Below is an explanation of the major annual New York theater awards, plus a 2022 calendar of nomination announcements and award ceremonies — which (like most everything in the last two years) must be considered tentative.
Why was Sarah Bernhard — 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? The answer is 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? (Usual answer: Most in April or May. This has been upended by the pandemic.) When will the awards be announced? (Answer: Usually by mid-June. This year: Not entirely clear.) Which have ceremonies open to the (paying) public?
Calendar of Select 2022 NYC Theater Nominations and Awards
Usually the schedules for all the annual awards have been set by the beginning of April; that is not the case this year. I’ll be filling in this calendar, and linking to results, as they come in. Even then, the dates (like much else this year) will be tentative because of the uncertainties inherent in the pandemic.
April 7, 2022: Lucille Lortel Award nominations announced
April 25: Drama League nominations announced
April 26: Outer Critics Circle Award nominations announced
May 1: Lucille Lortel Awards ceremony at NYU Skirball Center
May 4: Official cut-off for Tony 2021-2022 eligibility.
May 5: Off Broadway Alliance Award nominations announced
May 6: 76th Annual Theatre World Awards announced
May 9: 75th Annual Tony Award nominations announced
May 9: Pulitzer Prize winners and nominated finalists announced
May 12: New York Drama Critics Circle Awards announced
May 16: 66th Annual Drama Desk Award nominations announced
May 17: 71st Annual Outer Critics Circle Awards announced
May 17: Chita Rivera Award nominations announced
May 20: 88th Annual Drama League Awards ceremony at the Ziegfeld Ballroom
May 24: 11th Annual Off Broadway Alliance Awards announced
May 26: Outer Critics Circle Awards ceremony at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium
June 6: The 76th annual Theatre World Awards at Circle in the Square
June 12: The 75th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall (and on TV)
June 14: 66th Annual Drama Desk Award ceremony at Sardi’s (winners announced the previous week)
June 20: Chita Rivera Awards at NYU Skirball Center.
June 21: Off Broadway Alliance Awards ceremony at Sardi’s
November: The 66th Annual Obie Awards
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 .
The competitive nominees are selected by a rotating group of up to 50 theater professionals, who meet after the Tony eligibility deadline, which is usually at the end of April but this year was extended to May 4th. (This year, there are just 29 nominators.)
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 has been given to playwrights only occasionally, and only once to an American dramatist — e.g. José Echegaray y Eizaguirre in 1904, George Bernard Shaw in 1925, Luigi Pirandello in 1934, Eugene O’Neill (the American) in 1936, Wole Soyinka in 1986, Dario Fo in 1997 and Harold Pinter in 2005 — although more Nobel Laureates were primarily novelists or poets but also wrote plays, such as Mario Vargas Llosa in 2010 and Peter Handke in 2019.) My theory: 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 in the past affiliated with commercial sponsors — first Theatermania, then Broadway Brands — to help pay for their awards ceremony. It’s unclear whether such commercial sponsorship will continue.
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. The awards ceremony is a lower key affair, which is only open to members and the winners.
New York Drama Critics Circle Awards
Twenty-two critics, originally from what were deemed the major New York publications, make up the New York Drama Critics Circle, which was 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.
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. They select a new playwright to get a star in the Playwrights Sidewalk in front of the Lucille Lortel Theater in the Village.
The Lortel Award nominees and winners are determined by a committee made up of representatives of the Off-Broadway League, Actors’ Equity Association, Stage Directors & Choreographers Society, United Scenic Artists, the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation, in addition to theatre journalists, academics and other Off-Broadway professionals.
Founded in 1955 by the Village Voice cultural editor, the Obie Awards annually honor Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway shows and individuals. After the Voice shuttered, the American Theatre Wing took over. 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.” Normally given in May, the Obies have been moved to sometime in November this year.
Drama League Awards
The Drama League Awards, which annually has selected five winners in five competitive categories, and also gives special awards, has added two new competitive categories this year– outstanding direction of a play and of a musical. 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.”) My view of the Drama League skyrocketed last year when they were the only one of these awards that acknowledged reality and stepped up to the moment, handing out most of their nominations and awards to digital theater created during the pandemic. Still, their normal awards are generally given less attention than the other major awards. 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 Off Broadway Alliance Awards were founded in 2011 by the Off Broadway Alliance. Why are there two organizations representing Off Broadway, and how is the Off Broadway Alliance different from the Off Broadway League (which administers the Lucille Lortel Awards, described above)? I couldn’t tell you, other than the Alliance is a newer organization. It’s also less transparent in its award process (an unnamed rotating committee made up of Alliance members.) Both factors argue against its being considered one of the major NYC theater awards.
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 six 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. There are many other theater awards — such as the New York Innovative Theatre Awards honoring achievement in independent (aka Off-Off Broadway) theater, normally given in the Fall. Actors Equity gives out a slew of annual awards. New theater awards seem to be created each year (eg my own ACT A, honoring digital theater.) 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 do not 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 vote for the Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle awards.