The schedule for many 2020 theater awards have finally come into focus, even as uncertainty persists for theater as a whole, given that the fight against the coronavirus has resulted in the closing of New York theaters in March — now at least until June 7th, and surely beyond that — amid the continuing stay-at-home orders for individuals and “non-essential businesses.” Below is a description of the major New York theater awards, with the plans for each so far as to when, and how and whether. This will be updated as more decisions are announced.
The Tony Awards
The Tony Awards, originally scheduled for June 7, 2020, have been postponed indefinitely, awaiting the return of Broadway.
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.
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 Pulitzers, originally scheduled for April 20th, now will be announced on May 4 at 3 p.m., via livestream at Pulitzer.org (which is how many of us have learned of them in past years too)
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 announced its nominations on April 21 online and will announce its winners on May 31st (“subject to change as events unfold…”)
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
The Outer Critics Circle Awards will have honorees this year, rather than nominees, up to five in each of its 26 categories, and will announce them on May 11th.
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 for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Musical.
New York Drama Critics Circle Awards
Twenty critics, from what are deemed 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, and then oftentimes foreign play, and/or best musical of the season, as well as several “special citations.” They choose from any New York theater, and frequently pick Off-Broadway shows. The process is distinguished by its transparency; each critic’s vote for however rounds it takes to get to a consensus is recorded on its website. 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 organization’s press release, it no longer even identifies the publications/outlets of the members, as it had done in the past.
Theatre World Awards
The Theatre World Awards, originally scheduled for June 20, have been postponed to the Fall, the date not yet determined.
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 benefactor. It 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.
The American Theatre Wing is postponing the Obies (originally scheduled for May 18) and presenting them as a virtual ceremony at a date yet to be determined. But they’re going further – using money saved to set up relief funds for individual artists and the 90+ Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater companies shuttered. Details here
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, they are now presented by the American Theatre Wing. It’s the most freewheeling of the major awards. 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 nominations were announced at a digital fundraiser called the Gratitude Awards. April 30th. Winners will be announced sometime in June.
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, while the League itself is an admirable organization that nurtures stage directors and encourages audiences, its awards are too populist and peculiar to embrace completely. 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 Off Broadway Alliance Awards
The nominations were announced April 28, winners will be announced on May 19th.
Created in 2011, these awards get less attention than the similar, older and more established Obies and Lucille Lortels (founded by the Off Broadway League, which is a different organization than the Off Broadway Alliance.) The Off Broadway Alliance Awards offer seven competitive categories: Best New Musical, Best New Play, Best Musical Revival, Best Play Revival, Best Unique Theatrical Experience, Best Solo Performance and Best Family Show.
The Chita Rivera Awards
The Chita Rivera Awards, originally scheduled for May 17, have been postponed, with a new date yet to be announced.
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 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.