Posted on April 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

I’ve always sort of liked the Drama Desk Awards. Over the years, I’ve appreciated that they really did try to be inclusive of a wide swath of New York theater, not just big-money Broadway shows, and they made interesting choices that no one predicted but that I generally agreed with. (I have won several Drama Desk Awards, so I suppose that partly explains my affection, but let’s not be cynics!) Sure, there were the usual crazy nominations, the standard politicking nonsense, and yes, most of the awards actually did go to Broadway shows even if several off-Broadway ones were nominated in the category, but it still felt like, at least compared to the Tonys, it was a little more about the “show” and less about the “business.”

One thing that perhaps made me most appreciate the Drama Desks was that they honored orchestrations, long before the Tony Awards started doing so. Which is why every New York theatre musician I know is offended and confused by the decision of this year’s Drama Desk Nominating Committee, announced today, to eliminate the category of “Outstanding Orchestrations” for the 2012 awards. Adding to the sting is the patent refusal of the committee to make any kind of statement about why they would have done this or whether they expect it to be a permanent change. (Here’s the article from Playbill Online reporting the story, with the entire statement from the press release: “The Board also decided to eliminate the category of Orchestrations.”)

I’ll tell you one thing: it certainly wasn’t for lack of competition. There was some extraordinary work this year from some fantastic arrangers, some of whom (like Michael Starobin and Doug Besterman) have been recognized repeatedly in the past for their consistently glorious work, and some of whom (like Once‘s amazing Martin Lowe and Nice Work If You Can Get It swingmonster Bill Elliott) are much less familiar to New York audiences and totally thrilling. Orchestrators have to become more and more clever each year to combat the continual downsizing of theater orchestras and to honor the expanding range of musical theater styles, and this year’s crop is as sophisticated and creative as you can get.

Mind you, New York theatre musicians feel like they’re under siege all the time anyway. Pit orchestras have fewer and fewer players, the musicians themselves are often hidden away, miked to a level of utter artificiality, the quality of the music they make is more in the hands of the mix engineer than under their own very capable control, and there is constant pressure from producers to allow the music to be pre-recorded (a pressure that the Musicians’ Union, almost entirely on its own, has thus far managed to deflect, though I assure you that fight is far from over). Furthermore, even though the Tonys now do have an Orchestration award, there is no major award for Music Directors, a slight which drives those irreplaceable and versatile collaborators justifiably up a wall. So this kerfuffle about the Drama Desks, which might seem simply puzzling in any other year, this year seems like yet another shot across the bow.

I doubt that most non-musicians are aware of the extent to which the music directors and orchestrators shape the scores of shows. In the case of Bonnie and Clyde and Once, for example, the composers of those shows cannot (to the best of my knowledge) read or notate music. They do not have the language to communicate with an orchestra how to play their songs. They don’t have any vocabulary about building a cohesive musical universe on stage. There is a vast reservoir of technical and theatrical information that the music staff brings to bear on the songs those composers write in order to make a “score” out of them. A show like Nice Work If You Can Get It consists of a dizzying number of songs from a variety of sources – it’s the orchestrator’s job to make them all sound like they’re all in the same playground. You couldn’t just take the original charts for those songs and put them in front of the band at the Imperial – first of all, those bands in the 1930’s were frequently much bigger than the current standard; and second of all, there are new dance arrangements, different keys, whole new routines that have to be fitted out with new orchestrations. And a show like Queen of the Mist requires someone who can translate everything Michael John LaChiusa hears in his head to the very limited orchestral forces available and still communicate all of the soul and emotional power that’s already in the written piano parts, as well as support the singing and stagecraft going on at the same time. The orchestrators are as important to the art of musical theatre as the lighting and sound designers, there can be no debate about that.

So, that having been said, now what? I’d like to believe that the Drama Desk board will reconsider its decision. But if they don’t? I have a suggestion.

My suggestion is that this year’s nominated composers, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and Michael John LaChiusa and Alan Menken and Frank Wildhorn and Maury Yeston, all of them, should stay home on June 3rd. Don’t attend the awards or the party or the pre-show events, just skip the Drama Desks entirely. If I were nominated (I didn’t have an eligible score this season, if you were wondering), this would be a no-brainer for me, but my feelings are pretty close to the surface on this since I’ve been an orchestrator myself. Without wanting to sound too strident about it, though, I think it’s the duty of those writers to support the orchestrators who have served them so valiantly and brilliantly this season and throughout their careers. I think the Drama Desk’s decision to simply delete the category this year (while retaining the Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical category) is a slap in the face to the people who are at the front lines of keeping a degree of musical integrity in the musical theatre scene, and it should be answered in kind. I would like to think that there are some directors and choreographers who feel similarly obligated.

Living out in Los Angeles, I’m pretty far away from all this, and I suspect that to most audience members and even Broadway fans, this all seems very inside baseball, but it’s important. It’s important for New York theatre musicians to stand up for the recognition they deserve, to hold their ground even as they are battered from all sides, and to fight to restore the respect and esteem due them. All of us who love musical theatre will suffer if the musicians disappear, and that scenario is, alas, much more likely than you might think.

For those of you just tuning in: I did actually get an email this afternoon from Isa Goldberg, the President of the Drama Desk. She sent an identical email to my wife as well as many others who had written her in the past 24 hours to express their concern and disappointment. Here is what she wrote:

Dear Mr. Brown:

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.

Isa Goldberg
President, Drama Desk

I have written to Ms. Goldberg in response to her form letter:

Dear Ms. Goldberg:

Thanks so much for your note. I have to say, I don’t entirely understand what you’re saying; in perusing the history of the awards, I don’t see any difference in any of the categories presented since 2005, and before that since the early 1990’s. To have actually split Sound Design into two separate categories this year but eliminated Orchestrations suggests something of an agenda to me, but perhaps it was just an oversight, and I am hopeful that you will rectify that oversight with due haste. In the meantime, I have no reason to amend my earlier call for composers to boycott the ceremony, and I hope that others will join them as well.

Perhaps you will enjoy watching this video:

All best,

UPDATE: In the face of enormous pressure from the theatrical community, both on the Internet and behind the scenes, the Drama Desk board has reversed their earlier decision and reinstated the orchestration category for this year’s awards. It has been an honor to be part of the community for the last couple of days and to see us all accomplish something that supports the music of musical theater. Nice to have a happy ending, and especially nice to have a category with six exceptional nominees for Outstanding Orchestrations. Here’s the article from Playbill with the news and details.