You know how it goes at awards shows. A bunch of actors throw on their Sunday best and then sit until their category is called. If they win, they make a speech. Lose? They pretend to not look upset as they sneak out.
At the Drama League Awards, however, everyone wins. A slew of actors from off-Broadway and Broadway are nominated together for the honor of Distinguished Performance (there were 69 total this year). They gather for a gala luncheon and sit on a dais. One by one they pass the mic, each giving short speeches.
You can only win the marquee award, Distinguished Performance, once in your lifetime, so for the majority of the nominees up there, winning is a total long-shot. But having the chance to give a speech changes the tone of the show. Everyone’s happy and relaxed. People crack bad jokes and gush to the other nominees.
No wonder the Drama League Awards are the oldest theatrical honors in America. Who wouldn’t want to keep doing that year after year?
Of course, the Drama League presents more traditional awards. This year, Other Desert Cities and Once nabbed Distinguished Production awards, while Follies and Death of a Salesman won Distinguished Revivals. But it’s the Distinguished Performance Award — won this year by Audra McDonald — that stands out.
I was lucky enough to attend the Drama League Awards this year. Here was the seating arrangement on the dais, just to give you a sense of the potential for insane side conversation:
(Top Row, L to R) Matthew Broderick, Ricky Martin, Cynthia Nixon, Andrew Garfield, Audra McDonald, Tyne Daly, John Lithgow, Stockard Channing, John Laroquette, Linda Lavin, James Earl Jones, Kelli O’Hara, Rosemary Harris, Tracie Bennett, Norm Lewis
(Center Row, L to R) Matthew Rhys, Jeremy Jordan, Cristin Milioti, James Corden, Blair Underwood, Jefferson Mays, Christine Lahti, Nina Arianda, Steve Kazee, Elena Roger, Christian Borle, Judith Light, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
(Bottom Row, L to R) Russell Harvard, Jessie Muller, Heather Christian, Leslie Odom, Jr, Mary Testa, Santino Fontana, Molly Ranson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Michael Cristofer, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jeremy Shamos, Annaleigh Ashford, Stephen Spinella, Marin Mazzie
Here are my favorite quotes from the afternoon:
“The inclusiveness of the Drama League luncheon is one of the most exciting things about it. I get to see old friends and meet new friends. Of course I can’t tell who anybody is if they’re under the age of 75. So my old friends become my new friends.” – James Earl Jones
“I made my performance debut in New York City downtown on the Lower East Side in college doing awkward performance art as a go-go dancer at Lady Starlight’s Party. And I never thought that my love for mediocre performance art and bad mime would ever come to use in my career as an actor. But my fantasies came true and I got to play Maureen in Rent.” – Annaleigh Ashford
“When I was 2, I used to put pictures of the Manhattan skyline in a little scrapbook. And I used to wear American ‘stars and stripe’ vests and Daytona Beach stuff and they used to call me ‘The Little Yankee.’ Thank you to my producers for having faith in a little nobody from Lancashire.” – Tracie Bennett
“My second act prep is standing in the wings, looking at Greg Hildreth dressed as a mermaid with ringlets, and saying ‘Do it, do it’ and he sings ‘I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here’ from Annie as a pitchy 13-year-old girl. And then we go out on stage. And for this, we get health insurance. We are incredibly lucky.” – Christian Borle
“Who puts strawberries in a salad? Seriously, is this a thing now? Is it a thing I don’t know about? Is it an American thing? It can be. It’s freaking me out.’” – James Corden, referring to lunch.
“When you look at me you don’t immediately imagine a very very glamorous icon, so it’s only in the theater that I get to do these experiments. I’ve been an actor about 51 years now. I’ve played everything from an 8-year-old black boy to a 72-year-old French matriarch, and they hardly hire you to do that on TV.” – Tyne Daly
“When I moved to New York, I had nothing. And a friend of mine also had nothing. And he said, ‘Hey, come with me to the Marriot Marquis. And if you go to the 30th floor, and you wait by this door, and you sneak in, you can get free food.’ And I did that for three years. I was prepared if anyone said, ‘Can we see your room key?’ to be like, ‘Do you know who I am? I’m Bob Marriot’s nephew.’ Um, so great, I’m glad to be here and have free food again. And I didn’t have to sneak in!” – Santino Fontana
“I’m right next to two beautiful women right now, so I’m going to sit right back down.” – Andrew Garfield, referring to Cynthia Nixon and Audra McDonald.
