'Wicked' Bewitches Drama Desk

For the better part of 24 hours, two of the season's big musicals -- "Wicked" and "Assassins" -- had equal bragging rights, at least where the 49th annual Drama Desk Awards were concerned. As of the end of the ceremony, hosted by Harvey Fierstein and held Sun., May 16 at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, each tuner was a five-time winner. Not bad for a highly competitive season.

But early in the afternoon on Mon., May 17, it was announced that a mistake had been made: While presenter Bebe Neuwirth read the correct name (Joe Mantello) in the category of director of a musical, the show for which he won ("Assassins") was apparently written on the envelope in error. In a released statement, Robert R. Blume, executive producer of the Drama Desk Awards, said Mantello actually won for his direction of "Wicked." Thus the calculus changed: "Wicked" won six awards and "Assassins" won four.

"This confusion, due solely to human error on our part, occurred when the names of the winners were transferred to the presenter envelopes," the statement read. "Neither the presenter nor our outside accounting firm are in any way culpable. This process will be fully examined to assure that such an error will not occur again."

Such drama came after a night that was noticeably short on it. "Wicked," which earned 10 Tony nominations earlier in the week on top of its 11 Drama Desk nods, won outstanding musical, book of a musical (Winnie Holzman), lyrics (Stephen Schwartz), set design of a musical (Eugene Lee), and costume design (Susan Hilferty) before the snafu came to light.

"Assassins," subtracting the snafu, won for musical revival, sound design (Dan Moses Schreier), lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), and orchestrations (Michael Starobin).

Unlike the Tonys, the Drama Desk divides the award for best score between music and lyrics, and this year it brought about a split decision: Jeanine Tesori won for her music for "Caroline, or Change," denying composer-lyricist Schwartz a double honor for "Wicked." Tesori's honor was the only one for "Caroline": star Tonya Pinkins, considered a strong contender for the actress in a musical award, lost to Donna Murphy for her work in "Wonderful Town."

Nor was that the only curious result of the voting. There was also a tie for actress in a play between Viola Davis of "Intimate Apparel" and Phylicia Rashad for "A Raisin in the Sun," and it was the second year in a row with a tie vote in a major category. Last year, Harvey Fierstein and Antonio Banderas each won for actor in a musical (for "Hairspray" and "Nine," respectively). Rashad, meanwhile, was not the only "Raisin" winner: Audra McDonald nabbed the award for featured actress in a play.

Fierstein served as master of ceremonies for the event, and as expected, there were plenty of snappy, satirical one-liners sending the audience into gales of giggles, especially where political and theatrical targets were concerned. "I can take four more years of Bush...as long as it's Charles," he quipped. At another juncture, he offered some satirical jibes regarding the unusually high number of flops, firings, and offstage controversies that raged during the season.

Fortunately, there were also many shows that were well-received and popular, and that fact was reflected in many of the other awards. Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," this year's Pulitzer Prize in Drama winner, captured the prize for outstanding play. The show's star, Jefferson Mays, won for solo performance, taking to the rostrum and staying in his own voice rather than lapsing into any of the 40 or so characters he plays in the piece.

While Mays' work may be epic in scale, another epic -- Shakespeare's "Henry IV," produced earlier this season by Lincoln Center Theater -- was on the minds of many Drama Desk voters, too. In addition to actor Dakin Matthews receiving a special nod for his adaptation of the play (telescoping it from two plays to one), the show yielded awards for revival of a play, for Kevin Kline for actor in a play, and for Jack O'Brien -- last year's director of a musical winner for "Hairspray" -- for director of a play.

If the Bard proved he could be a three-time Drama Desk winner, the evening was also filled with awardees who were alive and well and quite visibly beaming. The incomparable performance of Hugh Jackman in "The Boy From Oz" earned him, as widely expected, the best actor in a musical honor, and from the same production, Isabel Keating won for featured musical actress. One of the season's flop shows -- the Rosie O'Donnell-produced tuner "Taboo" -- produced a winner for Raúl Esparza as featured musical actor. And Ned Beatty, who received rapturous reviews at the top of the season for his work in the revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," came away with the honor for featured actor in a play.

Other awards: Kathleen Marshall made it a pair of prizes for "Wonderful Town" by winning for her choreography; John Lee Beatty won for set design of a play for Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of "Twentieth Century"; "Toxic Audio in Loudmouth" nabbed Unique Theatrical Experience; and the cast of "The Distance From Here" was honored for its ensemble work. It was one of the few awards of the night to go to an Off-Broadway piece.

