Below is an explanation of the major annual New York theater awards, plus a 2023 calendar of nomination announcements and award 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? The answer is easy: The Tonys and most other New York theater awards didn’t exist during her lifetime. (She died in 1923.) But other questions about these awards are harder to answer. Why so many? How do they differ? Which are worth paying attention to?
Learn some of the illustrious (and sometimes less than illustrious) history of each award, whether New York Drama Critics Circle or the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League or the Drama Desk, the Tonys or the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (and I throw in a list of playwrights who won the Nobel Prize for Literature)
Calendar of Select 2023 NYC Theater Nominations and Awards
Most nomination announcements usually happen in April and May. Most award ceremonies unfold from now until June. The pandemic threw off the calendar for three years (the Obie Awards, for example, which were annually held in May before the pandemic, was held in February this year to honor Off and Off-Off Broadway work over the previous three seasons.) Not every date for every annual award has been announced as of this writing, but the schedule is more or less back to normal. I’ll be filling in this calendar, and linking to results, as they come in.
April 5 Lucille Lortel Award Nominations announced
April 25 Drama League Award nominations announced
April 26 Outer Critics Circle Award Nominations announced
April 27 Drama Desk Awards nominations announced
Broadway shows must open by this date to be eligible for 2023 Tonys
April 28 Chita Rivera Award nominations announced
May 1 Theatre World Awards announced
May 2 Tony Award nominations announced
May 7 38th annual Lucille Lortel Awards ;
May 8 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists announced
New York Drama Critics Circle vote and announcement
May 12 Off Broadway Alliance Award Nominations announced
May 16 Outer Critics Circle Award winners announced
May 19 89th annual Drama League Awards ceremony and announcement at the Ziegfeld Ballroom
May 22 Chita Rivera Awards ceremony and announcement of winners
May 25 Outer Critics Circle Awards ceremony at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center
May 31 Drama Desk Award winners announced
Off Broadway Alliance Awards announced
June 5 75th annual Theatre World Awards
June 6 67th Annual Drama Desk Awards ceremony at Sardi’s
June 11 76th annual Tony Awards
June 20 12th annual Off Broadway Alliance Awards ceremony at Sardi’s
In the descriptions of the awards below, I include a link to the lists of last year’s winners, to give a sense of what the categories are (although some have been changed this year, especially in acting categories for the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk awards.)
The Tony Awards
Update: The strike by the Writers Guild of America threatened to cancel the Tony broadcast this year, but the TV show will go on as scheduled June 11, but in altered form.
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. (Lately, CBS has been live-streaming the first hour on its Paramount+ platform, which requires a paid subscription.)
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 and the Isabelle Stevenson Award honoring a member of the theater community for their humanitarian efforts, as well as Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theater and Lifetime Achievement Awards.
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 27.
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*.
In the years 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 ignored by the Tonys, and recognized by newer awards.
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, they included from the start one 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. (Thanks to the pandemic, last year’s winner, “Fat Ham” ran only online before it won the Pulitzer; then it was staged first Off-Broadway and then on Broadway.)
The winner and finalists 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 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 second most prestigious award that an American dramatist can receive.
(The most prestigious is the Nobel Prize in Literature, which has been given to playwrights only occasionally, and only once to an American dramatist:Eugene O’Neill in 1936. Other playwrights who became Nobel Laureates: José Echegaray y Eizaguirre in 1904, George Bernard Shaw in 1925, Luigi Pirandello in 1934,, 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 was founded in 1949; it began presenting awards in 1955. The members of the Drama Desk are almost all theater critics and journalists. This year for the first time, the acting categories at The Drama Desk Awards, as in the Outer Critics Circle awards (see below) are “gender free.” Instead of the categories “Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play” and “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play” there will be two “Outstanding Leading Performer in a Play.” This change was made by fiat, without prior consultation with the 100 members of the organization, some of whom have expressed concern that, without dedicated slots for actresses, women will get short-shrift.
The Drama Desk Awards are the only New York awards given by theater journalists and critics 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 2022, only one of the eight categories went to an Off-Broadway performer.
Just once, the usual results were upended — by “Hamilton” in 2015. 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 a slickly produced awards ceremony. There is no sponsor this year, and the award ceremony will be a more modest affair at Sardi’s.
(A point worth making here: Since some of the best shows on Broadway originated Off-Broadway, the awards that include Broadway and Off-Broadway shows — such as Drama Desk, Drama Critics Circle and Outer Critics Circle — will have already honored those shows in previous years. This is why, for example, “Kimberly Akimbo” was nominated for eight Tony Awards this year, but received no Drama Desk or Outer Critics Awards; it won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical and the Outer Critics Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical last year, when it ran Off-Broadway, before it transferred to Broadway.)
The Outer Critics Circle Awards
Founded in 1950, originally established as an alternative to the New York 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. Its awards recognize both Broadway and Off-Broadway. This year, there will be big changes in the acting categories. There will be still be nine — but they no longer differentiate by gender, and there are now separate categories for Broadway and Off-Broadway. So, for example, instead of past categories Outstanding Actor in a Play and Outstanding Actress in a Play, this year there will be Outstanding Lead Performer in a Broadway Play and Outstanding Lead Performer in an Off-Broadway Play.
The change was made by the 11-member Executive Committee, without consulting the 70-plus members, which reflects the organization’s standard top-down approach. The membership does not get to elect the members of the Executive Committee — the committee members choose one another — and only Executive Committee members serve on the Nominating Committee. There is no rotation. (They do solicit suggestions for nominations from the other members.)
The awards ceremony is a low 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. There is unusual transparency in the awards process; they publish who chose what in each round of voting.
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 theater journalists, academics and other Off-Broadway professionals.
Starting last year, they were the first of the New York theater awards to stop distinguishing their acting categories by gender.
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.” As mentioned above, they just had their 66th annual award in February, honoring the work of the previous three season. It’s unclear when the next one will be
Drama League Awards
The Drama League Awards, which annually has selected five winners in five competitive categories involved in either Broadway or Off-Broadway productions, and also gives special awards, added two new competitive categories last 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 a couple of years ago 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.)
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 seven 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 third annual ACTA, 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.