Below: an explanation of major New York theater awards. And before that, a calendar of this year’s nominations and award announcements/ceremonies.
Why was Sarah Bernhardt, one of the world’s greatest actresses 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: The awards 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 three weeks) When will the awards be announced? (Answer: most within the next two months) Which have ceremonies open to the (paying) public?
Calendar of Select 2019 New York Theater Nominations and Awards
April 3: Lucille Lortel Award nominations announced
April 15: Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists announced
April 17: Drama League Award nominations announced
April 23: Outer Critics Circle nominations announced
April 25: Drama Desk Award nominations announced
April 26: Chita Rivera Award nominations announced
April 30: Tony Award nominations announced
May 2 Theater World Award winners announced
May 5: 34th annual Lucille Lortel Awards winners
May 6: New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards announced
May 13: Outer Critics Circle winners announced
May 17: 85thAnnual Drama League Awards announcement/ceremony
May 19: Third annual Chita Rivera Awards announcement/ceremony
May 20: 64thannual Obie Awards ceremony with host Rachel Bloom
June 2: 64th Annual Drama Desk Awards ceremony with host Michael Urie
June 3: 75thAnnual Theatre World Awards ceremony
June 9: The 73rd Annual Tony Awards ceremony at Radio City and CBS with host James Corden
The Tony Awards
The 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 (since 1956), which helps explain their prominence.
There are currently 26 competitive categories (the two sound award categories, which were eliminated in 2014, were 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 is April 25th (which explains why there is such a marathon of Broadway openings in April.)
The Tony voters, numbering more than 800 (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 members of the New York Drama Critics Circle (see below) , but still banned the rest of us*.
Since the Tony awards were created, “New York theater” has expanded way beyond Broadway — there are more shows each year Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, but they are recognized by newer awards than the Tonys.
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 playwright 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 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.) 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 Eugene O’Neill in 1936, Wole Soyinka in 1986, Dario Fo in 1997 and Harold Pinter in 2005 — although more Nobel Laureates were primarily novelists or poets who also wrote plays.) 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
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 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.
In exchange for promotional opportunities, The Drama Desk has affiliated with commercial sponsors — first Theatermania, now Broadway Brands — to help pay for their awards ceremony.
The Outer Critics Circle Awards
Founded 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
Nineteen 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 meet each year on a single day 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. It’s bracing to notice how the organization has been forced de facto to change the definition of major critic and major publication, as their members keep on losing their jobs, sometimes their positions eliminated; some publications have even gone out of existence. Indeed, on the press release this year, they didn’t even identify the publications/outlets of the members, as they had done in the past.
Theatre World Awards
Every year since 1945, the Theatre World Awards have honored 12 performers (6 men, 6 women) making their New York stage debuts. This is in many ways the loveliest of awards, with now-famous alumni of the award recalling what it meant to them back when as they each introduce one of the newly awarded performers with whom they have a special connection. A veteran is also chosen each year for the John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Lucille Lortel Awards
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.
Founded in 1955 by the Village Voice cultural editor, the Obie Awards annually honor Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway shows and individuals. Since the Voice has been shuttered, hey are now presented by the American Theatre Wing. 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
The Drama League Awards selects five winners in five competitive categories, and also gives special awards. The awards 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.
The Chita Rivera Awards
The Chita Rivera Awards are given by the NYC Dance Alliance Foundation for dance and choreographic excellence on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in film. Founded in 1982, it was first called the Fred Astaire Awards, and then the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards, changing its name three years ago to honor the Tony-winning dancer, actress and singer.
I include the Chita Rivera Awards as an example of the several specialized theater awards, which include the American Theatre Wing’s Henry Hewes Awards , honoring theatrical design and given in the Fall. There are many other theater awards — such as the New York Innovative Theatre Awards honoring achievement in independent (aka Off-Off Broadway) theater, also given in the Fall. Actors Equity gives out a slew of annual awards. New theater awards are created 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.
*I still am a voting member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the Drama Desk Awards, and the Outer Critics Circle.