilton was already considered by the Drama Desk last season for its off-Broadway run at the Public Theater (it won seven awards). Since the Tonys only consider Broadway theater and Hamilton didn't open at the Richard Rodgers Theatre until this season (way back in August), the show will take part in this coming Sunday's Tony Awards ceremony, where it is widely expected to clean up (having received a record-breaking 16 nominations) . Shuffle Along and Bright Star might just have to be satisfied with their Drama Desk Awards.