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They Miss the Music (Awards) by Matthew Murray

  • mmurrayFace.jpg"Drama Desk Awards Drops Best Musical Category, Citing Increasing Expense."

    If you were to read this headline, whether on Playbill Online or in the pages of The New York Times, would you consider that excuse reasonable? The Drama Desk expects you to believe that it is with regards to its decision this year to drop the Best Orchestration category.

    Think I'm kidding? Don't take my word for it. Instead, take the word of the Drama Desk Executive Board President Isa Goldberg. When outraged orchestrators, composers, and musicians beginning with Tony Award–winning composer Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Songs for a New World, Urban Cowboy, and many other shows), who posted a scorching rebuke to the Drama Desk on his blog on Friday, contacted her in the wake of the announcement of the Award's nominations this past Friday, they all received the same response:

    My fellow members of the Drama Desk Executive Board and I appreciate your forthright response to yesterday's nominations announcement. The Board and our organization's members value all creative aspects of professional theater and seek to honor as many contributions each year as possible. The effort to achieve that goal is complicated every season by practical issues presented by circumstances particular to that season. This means that every year's slate of nominations requires a certain degree of flexibility and, consequently, the categories of Drama Desk Awards differ to some extent from year to year. To be clear: every possible category cannot be recognized in each Awards year. I want to emphasize that the absence of the Outstanding Orchestrations category is not a permanent matter.

    One practical issue each year is that the Board is committed to allocating equal time to each of the year's categories in the Drama Desk Awards event. Indeed, it is our desire to remain as inclusive as possible, and we will continue to pursue that goal while also grappling with the realities of time, space, and the costs of Awards presentation.

    Again, I want to emphasize that we are grateful for your candor and the passion you bring to your professional life. I assure you that we take your concerns to heart, and that we will remain mindful of them.

    "To be clear: every possible category cannot be recognized in each Awards year." "...we will continue to pursue that goal while also grappling with the realities of time, space, and the costs Awards presentation." In other words: "The Drama Desk just couldn't include a Best Orchestration Award this year—and any award could be left off next year!"

    There's just one problem: No one actually believes that the Drama Desk will ever choose to not give out certain awards. Like Best Musical. Or Best Play. Or any of the Acting or Directing Awards. Or probably any of the design awards. Goldberg's canned response isn't just insulting to the artists who weren't even given the chance to be nominated, it's insulting to anyone with common sense and/or the ability to read.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I used to be a member of the Drama Desk, but resigned from the organization following strong disagreements with the Board about its direction and actions regarding internal matters too boring to recount here. And I have never worked with (or, as far as I know, even spoken to) Goldberg. I did, however, serve on the Drama Desk Award Nominating Committee for one season (2005-2006), so I'm not completely in the dark about how the process works.

    Back then, the Committee, under the fastidious leadership of Barbara Siegel (who still serves as the committee chair), we met a dozen or so times during the season (at least once a month, and once a week in the super-busy spring) to discuss every Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway show we saw, and hash out what awards, if any, we thought each deserved. There was never—and I want to repeat this for emphasis, never—any discussion of eliminating a category due to "grappling with the realities of time, space, and the costs [of] Awards presentation." We discussed every applicable category for every show every time. And, considering that we evaluated some 500 shows (I myself saw 300 that year), you can imagine how long it took and, on occasion, how heated things got. But we did it, and we did it all the way. The only exception I can remember, and it is at best a halfway one, had to do with whether sets and projections should have been considered together or separately given how in some significant cases projections were the sets. But that wasn't about doing less—it was about trying to give every show the highest possible level of appropriate representation.

    Given the persisting economic downturn of the last few years, it only makes sense that the Drama Desk, like so many other arts organizations, would seek to lower its costs and thus preserve its financial viability. I have no issue with that, and I'm guessing none of the potential or actual nominees do either. But that should never be used as a reason to drop an award—any award. Not because it hurts the potential nominees (though of course it does), who have often depended on nominations for the recognition they might not otherwise get (former Drama Desk President William Wolf often said that, for many smaller theatre companies and Off- and Off-Off-Broadway professionals, the nomination was actually more important than taking home a statue), but because it makes the Drama Desk appear as though it doesn't actually care about a segment of the theatre community that is absolutely vital to the creation and execution of musicals. I don't think anyone actually believes that's the case, but dropping the Best Orchestrations category and responding to concerned artists with such a dismissive form letter, only reinforces that impression to those on the outside.

    If, as Goldberg insists, the Drama Desk chose not to bestow an award for Best Orchestrations this year because doing so would have made the ceremony too long, added too many additional people for this year's venue (The Town Hall) to reasonably support, and caused production costs to rise above the organization's ability to pay, there's a simple option that could have placated, if not pleased, everyone. The Best Orchestration award, and perhaps two or three others, could have had nominations, been voted on by the Drama Desk membership, and the winners been announced at the ceremony, with the stipulation that none the nominees would be invited to attend. This is far, far from ideal. But the nominations would still happen, someone would still win, and the Drama Desk would save face while being able to legitimately cite logistical issues about having all those extra people there. The Tonys took a lot of heat for relegating certain awards, such as for designers, directors, and, yes, orchestrators, to PBS or webcast events instead of the main TV broadcast on CBS. But the Tonys never just eliminated whole categories.

    Compounding the problem is that the Nominating Committee's decision to nominate a whopping seven plays, musicals, and people in each of the four Play acting categories (Lead and Featured, for both men and women) suggests that it's still possible to get some extra people into the ceremony. If you were to remove the seventh nominee from each of those categories, leaving each with six (the traditional number for each category), you could fill a separate Best Orchestration category—and this is ignoring the fact that all of the Best Musical nominees, with the possible exception of Roundabout's Death Takes a Holiday, have considerably more than one producer who would probably want to accept an award onstage if their show won. The Drama Desk doesn't mind having these extra people there—does it consider orchestrators less important?

    Having seen (and, cough, done) many shows over the course of my life with full and reduced orchestrations, and bare-piano accompaniment, I can tell you that orchestrations are a critical part of having an outstanding theatregoing experience at a musical. I know many people in the Drama Desk, whether on the Executive Board, on the Nominating Committee, or just in the rank-and-file membership, and I'm positive they would agree. They love the theatre and want to recognize greatness in it where it's found. This a big part of why this whole situation, which again runs counter to that goal, so mystifies me.

    In the great tradition of American democracy, the musicians, composers, and orchestrators have established an open Facebook group called "Save the Drama Desk Orchestration Award" and immediately collaborated on a joint letter of protest to the Drama Desk Executive Board; they set up a public event called "Boycott the Drama Desk Awards"; and they began a petition asking the Executive Board to reinstate the Best Orchestration award. It's a valiant effort, though I'm guessing the most likely outcome is that this will inspire heated discussions for the next few weeks, then will blow over around June 3 and essentially be forgotten until next year—when the Drama Desk again incites anger with its announcements that, because of "grappling with the realities of time, space, and the costs of Awards presentation," there will be no nominees for Best Musical for 2013.


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