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Will Hamilton Be the First Off-Broadway Show This Century to Win the Drama Desk for Outstanding Musical?

The 60-year-old awards recognize all aspects of New York theater, but mostly honors Broadway in its musical category. Here's why.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo starred in Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Around February there was a great deal of speculation about whether Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's sensational hip-hop musical about our nation's first treasury secretary, would take a bold leap onto Broadway this spring in an attempt to steamroll its way to the Tony Award for Best Musical. Riding a wave of glowing reviews for the off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, the momentum was there. In the end the producers opted for caution, planning an August opening (long after the Tony cutoff), much to the relief of the Broadway producers of The Visit, Something Rotten!, and An American in Paris. However, Hamilton will still go head-to-head this spring with those three shows in one contest: the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical.

Unlike the Tonys (which only cover Broadway), the Drama Desk Awards recognize achievement in all levels of New York theater, from the tiniest black box in Brooklyn to the grandest proscenium on 42nd Street. So while the three aforementioned Broadway shows are all nominated in the Outstanding Musical category, so is Fly by Night (which played off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons last summer) and Pretty Filthy (a musical exploration of America's porn industry that was presented earlier this year at the Abrons Arts Center). And, of course, there's the big fish in the pond: Hamilton, which has already picked up a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in a landslide vote.

Director Thomas Kail of Hamilton is nominated for a Drama Desk Award. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has already won a special award for Hamilton. Composer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda is nominated in four categories.
(© David Gordon)

Hamilton is extraordinary not just for the way it has electrified the New York theater community, but for how it has already reached an audience beyond the usual suspects off-Broadway. "One of the things that has been lovely and surprising about the show entering a conversation that is not just on the arts page is that it means it has a chance to reach people who think that the theater isn't for them," says Hamilton's director Thomas Kail. Seemingly unprecedented for an off-Broadway musical, Hamilton has spawned fawning columns from political commentators like David Brooks and Peggy Noonan who writes, "There is nothing like it on the New York stage, and never has been." Scalped tickets briefly reached the astronomical price of $800, and the show even got a write-up in the New York Times style section about how it was the show for celebrities to see and be seen.

Hamilton mania also reached the folks on the Drama Desk nominating committee. With 13 nominations, it's the most recognized production in this year's Drama Desks. If that excitement persists through May 31, it could very well become the 2015 Drama Desk winner for Outstanding Musical.

Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene starred in the Drama Desk Award-winning off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Howard Ashman, at the Orpheum Theatre.

But there's plenty of reason to be skeptical: No off-Broadway show has won the Outstanding Musical category in this century. In fact, the last off-Broadway musical to win was Little Shop of Horrors in 1983 (a detail the ever-sharp Kail recalled immediately when asked). Since off-Broadway shows usually play limited runs, not all of the 125 Drama Desk voters are able to see everything nominated, especially if the show closed before the nominations were announced on April 23.

That's encouraging news for the producers of An American in Paris, Something Rotten!, and The Visit. Their shows are still running and they're happy to accommodate awards voters with tickets. By contrast, Hamilton played its last performance at the Public Theater on May 5. Drama Desk voters unable to attend the initial runs of Fly by Night (which ended on June 29 of last year) or Pretty Filthy (closed March 1) are unlikely to support these musicals with their votes.

The Visit producers Tom Smedes and Tom Kirdahy celebrate seven Drama Desk nominations with yellow shoes, a recurring theme in the musical.
(© David Gordon)

This raises one of the primary problems with giving awards to an art as ephemeral as theater. While film lasts forever (and screeners can easily be sent to Oscar voters), a closed show is unavailable for theater-award voters. This is perhaps why awards tend to favor currently running productions. It's also why Broadway producers schedule their opening nights as close as possible to the cutoff for Tony consideration, resulting in a traffic jam of Broadway openings every April.

"I think that Broadway could do a little better for itself by not having so many shows open right at the end of the season. I don't think it's good for the industry," says Tom Kirdahy, a lead producer on The Visit. He's quick to fess up to his own complicity in this problem, however: "As the last show to open in April, we opened with a dramatic flourish. It's really thrilling that we were remembered by the Outer Critics Circle, The Drama Desk, and the Tonys." The Visit garnered five OCC nominations, seven Drama Desk nominations, and five Tony nominations.

This kind of broad recognition undoubtedly reinforces the practice of stacking show openings in April as a smart strategy in terms of awards (especially for a show of clear artistic merit but limited commercial appeal, like The Visit or Fun Home). As noted in an earlier article, 87 percent of all Tony nominations this year went to productions that opened in the spring, and 68 percent went to shows that opened in April.

Book writer Bess Wohl poses with Luba Mason, the Drama Desk-nominated star of Pretty Filthy.
(© David Gordon)

While it seems like awards nominators are suffering from a bad case of amnesia, Drama Desk nominating committee chair Barbara Siegel is quick to dispute this characterization about her own organization. "The quality of the work is more important to us than whether or not it's still running," she says. The statistics appear to bear this out, at least relative to the Tonys: Only 26 percent of this year's Drama Desk nominations went to shows that opened in April. Siegel also seemed unconcerned by the fact that the closed shows stand little chance of actually winning, countering, "They have the nomination and the honor of that forever, whether or not people saw the show."

Playwright Bess Wohl (who is being recognized with a special award for her work off-Broadway this year, including writing the book for Pretty Filthy) largely agrees with this sentiment. She seems at peace about the dim prospects of her musical winning a Drama Desk, stating, "It's less about the wins and more about just being invited to the party." This Zen-like attitude conveys a woman who is likely to have a stress-free May, at least when it comes to worrying about awards.

For Hamilton, the party seems destined to rage on through the summer with or without a Drama Desk. It's presently preparing a move to Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, with rehearsals set to begin in June. Whether the marquee will read "2015 Drama Desk Award winner for Outstanding Musical" is yet to be seen, but if it does, it would certainly be an event for the history books.