New York Theater Awards: A Guide

Why was the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, who performed in and/or produced more than 40 shows on Broadway, never even nominated for a single Tony — nor any other major New York theater award? That’s easy: They didn’t exist during her lifetime. But other questions about these awards are harder to answer.  Why so many? How do they differ? Which are worth paying attention to? When will the various nominations be made? (Answer: many within the next week and a half) When will the awards be announced? (Answer: most within the next month and a half) Which have ceremonies open to the (paying) public?

Below a rundown. See also a calendar of nominations and awards at bottom.

(See updated guide and calendar for 2019)

The Tony Awards

This year’s Tony Award nominations will be announced, Tuesday, May 1. The televised awards ceremony will take place June 10

Tony Awards StatuetteThe Tonys, established by the American Theatre Wing in 1947, are named after Antoinette Perry, an actress, director and producer — and co-founder of the American Theatre Wing. (The award was named in her honor after her death.) The Tony Awards annually honor work on Broadway, and are the only awards ceremony broadcast on network television which helps explain their prominence.

There are currently 26 competitive categories (the two sound award categories, which were eliminated in 2014, have been restored in 2018). There are also several special awards each year. For example, the Regional Theater Award is selected based on a recommendation by the members of the American Theatre Critics Association, the only national organization of theater critics.

The competitive nominees are selected by a rotating group of up to 50 theater professionals, who meet after the Tony eligibility deadline, which this year was April 26th (which helps explain why there is such a marathon of Broadway openings in April.)

The Tony voters, numbering about 846 (it fluctuates from year to year), are theater professionals (representatives from various theater unions, for example, including Actors Equity) and press agents, and a handful of critics. A few years ago, The Tonys announced they would no longer allow any theater critics to vote. This caused such an outcry that they re-enfranchised the dozen or so members of the New York Drama Critics Circle (see below) , but still banned the rest of us*.

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama

The Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917 at Columbia University, and, although most of the awards are given for works of journalism, from the start, they included an annual award  for a new work by an American playpulitzer_front_logowright that premiered either in New York or regionally within the previous calendar year. While this is a national award, it’s rare for the award to go to a show that hasn’t had a run in New York City.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to Martyna Majok for Cost of Living.

The winner and finalist are recommended by a different annual group of four theater critics and a theater academic, but can be overridden by the Pulitzer Board — which was most infamously done in 1963, when the board rejected the jury’s choice of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and gave no award in drama that year. (In later years, they did give Pulitzers to Albee for three subsequent plays, including the currently-running Three Tall Women.) In 2010, the board rejected all three of the jury’s recommendations, and chose the winner on its own, “Next to Normal.”

Here are other plays and musical — now universally accepted as among the greatest ever written for the American stage — that did NOT win a Pulitzer Prize: “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams; “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry,” “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller (but Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was awarded a Pulitzer); “Oklahoma”; “Gypsy”; “West Side Story”; “Sweeney Todd”;

Given this spotty track record and less than reassuring selection process, I have a theory why the Pulitzer Prize in Drama has become widely accepted as the most prestigious award that a dramatist can receive (short of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which is only occasionally given to playwrights — to Dario Fo in 1997 and Harold Pinter in 2005, for example.) Since the Pulitzers are largely journalism prizes, they are the most publicized awards in the United States — journalists understandably wishing to toot their own horns.

Drama Desk Awards

Nominations for these awards will be announced this year on  April 26 .  The winners will be announced at an awards show at The Town Hall on June 3rd, which will be live-streamed online.

The Drama Desk Awards were begun in 1955. The members of the Drama Desk are almost all theater critics and journalists. The Drama Desk Awards are the only awards that consider Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-off-Broadway shows together in the same competitive categories. This has the advantage of giving attention to often-obscure nominees. For example, in 2013, Daniel Everidge was one of the nominees for Outstanding Actor in a Play for his role as a young man with autism in the Off-Broadway play, Falling — right up there with Tom Hanks, and Nathan Lane and Tracy Letts. You see the problem here right away: The winners almost inevitably are the better-known (Broadway) competitors.

