Each year, the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk valiantly attempt to get the theater community to take notice of their annual slate of nominations in spite of the reality that they are far less well known or well respected than the Tony Awards and continually ridiculed by many theater professionals.
Consider, for instance, this recent Facebook post by Time Out New York critic Adam Feldman, who is also president of the far more powerful Drama Critics Circle: “The Drama Desk Awards and the Outer Critics Circle Awards should merge and call themselves the Outer Desk Awards. Then everyone could ignore them more efficiently!”
Unlike the Tony Awards, which consider just Broadway shows, or the Lucille Lortel Awards, which are solely for Off-Broadway, the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk consider Broadway and Off-Broadway together. And maybe even an Off-Off-Broadway production or two. The Drama League and Drama Critics Circle also go beyond Broadway, but they give out just a handful of awards.
This year’s OCC nominations were announced Monday morning, April 27, before a number of Broadway shows had even officially opened, including Don’t Dress for Dinner, Leap of Faith, The Columnist and Nice Work if You Can Get It. Those nominations were marred by their lack of logic. Most noticeably, although Nice Work if You Can Get It received more nominations than any other show, it was inexplicably not nominated for Best Musical, passed over for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Bonnie & Clyde.
The Drama Desk nominations, which were announced four days later, were most noted for what was missing from the list. Although there were countless nominations for such obscure categories as Outstanding Revue and Unique Theatrical Experience, and even some special awards for actors Mary Testa and Nick Westrate and the entire Off-Broadway cast of Sweet and Sad, the annual category of Outstanding Orchestrations was omitted. And no reason whatsoever was given for its strange absence.
It’s not like there was any absence of potential nominees for the award, including but not limited to the orchestrators of Newsies, Once, Nice Work if You Can Get It, Death Takes a Holiday, Ghost and Leap of Faith. Even the revivals of Porgy and Bess, Godspell and Carrie had new orchestrations that should have been eligible. So what gives?
Drama Desk president Isa Goldberg did pen a letter in response to the prostrations of Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown, who had gone so far as to urge all the nominated composers to boycott the Drama Desk Awards in protest. But alas, Goldberg provided no plausible or passable explanation, merely citing unnamed “practical issues.”
Pretty soon, Brown wasn’t the only one raising uproar. An online www.change.org petition began to circulate, attracting the signatures of Lea Salonga, Caissie Levy, Lin Manuel-Miranda and Seth Rudetsky. In total, it collected 3,097 signatures.
Three days after the initial nominations announcement, the Drama Desk finally relented and reinstated the category, nominating no less than six orchestrators including Danny Troob (Newsies), Michael Starobin (Queen of the Mist), Martin Lowe (Once) and Bill Elliott (Nice Work If You Can Get It).
Most diehard musical theater fans care passionately about orchestrations. As the size of Broadway orchestra pits continues to dwindle, it is more important than ever to recognize the key role that orchestrations play in the production of a new musical or revival. It’s not surprising – and perhaps relieving – that so many prominent professionals took swift action against the Drama Desk.
However, the damage done to the Drama Desk may be irreparable. The mere attempt to arbitrarily ax the orchestrations category suggests that the group, or at least its executive members, is out of touch with the concerns of the theater community and the realities of how professional theater is produced. Who could respect an organization like that?