New York theater's finest actors, directors, musicians and designers gathered May 16, 2004 for the 49th Annual Drama Desk Awards, which honored productions in the 2003-2004 theater season. The show was held at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School at Lincoln Center.

Unlike the Tony Awards, which honor only Broadway shows, the Drama Desk has always looked beyond the Great White Way. During its entire existence, the show regularly has honored Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway and events that simply fall between the cracks. This was mentioned by Drama Desk President William Wolf, who noted, "this wide field makes it exceptionally difficult to select nominees."

About 140 critics, drawn from print, broadcast and Internet journalists, qualify as Drama Desk voters. Wolf said the nominating committee traditionally puts in long hours throughout the year assessing potential nominees.

With this in mind, Broadway remained the clear winner, with Wicked claiming six awards, and Assassins taking home four. The Lincoln Center Theater revival of Shakespeare's Henry IV won three awards. Broadway also loaned one of its favorite stars, Harvey Fierstein (Hairspray), to serve as the evening's host.

In his opening remarks, Fierstein claimed the show was honoring "the greatest number of closed shows on the planet ever" (not entirely true, although Taboo, Finian's Rainbow and Johnny Guitar were among the most prominent shows in this dubious category). Relatively few political comments were made in this election year. However, Fierstein said that he was "ready for four more years of Bush -- as long as it's Charles" (a reference to the late actor/playwright, Charles Busch).

Humor aside, it was no joke when a bit of confusion marred the Outstanding Director of a Musical category. Director Joe Mantello had been nominated for both Wicked and Assassins. Presenter Bebe Neuwirth announced to the live (and TV) audiences that Mantello had won for Assassins. In reality, Mantello had won for Wicked. An apology and correction were issued the following day. Bebe Neuwirth was cleared of any fault; apparently, she read what was printed on the ballot.

The lengthy evening zipped along at a brisk pace, with a virtual nonstop parade of star-quality presenters and winners. In all, 30 categories were announced. It seemed unlikely that the show would have time for much entertainment. And yet, a few musical numbers were tucked in here and there. The most successful performance was delivered by the talented, exuberant quintet Toxic Audio. Their number basically brought down the house (especially their ode to the surfing hit, "Wipeout"). On a more serious note, Michael McElroy wowed audiences with "Free At Last," his big number from Big River. Theater insiders also chuckled throughout a number called "Done," which slyly spoofed the finale ("One") from A Chorus Line. "Done" is from the upcoming The Musical of Musicals: The Musical.

Most of the winners were on hand to accept their awards. Notably absent were Kevin Kline, who won Outstanding Actor in a Play for Henry IV, and Jack O'Brien, who won Outstanding Director, for the same play. Heartfelt speeches were heard from Hugh Jackman (Lead Actor in a Musical, The Boy from Oz), Audra McDonald (Featured Actress, A Raisin in the Sun, and Jefferson Mays (Solo Performance, I Am My Own Wife). A slightly dazed Donna Murphy (Lead Actress in a Musical, Wonderful Town), gushed through a long list of thank-yous. This led host Harvey Fierstein to comment, "I'd have more time to get through this (speech), but Donna Murphy took up all my time."

Set design awards went to John Lee Beatty Twentieth Century and Eugene Lee Wicked. Susan Hilferty picked up the best costume design for Wicked, and Dan Moses Schreier won for lighting design Assassins.

A gasp went up from the audience when a tie was announced for Outstanding Actress in a Play. Phylicia Rashad A Raisin in the Sun shared the award with Viola Davis, star of Intimate Apparel. Both women were incredibly gracious in acknowledging the other winner's influence on their work.
Inclusiveness, not competitiveness, was the order of the day, regardless of the accessories sported by two of the Outstanding Actress nominees. Both Kristin Chenowith and Idina Menzel were nominated in the same category for Wicked. In a nod to that situation, Chenowith appeared at the presenters' podium wearing a neck brace; Menzel wore a head bandage and had her arm in a sling (Menzel). It was a lame sight gag that didn't add much to an otherwise classy awards show.

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Key Subjects: 
Drama Desk, Harvey Fierstein, Joe Mantello, William Wolf, Assassins, Wicked, Joe Mantello, 2004
Writer: 
Anne Siegel
Writer Bio: 
Anne Siegel has been a member of the American Theater Critics Association for more than 20 years. She has served on its board of directors and co-edited the organization's newsletter, Critics Quarterly, for more than five years. Her articles on the performing and visual arts have appeared in many national and regional publications, including the San Diego Union, OREGON Magazine, the Milwaukee Sentinel, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Footlights magazine and Art Muscle. She has published more than 100 theater reviews on www.TotalTheater.com.
Date: 
May 2004