The History and Evolution of the Drama Desk Awards

The Drama Desk Awards are one of the leading annual awards honoring the New York City’s theater productions. Unlike other awards, the Drama Desk Awards honors Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theater. The awards are a significant part of the New York City theatrical scene. This year’s Drama Desk Award ceremony will take place on Sunday, June 2 at The Town Hall. Here is the history and evolution of the Drama Desk Awards.

History of Broadway Theater

Manhattan’s Theater District is the largest in the United States of America. Today there are 40 professional theaters located on Broadway, each with more than 500 seats. There are more theaters off Broadway. The history of Manhattan theater dates back to the middle of the eighteenth century. Thomas Kean and Walter Murray opened the first American theater company on Nassau Street. It accommodated 280 patrons and featured mostly plays by William Shakespeare and operas. More theaters were built in the area.

During America’s Revolutionary War theater declined. However, in 1798 The Park Theater was built and accommodated 2000 patrons. In 1826 The Bowery Theater was built and featured “black face minstrels”. Niblo’s Garden was built on Prince Street and Broadway and featured both musicals and non-musical plays. During the 1840’s P.T. Barnum built a theater in lower Manhattan. In 1849 The Astor Theater was built. At the time there was a great class divide among theater goers which often led to riots. Upper class citizens patronized The Astor Theater which showcased mostly opera performances. The middle class patrons attended theaters that featured musicals and non-musicals as well as minstrels. The lower class citizens often attended variety shows at theaters like The Bowery.

Manhattan theaters began to crop up more on Broadway during the mid nineteenth century because the property was cheap. The development of transportation helped lower the poverty rate of the area and allowed for more patrons including women. Burlesque shows were introduced as well as Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. The theater scene continued to rise in the twentieth century despite the development of motion pictures. Soon theaters began to announce themselves with white light electric signs leading to the nickname “The Great White Way”. America was introduced to playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and actors like John Barrymore and Katherine Cornell. In 1947 the Tony Awards were formed to recognize theater on Broadway, and the Obie Awards were formed to recognize off Broadway theater.

Vernon Rice Awards

In 1949 a group of New York City theater newspaper and radio critics, reporters, publishers and editors came together to discuss issues in the theater industry. The group wanted to make the public more aware of the theater. The group met regularly to discuss the theater and develop ways to continue to express issues of the theater to the public through the media. In 1955 the group decided to hold an annual ceremony honoring playwrights, plays actors, and actors that performed that year not just in the famous Broadway theaters but also in lesser known New York City theaters. The group decided to name the awards the “Vernon Rice Awards” in honor of the New York Post theater critic who pioneered coverage of New York City’s theater scene.

Drama Desk Awards

The “Vernon Rice Awards” were renamed the “Drama Desk Awards” in the 1963-1964 season. The organization became a non-profit in 1974. The following year was the first that the organization announced the nominees as well as the winners. The Drama Desk Awards organization consists of 100 members including Active Members who vote and Participating Members. All members are volunteers and not paid. The officers and members of the nomination committee meet twice a month to discuss who and which plays should be nominated. The organization also sponsors luncheon Panels for theater professionals to discuss a variety of topics. The organization hopes to highlight both veteran actors, playwrights and designers as well as newcomers.


The Drama Desk Awards have several categories of nominees including those from Broadway plays, Off Broadway plays and Off-Off Broadway plays. In recent years the organization has been criticized for focusing more on Broadway plays, but the members say they continue to honor the Drama Desk Awards’ tradition of honoring all of Manhattan theater. Categories include Performance, Technical categories and Special Category Awards which includes the Drama Desk Special Award and the Outstanding Ensemble Award. The organization no longer includes awards for Outstanding Director, Revival, Set Designer, Lighting and Sound Design.

Notable Winners

During its more than six decades of awards for Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway stars the Desk Drama Awards has recognized many great plays, musicals, designers and stars. The best of the winners have been revivals. These include “Kiss Me Kate”, “Aida”, “The Elephant Man”, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, “The Fantasticks”, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “Death of a Salesman”, “Anything Goes”, “Caberet”, “Dream Girls”, “Gypsy”, “Guys and Dolls”, “Hamlet”, and “All’s Well That Ends Well”. Notable actors who have won the Desk Drama Award include Bernadette Peters, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Catherine Zeta Jones, Christine Baranski, Gregory Hines and Heather Headley.

2019 Drama Desk Awards

The 64th Drama Desk Awards will be held on Sunday June 2 at The Town Hall in Manhattan. The nominees this year represent a variety in the theater industry. The biggest contender is the revival of “Oklahoma!”. Other favorites include “Tootsie” and “Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future”. Nominees for revival plays include Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”, “Uncle Vanya”, “Kiss Me Kate” and “Our Lady of 121st Street”. Nominees for outstanding performer include Laurie Metcalf, Elaine May and Midori Francis.

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