In 2015, however, “Hamilton” upended the usual results. Then Off-Broadway, it received 13 nominations, more than any other show, including those on Broadway, and won the Outstanding Musical award plus six others; again, more than any other show.

The Outer Critics Circle Awards

Nominations this year will be announced on April 24th. Winners will be announced May 7th. (A private party at Sardi’s will be held for the winners on May 24th.)

outercriticscirclelogoFounded in 1950, originally established as an alternative to the Drama Critics Circle (see below), The Outer Critics Circle is made up of theater critics and journalists from out-of-town, national and online publications.  It, too, recognizes both Broadway and Off-Broadway, but considers them in separate categories with just a few exceptions.


New York Drama Critics Circle Awards
NY Drama Critics CircleNineteen critics (from what are deemed the major New York publications) make up the New York Drama Critics Circle, which was originally established in 1935 as an alternative to the Pulitzers. They will meet this year on May 3 to determine, and announce, the best play, foreign play, and best musical of the season, as well as usually a couple of “special citations.” They choose from any New York theater, and frequently pick Off-Broadway shows.


Theatre World Awards

TheatreWorldAwardslogoEvery year since 1945, the Theatre World Awards have honored 12 performers (6 men, 6 women) making their Broadway debuts. This is in many ways the loveliest of awards.The winners will be announced on May 14, and the ceremony will take place this year on June 4th.

Lucille Lortel Awards

were announced April 4. Winners will be announced at a ceremony on May 6.

The Lucille Lortel Awards were founded in 1985 by the Off-Broadway League, named after a prominent actor, and thus focuses exclusively on achievement Off-Broadway.

The Lortel Award nominees and winners are determined by a committee made up of theater professionals, journalists and educators.

Obie Awards

ObieAwardslogoFounded in 1955 by the Village Voice cultural editor, the Obie Awards annually honor Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway shows and individuals. They are now co-presented by the American Theatre Wing. This year’s ceremony will be held May 21st at TERMINAL 5 with host John Leguizamo. There are no nominees for Obies, only winners, and, according to their press releases, “in the conviction that creativity is not competitive, the judges select outstanding artists and productions and may even invent new categories to reward artistic merit.”

Drama League Awards
dramaleaguelogoThe Drama League Awards, as the list of Drama League Award nominations  this year makes clear, selects five winners in five competitive categories, and also gives special awards. The awards, which will be presented this year at a ceremony on May 18, are touted as “the oldest theatrical honors in America,” though this is dubious on several counts (They fudge their date of origin, claiming “first presented in 1922 and formalized in 1935.”) In any case, these awards are not well-regarded. The categories are overcrowded — there is just a single performing category (“distinguished performance”) with some 60 nominees but only one winner — and the voters are anybody who shells out the money to join the Drama League, no expertise or experience necessary.

There are many other theater awards — such as the New York Innovative Theatre Awards honoring achievement in independent (aka Off-Off Broadway) theater, the American Theatre Wing’s Henry Hewes Awards , honoring theatrical design, and the former  Fred and Adele Astaire Awards, honoring excellence in dance and choreography, which has been renamed the Chita Rivera Awards and moved to September. New ones arrive each year. A wag might say that theater awards have proliferated in inverse proportion to theater’s significance in the culture. But that, like many observations during theater award season, is unfair. Whatever else theater awards do or don’t do, they offer two benefits: 1. They occasionally offer validation and encouragement to those who deserve it. 2. They spark attention and conversation.

2018 Calendar of Select NY Theater Award Nominations and Awards

April 24: Outer Critics Circle Award nominations announced
April 26: Drama Desk Award nominations announced.
May 1: Tony Award nominations announced.
May 3: New York Drama Critics Circle awards determined and announced
May 6: Lucille Lortel Awards ceremony
May 14: Theatre World Award winners announced
May 18: Drama League Awards
May 21: Obie Awards
June 3: Drama Desk Awards Show
June 4: Theatre World Award ceremony
June 10: Tony Award broadcast

*I still am a voting member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the Drama Desk Awards, and the Outer Critics Circle.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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