Unlike the Tonys, the Drama Desk Awards consider Broadway, Off-, and Off-Off-Broadway productions equally. This year, 27 categories generated 140 nominations -- one category more, but six nominations fewer, than in 2003. Of those noms, 69 were for Broadway shows -- nine fewer than last year's 78. If one counts nods based on Off-Broadway to Broadway transfers, that number then rises to 80. Beyond that, the vast majority of nominations again this year went to Off-Broadway shows. Three of the 26 awards honored Off-Broadway last year, while three out of 27 awards this year went to Off-Broadway -- and, as in previous years, Off-Off-Broadway was shut out among winners.

On the bright side, there were performances from nominated musicals, such as Judy McLane from "Johnny Guitar," Michael McElroy from "Big River," Euan Morton from "Taboo," and the casts of "Toxic Audio in Loudmouth" and "The Musical of Musicals: The Musical." And there were two additional special awards, to the Flea Theater and the Classical Theatre of Harlem.

The star-studded roster of presenters included Patrick Cassidy, Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Combs, Tovah Feldshuh, Tyrone Giordano, Neil Patrick Harris, Hugh Jackman, Shirley Jones, John Lithgow, Audra McDonald, Michael McKean, Idina Menzel, Alfred Molina, Bebe Neuwirth, Christopher Plummer, Phylicia Rashad, Jai Rodriguez, John Tartaglia (with Rod the puppet from "Avenue Q"), and Leslie Uggams. Billy Stritch provided piano accompaniment and Patrick Quinn was the announcer.

The awards will be telecast on NYC-TV Channel 74 on Wed., May 19 at 9 pm, Sat., May 22 at 4 pm, and Sun., May 23 at 8 pm. The program will also be broadcast in Los Angeles on Tues., May 25 at 9 pm.

Barbara Siegel of TheaterMania.com and Siegel Entertainment Syndicate chaired the nominating committee for the 49th annual Drama Desk Awards. Other members included William Wolf of the Wolf Entertainment Guide and president of the Drama Desk, Andy Buck of Playbill, Arlene Epstein of the Nassau Herald, David Finkle of TheaterMania.com, Edward Karam of The Guardian of London, and Richard Ridge of Broadway Beat TV.

Lauren Class Schneider served as producer for the awards, which were directed by Jeff Kalpak and written by Jeff Dobbins and Liz Nagengast. Robert R. Blume was executive producer; Sarah Galvin, Les Schecter, Corine Dana Cohen, and Jae French were associate producers. Randie Levine-Miller continues to serve as director of Drama Desk special events.

A complete list of Drama Desk winners follows:

Play: "I Am My Own Wife," Doug Wright.

Musical: "Wicked."

Revival (Play): "Henry IV" (Lincoln Center Theater).

Revival (Musical): "Assassins" (Roundabout Theatre Company).

Actor (Play): Kevin Kline, "Henry IV."

Actress (Play): Viola Davis, "Intimate Apparel" and Phylicia Rashad, "A Raisin in the Sun" (tie).

Actor (Musical): Hugh Jackman, "The Boy From Oz."

Actress (Musical): Donna Murphy, "Wonderful Town."

Featured Actor (Play): Ned Beatty, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Featured Actress (Play): Audra McDonald, "A Raisin in the Sun."

Featured Actor (Musical): Raúl Esparza, "Taboo."

Featured Actress (Musical): Isabel Keating, "The Boy From Oz."

Director (Play): Jack O'Brien, "Henry IV."

Director (Musical): Joe Mantello, "Wicked."

Choreography: Kathleen Marshall, "Wonderful Town."

Solo Performance: Jefferson Mays, "I Am My Own Wife."

Ensemble Performance: The cast of "The Distance From Here."

Music: Jeanine Tesori, "Caroline, or Change."

Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz, "Wicked."

Book of a Musical: Winnie Holzman, "Wicked."

Set Design (Play): John Lee Beatty, "Twentieth Century."

Set Design (Musical): Eugene Lee, "Wicked."

Costume Design: Susan Hilferty, "Wicked."

Lighting Design: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, "Assassins."

Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier, "Assassins."

Orchestrations: Michael Starobin, "Assassins."

Unique Theatrical Experience: "Toxic Audio in Loudmouth."

Special Awards: Dakin Matthews for his adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry IV," the Flea Theater, and the Classical Theatre of Harlem.