Theatre Community Speaks Out About Dropped Drama Desk Orchestrations Category

By Adam Hetrick
April 30, 2012

Members of the theatre community, including Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown and Tony-winning orchestrator Michael Starobin, are speaking out after the Drama Desk Awards announced its decision to eliminate the Outstanding Orchestrations category for the 2011-12 season.



A reason was not provided regarding the Drama Desk board's decision to drop the orchestrations category, which was revealed during the April 27 Drama Desk Awards nominations announcement.

Although Brown (Parade, Songs for a New World, The Last Five Years) and Starobin (Sunday in the Park With George, Queen of the Mist, Next to Normal, Leap of Faith) criticized the removal of the category, both praised the Drama Desk for recognizing the achievements of orchestrators with an Outstanding Orchestrations honor in 1983 before the Tony Awards created a similar category in 1997.

Brown posted the following on his website: "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."

Starobin also issued the following April 27 post on his website: "It baffles me that the Drama Desk would stop recognizing a creative contribution that stays with the identity of a show for many years after the original physical designs are no longer used. We still use Sid Ramin's orchestrations for West Side Story a half century after the original production. We may experiment with new orchestrations for a production, but we will always return to [Jonathan] Tunick's orchestration of Sweeney Todd. Not to diminish the work of Bernstein or Sondheim in any way, the orchestrations for those masterpieces will always be part of their identity. Such is the nature of the collaborative art form - when it's done right the pieces meld into a greater whole. Then award programs try to dice and slice that whole into individual contributions. How sad that they think this particular element of making a musical is suddenly of less importance."

He continued, "I am mostly saddened for the young orchestrators in the business whose Off-Broadway work will now go without any public honor. They should remember that this action by a few individuals in no way diminishes the wonderful work they do which is heard nightly in theaters of New York."

Book of Mormon's Tony-winning co-creator Robert Lopez tweeted, "Seriously, what orchestrators do is vastly labor and time intensive, and absolutely crucial to the effectiveness and artistry of a score. They are artists of the highest caliber, deserving of the same recognition composers get, and also need love and to be talked to."

Lopez's Tony-winning Book of Mormon co-orchestrator Larry Hochman provided the following statement for Playbill.com: "I fail to see the logic in honoring every category of artistic contribution in musical theatre except the orchestrations. The music that we hear in a theatre is the combination of the actors' voices and the orchestra. I applaud the Drama Desk for including awards for Sound Design. Yet without the orchestrations there would hardly be a sound to design. The decision of the Drama Desk shows a lack of appreciation in the eyes of not only the orchestrators, but the composers, authors and producers, all of whom value the collaboration of orchestration as an equal with every other designer."

A host of theatre professionals have  begun encouraging members of the theatre community and the public to sign a Change.org petition, asking the Drama Desk Awards to reinstate the category. Among the individuals who have signed the petition are Tony winners Lea Salonga, Alex Lacamoire, Larry Hochman and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as Scott Frankel, George Stiles, Seth Rudetsky, Mark Sendroff, Doug Katsaros, Eugene Gwozdz, Alex Rybeck, Michael Kosarin, Benj Pasek, Jack Feldman, Caissie Levy and Sarah Rice.

 

Brown also shared a letter from Drama Desk president Isa Goldberg, which was sent to several members of the theatre community who reached out to the Drama Desk to express concerns over the loss of the category.

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.

Sincerely,
Isa Goldberg
President, Drama Desk


The 57th Annual Drama Desk Awards will take place June 3 at 8 PM at The Town Hall in Manhattan. Click here to view the full list of nominees.