“Sitting on this stage with these incredibly talented people and I’m shaking right now. I haven’t even met them all but it’s my proximity to them that I’m freaking out. It’s just an honor to be here and I want to thank my Newsies and my Bonnie and Clyde teams, I know many of you are here. It’s been an honor to get to make my journey to Broadway in this wonderful, wonderful season. Thank you Jeff Calhoun for giving me these two roles and opportunities. It’s been a joy.” – Jeremy Jordan
“Twenty years ago, my mother gave me a plaque that said ‘Dare to Dream.’ And it was not easy being a kid who grew up in post-industrial Appalachia. Think Hunger Games, District 12, Katniss – that whole thing is very much where I was from. As I stand up here today and look at people – friends and legends that I have worked with and also had the pleasure of watching my entire life – I’m reminded of that plaque. And I’m reminded of my mother.” – Steve Kazee
“The opportunity to carry water every night to James Earl Jones on stage is a dream come true.” – John Larroquette
“Thank God that I am not over 75 so that James Earl Jones knows who the hell I am.” – Linda Lavin
“This could be a season about only competition, [but] we are family. And I mean that in the best sense of the word. That we know each other’s experience and we love each other and we support each other more than anything else. I have never seen it anywhere else in my life. Expect maybe in the gay community. I have to say that it is inspiring and powerful.” – Judith Light
“I want to start by saying Andrew Garfield spilled his chicken on my foot. And I loved it. I feel like I’ve been in the land of the lost for the past four years in LA and to come home – no offense to LA – but my home is here and my family is here and it’s so nice to be home.” – Audra McDonald
“I’m very scared that I’m going to pull a Janet Jackson, so I’m going to hold on to the front of my dress. I’m really very very honored to be here especially on this dais with people I’ve looked up to since I was little. I’d also like to thank Santino Fontanto, who taught me piano. I would not be here if it weren’t for you. To Steve Kazee – I don’t know what I would do without you. He’s very ugly and untalented – makes my job very hard. But this show has changed my life, and this company has changed my life.” – Cristin Milioti
“Our opening night and our closing night came awfully close together, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time together. But I want this community to know it was an extraordinary group of actors who had commitment and dignity and respect to the end. And we gave whoever was out there a show until they shut us down.” – Leslie Odum, Jr.
“You always want to be the person who doesn’t need to be included, but it feels damn good to be among you people. My first Broadway show was Master Class, and I saw Audra McDonald. The one that sealed the deal was Ragtime, with Marin Mazzie. My first big role was with John Lithgow, and he taught me the ropes. Norm Lewis sang the night I met my husband. It makes me feel like I have a family.” – Kelli O’Hara
“I just graduated from school almost a year ago. And I’m just so blessed to be getting this recognition. In these interviews they’re like, ‘So how does it feel? Has it hit you yet?’ And I’m like, ‘Nah I’m just in it to win it.’ Well it hit me now.” – Da’Vine Joy Randolph
“It truly is a great privileged to be here. I do have to confess I am here purely through theatrical plagiarism because I based my performance in Look Back in Anger entirely on James Cordon in One Man, Two Guvnors. Which is why my cast had no idea what the hell was going on most of the time either.” – Matthew Rhys
“Clybourne Park is this incredible play, there’s seven of us onstage almost the entire time, and I’m honored to be up here representing all seven of us. The other six people, I really want to mention their names. I can’t because I don’t really know their names. But they seem just wonderful.” – Jeremy Shamos
“Oh my god I’m crying. I’m drunk, really.” – Mary Testa
“Thank you for welcoming me home.” – Audra McDonald, on winning the Distinguished Performance Award
Read more from Dave on his blog, NineDaves.