Inside the Extemporaneous Haze of Broadway’s Drama Desk Awards

Broadway's best braved New York's bad air to gather at Sardi’s for the biggest little awards show you've probably never heard of.

New York has always had a smell, but as streets outside theater industry stalwart Sardi’s are choked in smoke, the haze gives the Big Apple a certain patina. It’s a woodsy scent a candle company like Diptyque might concoct. Maybe they’d call it Apocalypta?

On the afternoon of June 6, the elite of the theater industry braved the sights and scents outside to venture to the fourth floor of Sardi’s for—drumroll please!—the Drama Desk Awards.

2023 Drama Desk Awards
Sean Hayes and Jessica Chastain at the 2023 Drama Desk Awards. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Wait, you’ve never heard of the Drama Desks?

No, a Drama Desk doesn’t describe Chris Licht’s former office at CNN. It’s like the Tonys, but, like, not? I explained to a friend that if the Tonys are Oscars, the Drama Desks are something more like the Golden Globes, only with hopefully a bit more diversity and far fewer drunk people. Here, the winners are voted on by the critics and the open bar ends when the show begins.

On one hand, it’s a prestigious award and a ceremony that woos the biggest names in the industry. On the other, the event held in a small room at Sardi’s is a muted affair with guests perched on mismatched chairs as if it were a community center rec room. And yet, guests include Jessica Chastain (a winner for her role in A Doll’s House) and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

2023 Drama Desk Awards
Lin Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail at Sardi’s. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

“It used to be, you came to the Drama Desks and didn’t know if you won or lost,” Scott Wittman, half of the duo behind the celebrated musical Some Like It Hot, tells me.

Wittman and Marc Shaiman already know they’ll be honored with multiple awards, including Outstanding Musical, Lyrics and Book. That’s because here at the Drama Desks, they only invite the winners.

“Aside from the award, what is really great is that we had our portraits done here,” says Wittman of a legendary facet of Sardi’s lore: getting a caricature drawn and displayed on the century-old restaurant’s crowded walls. “I saw it was hung up and we got top billing with Jessica Chastain, so I feel like a winner already.”

Alongside Wittman and Shaiman, Chastain sat dutifully on the aforementioned folding chairs throughout the nearly four hour ceremony. At times, it felt like a middle school assembly, and while at other moments, it became a free-wheeling two-person show hosted by Mandy Patinkin and his wife Kathryn Grody.

The couple in recent years has parlayed their extemporaneous social media presences into viral fame and, now, extemporaneous hosting duties. “Just bear with me,” Patinkin said with aplomb at one point while going over the evening’s rules. “This is like watching paint dry.”

A view of the crowd at the 2023 Drama Desk Awards
A view of the crowd. Photo: Rob LeDonne

Part of the looseness stemmed from the fact that the awards had no script due to the ongoing writer’s strike, which almost derailed the upcoming 2023 Tonys and threw a curve ball to the Drama Desks. “This isn’t a script,” said Grody when she took the mic while looking down at a piece of paper. “It’s just an organization of what’s supposed to happen.”

Later, Patinkin stressed he was reading from something written in previous years. And, yes, the ever-political Patinkin had opinions about the strike. “I have a wish and a dream that we’ll be one union, all of them together,” he said of what would be somewhat of a worker’s Pangea. “We’re the storytellers of the world and producers are not the enemy. It’s our corporate system [that needs to] share and be a little more equitable.”

In case you’re wondering exactly how extemporaneous the extemporaneous Patinkin got, he turned heads when he spoke of a past show that garnered a review he disagreed with.

“Are there any critics here?,” he asked of the room, speaking of a puppet-driven play from 2009 called Disfarmer that according to Patinkin was “one the most original shows I’ve ever seen, witnessed or imagined.” It was also one that former New York Times critic Charles Isherwood panned. “It destroyed it,” Patinkin said. “Please understand the responsibility we all have to each other as a community!”

But like the sun breaking through smoke-filled streets, the Drama Desks offered a bevy of raw emotion in addition to Patinkin’s top-of-mind gripes, especially from Alex Newell, winner of Outstanding Features Performer in a Musical for Shucked: “First of all, I want to thank the Drama Desk Awards from the bottom of my heart for making space for this little non-binary, gender-queer person who was never supposed to be in this room to begin with.”

Chastain also offered passionate sentiments. “This community changed me for the better,” she said. “I hold you all in deep admiration and gratitude.” And Jodie Comer, winner for Outstanding Solo Performance for her role in Prima Facie, took a break from her marathon show to accept the award and said, “I have fallen deeply and madly in love with theater.”

As the afternoon stretched on, jokes about missing call times slowly became a real worry and many recipients darted out as 5 p.m. hit. The reception, hosted in the same room, was destined to have a sparser crowd than the actual event. The list of early departers included Chastain, who headed out after A Doll’s House won for Outstanding Adaptation. The actress, clad in a startlingly green pantsuit, stepped outside into the sepia-tinged streets, smoke and all.

Celebrity Sightings In New York - June 6, 2023
Jessica Chastain leaving the Drama Desk Awards. Photo by MEGA/GC Images

Inside the Extemporaneous Haze of Broadway’s Drama Desk Awards